“Making your way in the world today takes everything you’ve got. Taking a break from your worries sure would help a lot. Wouldn’t you like to get away? Sometimes you want to go where everyone knows your name.”

– From the theme song on Cheers

Creating an outstanding customer experience

For a couple of years, getting up and going to work was a joy for me. Not because the job was that great, but I got to stop into the best coffee shop I have ever set foot in. From the moment I entered the door, I was greeted by my name. Not only by the ever cheerful bubbly owner Lorraine, but by the staff as well. In most coffee shops waiting in the lineup for coffee is a bothersome, mundane ritual. People get frustrated and impatient if the lineup is too long, or the service too slow. Not in this establishment. No one took out their electronic devices to distract themselves. Customers were engaged in lively banter with the owner and staff. The proprietor and employees got to know all the names of the regulars and their birthdays. When your birthday came, you were greeted with a rousing round of the song “Happy Birthday”. Often customers would get into the singing as well.

Grabbing a cup of java in most coffee shops is strictly a rote affair. Get in and get out as quickly as possible with a minimum of distraction and interruption. Not in Lorraine’s place. Customers who were previously strangers started chatting in the lineup and around the little table that held all the ingredients to top up one’s wonderful hot morning booster. As an introvert, I usually do not initiate conversation with strangers. In Lorraine’s place I struck up a number of casual relationships with the regulars that continue to this day when I run into them. Your typical coffee shop has a tip jar with a few small coins in the bottom. In this place, the tip jar was always packed to the brim with large change and a fair number of bills.

Starting with a vision and plan

We often wondered how Lorraine managed to pull it off. How was she able to create such a warm and welcoming experience for her customers? One day she was taking a break and I asked if I could join her at her table. We had a long conversation and she shared the secrets of her success. Before opening the shop, Lorraine had a strong vision of what kind of a place she wanted. She envisioned the coffee shop as a place where people would not only pick up a coffee, but a dose of joy and happiness that would carry them through the day. She decided that she would find out how other small businesses had created this particular kind of experience she was looking for and studied Pike’s Fish Market in Seattle, known for creating a fun and lively atmosphere that involved both staff and customers. Their philosophy, which they put into practice every day, was to “Be There, Play, Make Their Day and Choose Your Attitude.” By choosing their attitude, the staff proved that even a job that was cold, repetitive and tiring could be made fun and meaningful.

Hiring and keeping staff who support the vision

Outgoing and friendly by nature, Lorraine’s first challenge was to find staff that were similar and thrived on lots of friendly banter and interaction with customers. Many people interviewed claimed they were, but Lorraine saw that they often did not exude the warmth and personality that she was seeking. Before applying, she asked them to come in and spend half an hour or so during the morning coffee rush observing how things were done. Those who were not as people oriented often realized the place wasn’t a good fit for them and looked for work elsewhere. The ones that were hired, went through a fun but rigorous training based on the belief that the more fun they could make the experience for the customer, the more they would enjoy their work.

The turnover rate for coffee shop employees is very high, the pay is low, the work repetitive and exhausting during busy times. Lorraine bucked that trend by hanging on to her staff. Many were students who would come back to work during holiday time and for their summer jobs.

Importance of the vision starting from the top

One day I walked in and realized that something had changed. You could feel it in the air and sense the energy level in the place had shifted. Lorraine had sold her little coffee shop and there was a new manager behind the counter. He wasn’t smiling and looked serious about learning his job. The old familiar staff were still there, but the spontaneity and fun was missing. The magic was gone. It had become just another coffee shop.