Monthly Archives: January 2013

The Feedback Equation

A retail business revolves around an interaction between people (customers) who find value and worth in the offering of the business.  It can be a damn marvellous and rewarding affair.

Assessing feedback and the decision making involved with running a business is, to me, rather fascinating.  The feedback equation isn’t always obvious and is less simplistic than many common viewpoints (the customer is always right…) allow for.

Sometimes, it can feel like deciphering a riddle.  What is the right answer?  What is the right action?  What is valuable and what is worth seeing differently?

For example, Once the goals of the business have been assessed, we can then question whether what seems like negative feedback could actually be positive feedback.  I explored this in the setting the stage article.  This is displayed particularly well though in the developing of the menu behind the bar.  So, we have spent a lot of time trying to make the menu communicate its information as effectively as possible, at the same time the very information it aims to display is unusual (farm name, flavour notes etc rather than the usual cappuccino, machiatto etc) and on many cases the response is “wow, I’m a bit confused”.  Now the question for us regarding this feedback is, do we need to display the information more clearly or is the very nature of such information in a coffee shop not something they are used to?  If we dropped the info and reverted to a more familiar coffee shop format then the customer may be immediately more comfortable but also mislead as to the focus of the shop and their experience would not be the unique tasting and information based one upon which we have built our reputation.  So in this case what seems (when isolated) like negative feedback is actually the opposite.  The board is serving to break and change expectation. What then matters for us is that we are adept at filling the gap that the confusion of the menu leaves.  This actually provides more positive potential for our shop and the customer experience.  I am however, pleased that visual changes to the menu have made it easier on the whole to navigate, but not always and that’s not a bad thing.

Another feedback example I would like to look at, is the request for products that are not currently sold. Now and then people have requested that we provide a wider food offering.  However at the same time others feedback is that they really like the sole focus – they rightly deduce that the focus and knowledge of the staff is so in depth because of such specialism.  On top of this there is also the feedback that they are glad not to feel inclined to purchase food in order to not feel like they are taking up space with just a coffee.  There is also the brand dilution which isn’t seen in this case.  The reason many of the customers are there is because the brand is strong on coffee.  Food not being offered is part of that to begin with.  I appreciate that certain feedback may represent that people are peckish and really enjoy the coffee, or that they really value a tasty bite to accommodate a great coffee.  There is a bigger picture here though, and we are back to retaining a larger perspective.  This is not to say the two couldn’t work, but it must also be noted that not having a wider food offering helps convey our specialism and allows the experience we offer to be focused.

I see feedback as roughly split into two main sections – relevance and statistics.

Firstly, is the feedback relevant to your business, or more succinctly, should it change your product?  Just because a business has received direct feedback that does not mean it is relevant to said business.  This is because feedback is nearly always a singular individual’s viewpoint which reflects their singular experience and needs.  As it should, the most valuable feedback people can give you is that of their own viewpoint.  As it is clear and real, it’s not a guess about what most people want but an honest personal response. Indeed it is the businesses role to look at a broader picture, to consider many personal experiences concurrently.  This is not to be confused with acting on all of it but instead assessing what to do amongst it all.

How is information processed?  We are keenly interested in the customer experience we want to offer, our success relies on this.  But acting upon feedback that is not relevant as it doesn’t reflect the vision of the business can cause more problems than it solves.  Many new business owners I know have spent hours anguishing over these same questions in their first six months.  Some have pursued their original goals and allocated a time frame to set expectation and find the demographic they are aiming at, whilst others have quickly changed what they do based on immediate feedback.

One of the defining marks in the differing approaches to feedback relies on the line that is drawn between convenience/service led businesses and expertise/service led business.  Yes there is overlap to consider.  Although, however much a convenience /service led business aims to respond with a solution to all feedback “a yes I can get you whatever you like” approach, they cannot physically achieve this for many varying reasons.  It depends on whether they can actually fulfil the request.  They may also be setting themselves up for a fall by promising such services. So communication as to what can be offered directly affects feedback.

There is most likely a symptom here regarding expectation. It is a modern illusion as regards the duties of retail businesses – the assumption that all retail businesses fit into the convenience/service model.

I would like to quickly look at the possible multitude of reasons that not only suggest why this expectation exists but why many service based businesses justify such a viewpoint in the way they respond, it does seem cyclical.  Being a shop is effectively a pretty vulnerable to position to be in.  Yes you will garner support by virtue of the quality of what you do but it is an idealistic world in which everything is hunky dory that works in such a way.  If what you do is specific or different/unusual, then it will be at odds to the convenience expectation.

If you look at the situation of the roles of both the shop owner and the customer/visitor as regards the law, as I touched on in the last post, then there is a balance to consider, however the reality of modern media and review sites tips this balance off.

A reviewer can be anonymous whereas the shop never will be; if this was a bargaining/blackmail/extortion situation then the bargaining chips are piled up in the hand of the reviewer.  Yes, this has pros of ensuring shops don’t rip people off and so forth (especially in high footfall ‘one visit’ areas where an, “I won’t return if I don’t like it policy” makes little difference), but have you ever wondered about the conduct of the reviewer, their motives, whether it’s a fair or reasonable representation.  As far as review sites go I could anonymously set up an account tomorrow and slag off my competitors, or just someone that had annoyed me.  I would not be held accountable in any way (other than within my own consciousness).  The truth of what I say would not be tested or questioned in any way whatsoever.

The business is accountable and so should be the reviewer.  It’s a simple matter of equal responsibility.  What seems to seal the lid on this one-sided power play is that it is not seen as good conduct to rebuke feedback.  For the business to challenge the authenticity and reasonableness of feedback is seen as somehow unnecessary, that all customer feedback should be respected and valued, even if it is a liable unfair attack- well no, this is ridiculous and if the shoe was on the other foot this idea would not be so lightly used.  The lay of the land has ended up in a place where the business is expected to be a punch bag, service driven businesses more so than many others.  The law regarding liability and responsibility on the web is being looked into, to come in alignment with adjacent non web laws, but currently it is not.

Whilst this happens, it is definitely not encouraging specialism and businesses may endeavour to put themselves in a position where it is harder to be attacked.  They may be less specialist and do less interesting things, instead sticking to whatever is normal. Sticking with a set up that does not rock the boat.

The consideration of some larger businesses may also help to understand this lay of the land.  The conduct of some larger businesses/chains who aren’t happy to empower their staff with responsibility as they don’t trust their staff (I’ve worked for a few companies that have displayed absurd versions of this conduct) and would like to use the customers as a management system.  It is economy of scale that often drives the actions and solutions in these businesses – a dislocation between customers and management.  This conduct of passively saying yes to everything allows thing not to be fixed because they can always say sorry.  Expecting the service to be sub standard means criticism is embraced and becomes normal, as opposed to striving to do something well and avoid criticism in the first place.  Importantly though solely aiming to avoid criticism is not a good driving force for a business, instead one should strive for and believe in the quality of what one is doing.

In fact, relying on the customer to tell you how to run your business along with what and how you should offer your product is in many ways a slightly odd concept when you think about it, especially the format of feedback cards.  In reality, the business should be endeavouring to get everything right without waiting for explicit feedback, you would hope that conceptually they understand the kind of service and product they are trying to offer (this does not discount that customer feedback can offer unique perspective).  But after all they should be the expert and they have the experience in their field and I for one want them to do a bloody good job because they understand their business, because they understand the psychology of service and have a forward vision for their store.  I as the customer can then enjoy a considered experience, rather than having to tell them what to do on the comments section (which personally I don’t do, it’s awkward).  I do then think that an eagerness to show a willingness to hear and receive feedback or criticism serves as a fail-safe mechanism that softens the blow when something is crap. “Oh, sorry, tell us how we should do it” What, because you haven’t got a clue? What about self-assessment and development?  It is handing the role of management and employment to the customer – it’s lazy.  There are businesses that have done very well with this ethos. However, the lay of the land blog does show that this is one type of approach as opposed to a blanket rule.

In fact it is all too easy to forget that it is often the singular creative direction of a business that will draw customers in to start with.  It is then important to note that crowd sourcing may take this creative direction away.

At this point it is imperative to look at what I see as the second important aspect of looking into feedback and that is the scaling of data – statistics.  It is the importance of embracing a larger perspective, a more realistic viewpoint.

In essence feedback is a survey, and it is very easy to conduct awful surveys that pay the most attention to whomever shouts loudest or to whatever makes the biggest bang- the anomalies and outliers.

This must not be confused with running a shop based on the largest vote, as this can easily descend into something bland, mediocre and homogeneous   The data needs to be plotted against the goals of the business.  Any strong brand that offers a strong identity of its own, that is creatively driven requires an understanding that goes beyond the initial crowd sourcing and looks to be perceptive.  I would say many brands are successful as they realise the difference between their offering in comparison to what is already available in that area.  This is the difference between replication and creative development.  There are millions of people in this country; a business does not need to please the majority but instead enough to support its business.  In fact, these businesses will often be able to serve customers whose interests are neglected by the broader attempts of businesses that aim at a larger audience.  Once again it is important not to see private enterprise as equating to public services.  In fact it is rather wonderful that businesses can embrace individuality, can embrace creative direction and uniqueness because there are many of them.  In opposition to this, public services must compromise in order to serve their purpose as a singular service for everybody.

When looking at feedback, it is also important to think about the type of feedback that is given.  Feedback is happening all of the time.  Written word (feedback cards) and incited verbal feedback will often represent a politeness on the customer’s behalf, or the opposite.  As well as a likeliness not to engage in a critical assessment of the experience, if they feel it is way off, or well it was what it was then the feedback will not provide the key to improving the business.  It is also important to consider as to whether incited feedback is a good representation of the hundreds upon thousands of customers that do not provide direct feedback, but quietly go about their experience.  Many people who are happy with their experience/product may not openly state so and vice versa.

In many ways with feedback, that which is unspoken is the most valuable.

An issue with the whole “customer” tag is the limitations and naivety of such a labelling, as I have already stated customers are people who desire the services of said business, so really we need to start from the base that it is people we are looking at and not this singularity of “the customer”, as if the customer is a singular entity that represents everybody in the same position, inferring that they all want and request exactly the same things.

Swimming upstream and doing something different requires a specific ability to keep on the path of charting feedback against aims and goals.  Tyranny of the majority otherwise awaits, mediocre results – supermarket style set ups and a dull market place for everyone.

All in all there is an equation to consider, an equation that makes a business what it is. Feedback should all be fed into this equation, absorbed by it to make the business stronger and better.  I guess that everything I have explored here is questioning the type of absorption and change that is required; it will not always be a physical change, such as the introduction of a requested product or a furniture change.  This doesn’t mean the feedback has not been listened to, instead the effect of the feedback may be seen elsewhere in the improved communication and presentation of the business, with clearer displays of reasoning.

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Awareness and Coffee Journalism

My intention was to write about feedback next but I have chanced across an article that I feel impelled to touch on first.

Now, all of my posts have recognised that the approach to coffee we take and the approach that defines speciality coffee is almost a hidden gem; that it is unknown to many, a surprise if you like.  I have often mentioned my epiphany moment in Melbourne, a moment that was ignited by a coffee from Kenya that displayed notes of strawberry and spice.  Part of my thought process that day was not only, “I desperately want to work with this kind of product and I want to taste more of it” but it was also: “why have I never had anything like this before?”

I think that conversing within our peer group and when serving people who are familiar with speciality coffee, it is easy to forget that there are still many journalistic articles and writings that provide the stark realisation that coffees’ reality as a product in its entirety is still a completely alien notion to masses of people. By this I mean people who are interested in coffee, interested enough to write about it.

The article that has prompted this particular article can be found here The premise for such an article is very interesting, but it lacks understanding of the product and is therefore of little use. It is also for the same reasons rather misleading.  It is a discourse based upon hugely shaky foundations.

The article should instead maybe ask the question “will mechanical processes take over from human process in the commodity commercial coffee market?”  The word artisanal is here proving to be another irritating word in coffee. Would people in speciality coffee or those that drink speciality coffee call the coffee described as artisanal in this article as artisanal? Coffee doesn’t currently have a pop culture understanding that reflects its complexity.

More bracing here though, is how alien what we do (in speciality coffee) seems when reading such an article. Speciality coffee is so poorly represented and rarely understood in any valuable way.  I am sure the writer did not intentionally conduct a test that was not representative, but instead their understanding of coffee led them to think that the devised test and resulting conclusions were sound and reasonable.  It would seem to me that indeed the questions the writer is really interested in asking are those regarding the philosophy of taste( a big topic that requires far more research and exploration than was in this article).  It would also seem that they felt coffee seemed to suit the man-made vs. machine-made discussion that is the real focus of the article rather than artisan coffee, which has been hijacked to support these ideas.

As well as the poor nature of the test, there is the misunderstanding (often surprising and counter intuitive) that Michelin star restaurants have been approaching their coffee meticulously or with supreme regard and interest in the past.  The pod machine introduction in these restaurants doesn’t tell us about the quality of artisan vs pod but tells us much more about the restaurants’ approach to coffee.  Anyone reasonably versed in coffee or having a depth of knowledge in coffee will be aware that coffee has long been an afterthought and a failing of nearly all great restaurants.

Reading this article, there is no wonder that coffee (artisanal or speciality coffee) is being ascribed with terms such as pretentious and elitist, if ideas of artisanal or speciality coffee are those that are represented in this article.  As the highly limited test purports to give the answer that “artisan” coffee doesn’t deliver on the taste front but on the romantic front.  Indeed it is an interesting notion (one that I would strongly dispute is not the driving force of speciality coffee), but the test conceived does not even begin to explore the notion.  I could easily take the argumentative stand point that the test is so bad, that its inception is to serve solely as support for an existing theory on the subject.

Maybe this is all just an indicator of the youth of the kind of specialism in coffee that I am a part of.  The only thing that will change this is a wider awareness of what coffee is capable of, of what speciality coffee is about, that it is a more complex discussion than just hand artisan or Pod.  It is easy to forget when nestled so deep in the pocket of speciality coffee that this very pocket is itself rarely seen.

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The lay of the land

I am, as are all of the people who enter our shop and the people who work for us; involved in experiences that play out upon a certain landscape.  I have looked at our shop’s specific terrain in depth many times before. After a recent experience (that I will detail shortly).  I am inclined to look further a field at what underpins the wider land upon which all types of retail and hospitality businesses play out their stories.  I want to look at the lawful rights that sit in the background.

At the end of November last year a person entered our store and enquired as to whether we served a decaf black tea (this is rare, normally the communication of what we do in the shop makes this highly unlikely).  The staff politely explained our focus as a speciality coffee shop, and that all the non-coffee products we have are ancillary and limited in range.  This person seemed content with the reasoning.

The person then returned roughly one week later, curiously they enquired again as to why we don’t stock a decaf black tea and as to whether we would be getting one in the future.  Another member of staff this time gave the same reasoning as was given previously.  Apparently the individual had been thinking about it all and didn’t like what they saw.  Then things got out of hand as they proceeded to go one step too far and accuse us of discriminating against them personally by not stocking or endeavouring to stock a decaf black tea.

This is where I drew the line and let the person know that we are not doing anything of the sort and that the accusation is in itself absurd and offensive.  All manner of oddities and accusations followed, fuelled by notions of “inherent customer rights” as well as a belief in what we as a coffee shop had a duty to offer them.

I politely informed the person that we had considered their request and given more than a satisfactory explanation, this had now gotten out of hand and I asked the individual to leave the shop.

This was already an episode that I was looking forward to brushing under the carpet, but the nonsense did however continue.  Roughly one week later the same person returned with an even greater sense of empowerment and entitlement.  They proceeded to threaten an official complaint to the council and inform us of how they would endeavour to damage our business.  As if this wasn’t bad enough, they continued to interrupt other customer’s experiences in an attempt to get them on side and drum up support for their cause.

I immediately phoned the police to enquire as to what my rights as a shop owner are, as well as what my best course of action would be in dealing with such a situation.

I did also phone the council, and to my relief I discovered that they have no involvement or influence in any such cases. It is not within their power and nor is it their right to interfere in such a way. It would have to be something specific that breaks the councils own policies.

The police quickly fleshed out the reality of the situation.  It is not often realised (I was only partially aware of the specifics) that businesses operating in a retail space are not at all public places or public services but are indeed privately owned spaces upon which the public are invited to visit upon.  A product/experience can then be purchased.  All the while the shop is supported by the law in reserving the right to refuse sale to anyone they wish (without reason or justification) and to also ask any individual/customer to leave the premises (without reason or justification)*.  If compliance does not follow then the police should be engaged to deal with the situation. At no time is the shop owner entitled to make any physical action or verbally attack in any discriminatory way that goes beyond the rights of freedom of speech and incites violence or hatred.  The shop must display and represent the products and offerings correctly and fairly without misleading the customer.  For example – a bag of coffee labelled 250 grams must contain this amount, just as a drink labelled 6oz must be of this size.  Interestingly though, if a price tag is wrong or misprinted the shop is not held to that price.  Obviously this bedrock does not dictate a narrow path along which all businesses will form and conduct themselves.  The law itself provides very little at all as regards guidelines for how to run a business, it instead creates some boundaries which must not be overstepped.  There is a vast space within these boundaries that businesses operate.

So the influences that really define the way shops are run, what they offer and how they serve are multi-fold.  They work within the law but are varied and relative.  I would say the main contributors are economic, social, possibly moral, ideological and logistical.  Businesses will in some way utilise all of these, but in varying degrees and recipes.  This cause and effect is complicated and specific to individual businesses, with the reasons certain businesses operate the way they do being a larger discourse. But in regards to this post, ideas of expectation and of the duties which businesses should adhere to plays a huge role in defining the lay of the land in shops.

There are indeed many rules and clear ideas of decent behaviour within our society that play a part in governing the way we conduct ourselves and these arguably define service and the nature of retail almost infinitely more than other influential factors.  Importantly though, the responsibilities businesses have to “customers” are not just based on wider ideas of politeness and correctness – as appropriate versions of each depend on environment and brand promise. The specifics of correct conduct are reliant on the product itself and the experience/service the business is promising to offer.

I personally choose to run a shop that I want to be philosophically justifiable, logically consistent, and reasonable.  I want my shop to achieve excellence.  Economic goals are not my primary concern (yes it does have to be viable).  I want the business to achieve ideological and conceptual goals (of which I’ve outlined in depth before).  But I am not, in any way, bound by law to run a shop with these goals. I can question the effectiveness of other businesses, as too can anyone question the effectiveness of mine. Most importantly though, neither of us can state that the other is obligated or must conduct their business in a specific way. Well, you could say the words but the law does not back you up in any way.  There can be no demand but merely comment.

It is terribly useful to come back to that bedrock of law to realise that some of the developed business practises actually counter and would suggest the opposite of the bedrock’s reality.  Indeed illusory ideas of rights and laws have appeared due to the norms that large swathes of businesses have created.  They have in many cases become representative as a false idea of what constitutes law.  Often a sense of entitlement and duty is not based on the logic or reason that the lay of the land demands, but are instead an intuitive alignment with what is normal.

Looking at the stance of the law does feel rather extreme, but the circumstances and behaviour that prompted such an investigation were rather extreme, extreme enough to seek some solace in a clear view of how the land lies at its very foundations.  Hopefully such an occurrence will fail to repeat itself.  I would however like to bear this in mind as I move on to my next post- the topic of assessing feedback and developing from this.  I think the clarification of the law does a useful job of making the differences between what are rights and what are preferences/opinions clear.

* I do not personally think it appropriate or polite conduct to give no reason for asking somebody to leave your premises without making an attempt to describe as best you can where such an action comes from. I think it’s important to discuss the issue, make it clear where the contention lies and leave space for reconciliation. However, I do think it’s wise to keep quiet when things get out of hand and to instead repeat my rights as a shop owner rather than engage in a fruitless argument.

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