4 Important Product Lessons From A Coffee House You Need To Know

Photo by Porapak Apichodilok on

I was only 14 years old when I got my first part time job at a Gloria Jeans coffee store. I remember telling my dad I wanted a job so I could save money to go to Costa Rica but I had no idea how to get one! He helped me write my résumé and off I went to the local marketplace all dressed up ready to hand it out.

The obvious observation is that my product career started at Macquarie Bank. I think my education in product started long before that at Gloria Jeans. This was a job that would teach me so much about running a franchise, offering a solid product and maintaining excellent customer service.

There is actually a great book about an executive whose life falls apart and he ends up getting a job at Starbucks – I think my story is similar but in reverse! For anyone interested, it is a humbling and inspiring read called ‘How Starbucks Saved My Life‘ by Michael Gates Gill.

Here are 4 of my favourite lessons from the time of my life as a barista!

1. The customers who enjoy your product are real, complex people

Ah, the customers! In any customer service role you are exposed to people from all walks of life with differing levels of manners. My favourite part of the job that I still miss to this day was having the opportunity to have at least 50 different conversations each shift – “How was the wedding?” “Did your kids love Fiji?” “How is the house hunt going, have you found anything yet?”

My memory rapidly improved working the register where you had to take names for every customer. It honestly got to the point where I could remember most customers names, drink orders and sometimes even the specific food they liked on a Sunday morning. I quickly identified this as an easy way to impress customers and was a means of differentiated service compared to other local coffee shops.

I used to have a cranky man come into the store on my afternoon shifts and I swear his sole pleasure in life was to make my life as difficult as possible.

Customer: “I’ll have a peach iced tea with THREE ice cubes. If I see more than THREE ice cubes I want a refund. I want raisin toast. AND IT BETTER NOT BE BURNT!”

Me: Sigh. I hear myself saying “Yes, absolutely, we will get everything ready for you exactly how you like it” and inside all I can think is “At least say please you rude man”.

In the end, I turned his visits into a bit of a game and I used to show him and count the ice cubes as I made his drink. I was proud when I managed to get some smiles and conversation out of him. A couple of years later when I told him I was leaving, he said “Oh, I’m so disappointed. I really started to feel like a grandfather figure to you!” I was flattered…and stunned!

I guess sometimes our interactions with the customers had a greater impact than I ever realised. In my current role I don’t have direct interaction with customers on a daily basis, but these memories always remind me that these could be the very real and human people using my products.

2. Find a unique offering with the right product & marketing mix to drive sales

On first impression it would be easy to wonder what is so unique about another coffee chain. It was similar to many fast food concepts in which at its most basic customers could conveniently locate us all over the country and consistently receive the same standard of coffee. The service was also special; our customers could order their favourite beverage knowing the person on the counter would know their name and call it out within 3 minutes at the other end.

It was also a place of social gatherings where we had regular groups of churchgoers, Vietnam Veterans and school mums meeting on a weekly basis. Although the product itself wasn’t unique the service and store set up was and the fact that we became a community hang out proved it.

In my first week there, I had the opportunity to go into the food court and offer samples of chocolate chillers to people. I actually loved the challenge of trying to offer the samples to people I thought would go in and order the drink. Sometimes we used to test different samples and if one were less popular, we’d do a special offer on it to boost sales. For example, we did half price white iced chocolates for school kids between 3 and 4pm.

This was the earliest exposure I had to the concepts of “test & learn” marketing & promotional pricing strategies. Although it was a franchise with standardised pricing and marketing campaigns, we still had the freedom to run our own localised promotions.

3. Build a loyal customer base

It was a crime of the highest order if you didn’t ask the customer for their Frequent Sipper Card. Every. Single. Time.

There were regular customers who didn’t want a card and understandably would get really annoyed being asked every time but if we didn’t offer it the store owner would pull us up.

There were also mystery shoppers from head office who would visit to rate the store on all KPIs and we would be marked down for missing the Frequent Sipper Card. Most customers LOVED the loyalty program though and this was in the early days of the 2000s when stamping loyalty cards was still cool. Plus, who doesn’t love a free coffee?

The storeowners used to play around with the loyalty program sometimes, offering discounts on beans or special Cappy Hours to “frequent sippers” and it was really interesting to watch this play out. A lot of customers really enjoyed having their card stamped and redeeming their free coffee, it gave them a sense of gratification and ultimately they spent more money more frequently in our store.

4. You will find excellent and poor leadership anywhere you work

I remember everyone relentlessly teasing me about my first time using the coffee machine. My hands were shaking so much I couldn’t insert the group head into the machine! I was TERRIFIED of this awful person training me who was honestly just plain mean. Luckily the other staff on the shift were nothing but kind to me.

Another time this same person gave me a hard time because I had left a big bag of my personal belongings in the back room and it was in the way. I was 14, my parents had recently divorced and my dad was picking me up after my shift so I took my clothes to work.

I quickly learned not to take anything personally and actually felt sorry for this person. Whilst I can look back on this and laugh, still to this day it actually makes me feel sick to think that some people believe it is ok to treat others like this and lack any sense of empathy. I promised myself there and then that I would NEVER make someone feel the way I felt.

We all come up against people like this in every workplace so it was actually a great experience for me to have at such a young age. I should also add that there were many amazing leaders there who showed me the flip side of great leadership.

Tell me, what was your first job and what lessons did you learn from it?

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