Pondering the Local Latte

Cafe Santoro, the independent coffee establishment across the street from where I get my car serviced, delivers an integrated experience that is head and shoulders above the one I get at a Peets or Starbucks. In fact, it’s at the top of the delight-o-meter.

I’ve run into other independents around the country that are equally delightful and each has my undying loyalty. Any time I am in hailing distance from one of them, I’ll find the time to stop by.

So, what makes the difference?

I’m a long time coffee aficionado. So why will I seek out what may/may not be technically the best cup of coffee? Aside from the specific charms of each establishment, what do they share that exerts such a pull?

Genuine Engagement
Customers can sense whether someone is genuinely happy to see them/provide them service/interact with them, just going through the prescribed motions, or in truth, couldn’t care less. It makes a difference.

My experience today has just that sort of engagement: I only come to the Santoro when I have work done on my car, so folks here don’t know me. When I came in and joined the line this morning, I noticed the barista (who is also the owner) look up from the espresso machine, and acknowledge each person in line with a smile and “I know what you want.” When he got to me he said “But I don’t know what you want,”and proceeded to ask for my order as if he wanted to get to know me.  It’s rare to experience that sort of smile-producing welcome from a chain.

Chains, even the good ones, are regimented. One of the strengths of a chain is the dependability of the product. But the regimentation of overall experience leaves little room for personality. If a particularly engaging person is on staff, she or he can infuse personality into the atmosphere, but once that individual is gone, the shop goes back to being a variation of the corporate norm.

Independent establishments have an identifiable personality that is a product of personal approach, not just company policy. Patrons “make friends” with that personality.  A great example of this is when the staff at Santoro sang ‘Happy Birthday” to,and joshed around with a customer in line. Ir was the interaction of friends, not patron and provider. They even used the language of friends: “It’s your birthday, let me buy you a latte.”

Not just a cup of coffee
The characteristics that make for a connected, delightful experience don’t just apply to grabbing a cup of coffee.

Genuine engagement is palpable, even online. Personality is important; it’s a telltale sign that humanity is at work, not just policy. Neither personality nor genuine engagement will compensate for out-and-out poor execution, but when price, quality and convenience are equal, these so-called intangibles can strongly influence whether a customer will come back.

What do you think? If your company or organization were a cafe, would I want to come back?

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