Uniqueness versus customer uncertainty…

By | October 9, 2007

(Sorry – long winded post alert.  But please bear with me.)

I was passing through Edinburgh last week meeting some new clients and had some time to kill before I took my plane home. As usual my intention was to trot round all the coffee outlets I could find and see what was interesting and maybe pick up a few ideas.

But the problem was I was tired. I had been up late the previous night, perhaps drank a little too much red wine with my clients and I had not slept well in my hotel. So my enthusiasm for new ideas was flagging. What I wanted was peace and quiet, a good cup of coffee and something nice to eat. In short I wanted what most customers want. I didn’t really want innovation or the effort of seeking out something new and exciting. The effort of seeking out something innovative can, and often does, end up in disappointment.

So the lure of the “Big Boys” was strong. Edinburgh, like almost every other city or town in the UK seems to be infested with the big chains and I was sorely tempted to simply slump in a Caffe Nero or a Starbucks and not experiment. I wouldn’t have the most exciting experience in the world but at least it would be reliable and I could be assured of consistency and hopefully a “trained-on” smile. Hopefully they would at least pretend they were glad to see me.

But then I noticed a little coffee bar that was a bit more interesting. It seemed to be very busy and very different to the sterile branding of the big chains. I peered through the window and there seemed to be a diverse crowd – lots of students but also lots of business types conducting meetings.

So that was my dilemma – would I take the safe option of the big chains or be a little brave and try the new and different option? Where I might potentially make a mistake and maybe have no table to sit at? Of course, by the nature of what I do, I tried the new place. And the minute I stepped inside it was all okay. Maybe I didn’t know exactly where to go, maybe I couldn’t see the menu properly and maybe I wasn’t even sure if it was table or counter service (all factors that run through the mind of every new customer) but I was met with a smile and a smile makes nearly everything better.

So I sat at my table, happy with my bravery and glad that I wasn’t sitting in the sterility of the chains with their faux character. But as ever it made me ponder the psychology of the customer. Generally we simply do want what is safe and known to us – it’s human nature. As Oliver Burkeman writes in the Guardian this weekend “When things get confusing and uncertain, tension is created and we feel urge to get rid of it by grabbing onto something solid and unambiguous” What we want in these situations is what psychiatrist Milton Erickson first figured out, is an overwhelming need for “cognitive closure“. In short we don’t like confusion and we like to feel certain about our environment.

Burkeman goes on to quote the Buddhist nun Pema Chodron – “People have so little trust in their ability to rest with negativity and uncertainty that whenever they detect a hint of paradox, or not knowing, they become afraid, and do all sorts of conformist, fundamentalist things to become secure again.”

In the coffee bar sense this means that we crave the familiar and the certain. We crave those places that know our name and we know the system. Starbucks are brilliant at making a clear simple path through their shops to allow you to never feel foolish or out of the loop. Hip coffee bars, just like the hippest bars and night clubs, are great at making you feel a little awkward and perhaps a little nervous about exactly what you do and how you order.

With the desire for most coffee businesses to become this oft-quoted “third place” we need to tread a very fine line between confusing the customer and yet still creating something innovative and appealing that is different to the big boys and can comfortably stand on it’s own feet as an interesting alternative.

It’s not easy to find the solution but a friendly smile, as was the case this time, nearly always makes a huge difference. Are your staff smiling, genuinely smiling, at every customer that comes in?


2 thoughts on “Uniqueness versus customer uncertainty…

  1. Gerry P

    Great post. A lOT to think about.

    I think we, as cafe car operators, tend to forget that customer intimidation isn’t just the preserve of nightclubs and fancy restaurants. I know I tend to focus all my efforts on great food and coffee and perhaps forget many of the other issues.

    But how do you measure this? Mystery shoppers? I find mystery shop reports vary enormously according to the skills of the reviewer. And how can you view your business properly with the eyes of a new customer?

    Anyway, like I say, lots to think about.



  2. John Richardson

    Hi Gerry

    Mystery shoppers can indeed be a problem. You really need to make sure you have consistency between the shoppers and ideally the same person each time. The big problem with this is that, as is so oft quoted, only 7% of our communication is to do with the words. This leaves 38% to do with voice tones and 55% for facial and body expression.

    It is therefore extremely difficult for a mystery shopper to convey the exact experience they had.

    “Would you like something to eat with that?” can be conveyed in a hundred different ways with very different meaning. With good friendly eye contact, a genuine smile and calm neutral body language it has a radically different feel to when it is blurted out as if it’s from a script with no eye contact, no smile and over the shoulder while the person is doing something else such as making the coffee.

    In both cases the box will be ticked but in only one case will teh customer feel they are being treated properly. This is why the use of covert video and lots of “sitting watching” customer behaviours is vital. It allows you to create training and role play scenarios that get the message over to staff properly.

    A good mystery shopper who can properly articulate what they saw and how they were made to feel is worth their weight in gold and is certainly worth paying extra money to.

    The “new customer eyes” thing is tricky too but again it needs to become a habit for owners/managers to force themselves into this position. I have also produced hours of video for new sites where we simply watch and observe customers as they come in. The pauses and confused faces can then be analysed and you can change your flow as a result so that it works as effectively as possible from the beginning.

    If you would like any help with this just let me know.



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