Frequently Asked Questions and How to Address Them as a Service Professional


By Jeff Clinard, SCAA Credentialed Instructor

I personally love frequently asked questions because they give me something to work with. From my experience while helping to establish Portola Coffee Lab in the heart of Orange County California, I found that FAQ’s gave me the closest thing to a framework in developing a customer service system.

That being the case, here are the top three questions I have dealt with while being a barista at a progressive specialty coffee shop:

1. Can I have a 5 shot cappuccino? (AKA Über complicated drink modifications.)

2. Can you just pour me your dark roasted bold blend of the day?

3. Where is your sugar and cream?

Now, before I get into my suggestions and explanations for each response, please know that these are my opinions from my years in the coffee industry (and from my BGA and Instructor Development Program (IDP) training at the SCAA) so if you don’t agree with anything I say, no problem. I respect that. I just ask that however you respond to your customers that you please respond humbly and respectfully. Now onto the questions:

Question 1: Can I have a {insert complicated drink order here}?

No matter the drink order, there are always going to be drinks you don't have because all cafes are different. Years ago, when I worked at Peet's, people would always ask for the latest Starbucks beverage and I would have to interpret cinnamon dolce latte orders into something Peet's had.

My first suggestion for all interactions is simply be grateful. They are in your shop, even if they order off-menu... Be thankful they are there.

Secondly, show them “you are on their side.” Don’t make them feel like they said something wrong.

An example of a bad response to the question: “Can I have a blended mocha?”

“No." Awkward pause. "We don’t serve those here.”

Sure, that response is true, but even if it is said by Mother Goose while holding a puppy, it will still make someone feel defensive.

So maybe find common ground with a clarifying question instead:

“Can I have a blended mocha?” “Ok, so you like something cold and with chocolate?” “Yes.” “Then our mocha poured over ice is right up your alley.” “Nice.”

So here we are at the end of the interaction, and they now have a new order that is based on characteristics that they, the customer, wanted all along. We are trying to get the customer the best drink for them that we can make. We are on their side, not against them.

QUESTION 2: Can I have your dark-roasted blend of the day? (AKA I just want a coffee!)

This question hits closer to home. When farmers work so hard to grow coffee, green coffee buyers work so hard to source amazing coffee, roasters work hard to roast it, and we train our baristas to prepare the coffee to perfection it is hard for me to have a guest simply not care about what they order. They just want A COFFEE. But just like above, look at the heart of what they are asking and meet them there. Simply give them a coffee to your standards, and thank them.

And some customers will probably continue to not be interested in the details of the coffee the next time they come in. And the next. And the next. But eventually (maybe by the 40th visit) you might get a chance to really educate them on the coffee they are enjoying.

A customer isn’t expected to change their whole outlook on coffee culture in one interaction. And we shouldn't pressure them to. If you were dating, you wouldn’t propose on the first date... would you? Some might, but I personally suggest against it.

Sometimes you get a passionate customer, but sometimes you don’t. Just be grateful for the opportunity to serve them coffee you are passionate about. Take it slow, and let the coffee do the talking.

QUESTION 3: Where is the cream and sugar?

I always encourage enjoyment over simply being a purist and only having coffee black. I am a purist, but I ENJOY being a purist. Remember that we are on the customer’s side. Looking at it from the opposite side, If I ordered at a shop and they said I had to have cream, I would be frustrated. We want customers to try coffee black, because we think the coffee tastes better that way and want the customer to enjoy it as much as we do. Not because we think they are wrong for ruining this beautifully prepared coffee.

This is their experience, not ours. Their coffee, not ours.

We want them to experience their coffee how they want to experience it. Should we guide them? Yup. Should we say things like “You’re going to love the naturally creamy mouthfeel this coffee has, you might not even need cream.”? Yes.

Great coffee tastes better black. But just like taming a wolf, we lead customers to that realization patiently and at their pace. Else you might get your hand bitten off. Think of it as a caffeinated version of White Fang.

The main thing I see in specialty coffee is an opportunity to invite customers deeper into the world we love. Each interaction should be done with the goal of enriching their experience. Sometimes to enrich their experience we need to not offend people with over eagerness so we can see them again.

Does it always work? Heck no. Do even our best intentions get misinterpreted? You know it. Do those misinterpreted actions ever make it onto Yelp? Probably ONLY those interactions end up on Yelp.

We should be excited for FAQ’s like these three, because unlike being asked for the WI-FI password, these questions are invitations to bring someone closer to loving coffee as much as you do.

After writing this piece, I found myself really wanting to hear from other baristas at other shops.

What questions does your cafe get? Was I way off in my responses? How would you respond to these questions?

BlogLily Kubota