How superautomatic coffee machines can improve customer engagement
Jess Palmer speaks with barista trainer and VP of product at Blank Street Coffee, Jai Lott, about how automatic coffee equipment can help foster greater customer engagement.
In April 2019, the Coffee Shop Owners survey published some surprising statistics: 99% of all small coffee shop closures had nothing to do with the quality of the coffee.
Instead, it found that factors such as poor location, employee challenges, and insufficient working capital were to blame.
The survey, which included responses from more than 230 small coffee shops, also highlighted the value of customer service: over 40% of responses cited bad customer service as one of the main causes for closure.
This may surprise some within the specialty coffee community, where careful sourcing, expert roasting, and perfect extraction are often put front and centre of coffee shops.
However, according to barista trainer and VP of product at Blank Street Coffee, Jai Lott, baristas must also prioritise their people skills.
“The key skills that create a rockstar barista are empathy, organisation and a passion for making someone’s day,” Jai explains. “Your morning barista is very often the first person you speak to each day and that experience sets the tone for your entire day. This means that the interaction needs to be amazing.”
Yet having the time to speak and engage with each customer is often easier said than done, particularly in high-volume coffee shops.
Conversations about the coffee, even for a few minutes, can be a distraction when baristas are under pressure to minimise queue times and increase output. If they lose concentration, it could also affect the consistency of each cup.
The role of customer education
Preparing coffee is a labour-intensive process that requires both skill and focus.
Once an order has been made, it kickstarts a sequence of events that includes grinding the beans, tamping the coffee, engaging the portafilter in the group head, and steaming the milk.
While an experienced barista can typically complete this in around two minutes, they may also need to carry out additional tasks, such as cleaning the steam wand, restocking the milk, and topping up the hopper with coffee.
Over the course of an entire day, these tasks in addition to regular service, often leave baristas with little time to engage with customers.
“Making excellent coffee manually is both difficult and prone to a ‘heads down’ mentality,” Jai says. “There are 101 things that can go wrong when your café is busy and you are trying to multitask, remain organised, and hit every mark needed to make a great coffee.”
But as consumers become increasingly interested in the coffee they drink, being open to answering questions is paramount for baristas. For both the satisfaction of the customers and the long-term success of a coffee shop, there needs to be time to speak about a range of topics, from terroir and processing techniques to roast profiles and flavour notes.
That’s where automation comes in. Characterised by the use of automatic equipment to ease processes, automation in coffee shops is key to providing baristas with opportunities to engage with customers.
It can be introduced at any stage of the process, including grinding, tamping, and steaming milk, or in the case of superautomatics, it can control the entire order with the touch of a button.
“By allowing best-in-class automation to assist in the process, baristas are all of a sudden able to focus more of their attention on the customer in front of them, while also serving incredible coffee,” Jai explains.
But it’s not just about being friendly. Using this new-found time for interaction should also be seen as a chance to educate customers on coffee. Specialty baristas are in a unique position to be able to share their knowledge about what’s in the cup, and the world of coffee beyond the shop doors – which can help ease price rises.
“Specialty coffee is still in its infancy in a huge number of markets and, circling back to the automation point, it creates more time to speak on what differentiates specialty coffee versus more mass-consumed commercial coffee,” Jai says.
“It’s of course natural that people are willing to pay more for higher quality products in general. The reality is, in a lot of the legacy specialty coffee brands, customers are not only paying for the upgrade in coffee quality but also the expensive rent on the large space, the lavish furniture, the extra space allocated for tons of seats, the additional cost of staff that are required to maintain the space.
“Once you apply automation and a reduced footprint on all the above, you can bridge the gap and have an incredible cup of coffee that is not only more affordable but also more consistent.”
Other strategies for improving customer engagement
Baristas with the knowledge and skills to educate their customers can diversify the methods they use to engage with them.
As well as the informal, across-the-counter chats, showing customers the inner workings of the coffee shop and roastery is a surefire way to become their favourite spot.
Roastery tours, latte art competitions, skills workshops and cupping sessions are all engaging ways to diversify what a business can offer its community.
Assembly Coffee in London, for example, regularly offers free coffee tasting mornings, in which it invites both coffee professionals and members of the public to experience some of their highest-scoring coffees direct from their roastery. The company’s staff are available to chat about the coffees, as well as answer any questions regarding sourcing, roasting, and extraction.
Whichever route coffee shops choose to offer enhanced customer interaction, Jai is keen to point out that without excellent standards in both coffee and customer service, no business can achieve true success.
“These two need to always work hand-in-glove,” he says. “You need both to be first class. Quality and consistency should always be the foundational pillars, especially in such a saturated market.
“Without dependable quality, there is no reason to open the doors. Working in parallel with quality is customer service. Great interaction is why you tell your friends about somewhere. It’s what creates true brand loyalty – and it’s why you become a lifelong fan.”