Authenticity: Lesson in Exceptional Service from a Small Coffee Shop

Coffee cup imageExamples of exceptional service seem to be too few and far apart, and are often from the same handful of organizations. These usually provide broad models of great company culture, service policies and training. But one little coffee shop illustrates one of the most important principles in delivering truly great and unique service, which applies to organizations of any size.

On the surface, it’s nothing to write home about. But there is something about it that makes it a pleasure to patronize and of which I will keep a fond memory.

The nondescript coffee shop is in the open lobby space of the Honeywell Building in Changi Business Park in Singapore where I went to work a few months. More of a stand than a shop, the small business has only a few square melamine-covered tables with metal-framed plastic chairs tucked in a corner next to the entrance. Void of decoration and atmosphere, it’s not a place where people go to sit and relax over a coffee for an extended time. It’s mostly a place where office workers grab a coffee or toast on their way up to work.

It serves a regular selection of espresso-based coffee, which isn’t bad, but is unremarkable, and made-to-order sandwiches and salads, which are decent but not always the first choice if you have time to go eat somewhere else. And considering there is only one staff, it’s not the always the fastest service.

So why was my experience there so endearing and memorable?

It is because the service is authentic.

Behind the counter is a minute Chinese woman who exudes friendliness and greets every customer with a smile, many by name. Nothing scripted here; only casual, honest conversation. “How are you friend!”, she inquires, and frequently engages in small talk. Her English is limited and it makes for short conversations if you don’t speak Chinese but you appreciate the effort. And even if you don’t always understand, it feels natural and you enjoy the exchange.

This personal and friendly service is not so exceptional, but there is one remarkable detail that everyone who bought coffee there remembers with a smile when I mention it. On every cup, just before handing it over to the customer, the woman sticks a hand-written well-wishing note cut out in a heart shape.

These notes are not mass-produced with machines, they are hand-made one by one. On her day off at home, the woman spends hours meticulously cutting pieces of paper in a heart shape and handwrites each message, carefully looking up every word in a English dictionary. That sometimes leaves for incorrect grammar but makes it that much more authentic and charming.

What’s important here is that this gesture doesn’t come as a directive from the shop’s owner. It’s an initiative from the staff. It’s her way to make her work more meaningful, to create rapport with her customers and to make their day at work little brighter. Because making each customer a little happier makes her a little happier. It’s not the note that counts: it’s the thought. And that’s what customers see.

Beyond being a nice gesture and something customers can talk about, it does something more. It creates reciprocity, which is described in social psychology as our natural tendency to return a favor or an act of kindness. I liked buying my coffee there not only because I felt my patronage was appreciated, but also to encourage her. It creates a deeper, more personal relationship. And this is more than what the traditional marketer calls loyalty.

Note that authenticity and reciprocity can work both ways. Deliberate thoughtlessness towards customers results in them not only taking their business elsewhere, but some looking for a form of revenge. Some do this by sharing their experience with others or defaming the company in traditional or social media. A perfect example of this dynamic can be found ironically in the very same building as the coffee shop at an airline whose social media presence is riddled with unanswered angry customers’ rants against their deliberate lack of service, with the occasional one going viral.

Dedication to delighting the customer like at this coffee shop can’t be imposed on employees. It can barely even be taught. It has to come from the employee. It’s an intrinsic attitude. And this is what companies who understand what it takes to deliver great customer service hire for.

This authentic display of care is far from the mass-printed cup sleeves baring quotes or other positive messages some chains provide, and far even from the now almost ubiquitous standard greeting belted out by staff in unison at chains like Starbucks. While it works the first time if you’ve never been to a shop where staff greet you, over time it gets old and feels all too mechanized.  At some Starbucks I visit, the “hello” is produced with such lack of conviction and so indistinctly that it sounds more like a cat’s mating call than a greeting.

Ironically, it is Howard Schultz who said “Authentic brands don’t emerge from marketing cubicles or advertising agencies. They emanate from everything the company does…”. Yet Starbucks has some of the most standardized service in any industry, and the experience they provide has been copied many times over.

Truly great and unique service is authentic. It cannot come from company policies and training alone; it must come from employees’ dedication to their work and sincere desire to delight customers. Even more, it comes from their own initiative to go above and beyond the call of duty to make their work more meaningful. And authenticity cannot be imitated.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

David Jacques is Founder and Principal Consultant of Customer input Ltd and a pioneer in the field of Customer Experience Management. He has created the first Framework that brings together cohesively every aspect of Customer Experience Management. He is also passionate about having an in-depth understanding customer values to create emotionally-engaging customer experiences not only at individual interactions but also seamlessly between them.

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