How baristas can perfect the art of small talk
Jordan Montgomery speaks with Dario Scilipoti of Bluebird Coffee Roastery and Hany Ezzat of ONA Coffee about why conversations with customers must go beyond the topic of coffee.
What is the role of a barista?
Is it to highlight the nuances of a coffee? To look after the café? To manage the flow of customers, keep the bar topped up, and to serve cup after cup of consistently good coffee?
The truth is, a barista is expected to do all of these things. However, according to recent studies, one of the most important, yet overlooked aspects of a barista’s job is something we all do every day – and that’s talking.
As the third wave of coffee sweeps the globe, café owners are demanding their baristas play an increasingly communicative role in their jobs, engaging with customers and acting as the “face” of the business.
In fact, perfecting the art of small talk may actually benefit a coffee shop’s footfall and leave a positive and lasting impression on clientele.
In a study published in Social Psychology and Personality Science, researchers at the University of British Columbia found that customers who engaged in “friendly small talk” with baristas at coffee shops reported stronger feelings of happiness and satisfaction than those who didn’t.
“We found that when people were assigned to have a real social interaction with the barista, rather than getting in and out, they left feeling a great sense of belonging,” researcher Elizabeth Dunn told Business Insider.
“Humans are designed to have social interaction. These interactions are incredibly important for our overall well-being, and even the smallest ones can make the difference.”
But customer happiness and satisfaction may not be the only reason to engage in small talk. It can also help to increase overall revenue and foster a loyal customer base.
Indeed, a separate study published in the International Journal of Hospitality Management showed creating relationships with customers has a significant impact on brand loyalty and revenue in coffee shop chains.
“Due to the intense competition among international coffee players, brand loyalty has become a strategically critical factor in order for each and every coffee organisation to sustainably thrive in today’s marketplace,” the authors said.
“It is discovered that a 5% increase of customer retention subsequently results in an astounding 25-75% profit enhancement and keeping a customer loyal surprisingly costs a company five times less than attracting new potential ones.”
Breaking down barriers
From the lighting and decor to the music and furniture arrangements, most coffee shops are set up as third spaces to encourage social interactions.
However, sparking conversations with customers can be a little more tricky than meeting up with a friend. For one, the bar acts as a physical divide. But there are also preconceptions about baristas, particularly in the specialty coffee sector, which can act as immediate barriers.
Dario Scilipoti is the founder and head roaster of Bluebird Coffee Roastery in South Africa, which opened its own café in 2022. He believes that for baristas, avoiding elitism is crucial not only for engaging with customers, but also for helping educate them about coffee.
“We need to close the perceived knowledge gap by being relatable,” Dario explains. “Whether a seasoned barista or newbie specialty coffee consumer, we all started in the same place. It is the barista’s job to remember that and share from their experiences.
“For example, questions such as, ‘Do you brew coffee at home?’ or ‘Where do you normally drink coffee?’, will quickly guide the conversation and help the barista know where the customer is on their journey.”
Many coffee professionals maintain that conversations with customers don’t always need to focus on coffee, but rather they should open up opportunities to engage on a more casual level.
By starting conversations based on personal interests, for example, baristas can create a stronger and less contrived connection with their clientele.
Hany Ezzat is the sales and national guest roaster manager of ONA Coffee in Australia. When it comes to making the first step with small talk, he emphasises that creating a genuine connection beyond coffee is key.
“The reality is that customers are not just coming for your special, fancy Geisha. They come because of the atmosphere and how you make them feel – good,” he says.
“Baristas can initiate conversations by being genuine and curious about what [customers] do for a living, and how your cafe is a part of their daily commute. Keep it personal with them, be curious about what they do, and try to find your connection with them.
“This is the key to networking and creating successful cafés. You never know who you could be speaking with.”
The benefits of automation
When it comes to engaging in meaningful and genuine conversations with customers, time is often the biggest stumbling block.
Between pulling shots, steaming milk, cleaning surfaces, and topping up supplies, there is often little time left to engage in small talk, especially when queues are forming.
Helping baristas juggle their day-to-day responsibilities with the all-important customer interaction is automation. This involves passing some of the tasks – whether grinding, extracting, or milk steaming – to a machine, which can then carry them out to a high and consistent standard.
“Automation is revolutionary for our industry,” Ezzat says. “Less time with our heads down means more time to chat, faster wait times, and more consistency.”
Dr Adam Carr, who runs the Coffee Science and Education Centre for Seven Miles Coffee Roasters, agrees. In a recent article for the Sydney Morning Herald, he highlighted how developments in semi-automatic and automatic equipment are providing more time to engage with clientele.
“If you look at cafés that have all the latest automatic and semi-automatic coffee technologies, you’ll find baristas have more hands-free time. Often, hands-free time translates to “brain-free” time and facilitates customer engagement,” he wrote.
“As most baristas start talking, their passion for coffee is revealed, leading to conversations about roasting, flavour profiles and all kinds of wonderful things. Customers also have the opportunity to develop a better relationship with their barista, and perhaps learn a little more about their coffee along the way.”
In addition to the use of technology such as milk dispensers and electronic POS systems, café owners are also increasingly exploring the exciting possibilities of automated espresso machines.
According to market research group Future Market Insights, the use of automatic espresso machines worldwide grew by 5.5% between 2016 to 2020, with the demand expected to continue through 2023 and beyond.
At a time when many industries have been altered by technology and new industry platforms – such as Amazon, Airbnb and Uber – some may fear that automation threatens the role of baristas in the future.
However, on the contrary, many in the coffee sector are embracing how automation has allowed more time to engage and connect with consumers.
“I am excited about any equipment that assists us in maintaining or improving quality while freeing my team up to do other things,” Scilipoti says.
“Automation in our workflow allows us to spend more time looking the customer in the eye and engaging with them. If that interaction leads to a regular customer, it is money well spent.”