Issue Date: SCR – January 2014, Posted On: 1/14/2014

Staff Training: Serving up Success

By Melissa Niksic

It doesn’t matter if your coffee shop has an amazing house blend, or the best latte in town. If the service at your location is subpar, your customers will remember that and nothing else.

At any establishment, staff members are performing right at the front lines, making an immediate impression on guests. Locations that invest in both initial and ongoing training opportunities are often those whose customers experience the best overall service. Whether you oversee the training process yourself, utilize web-based or other interactive platforms to maximize employee engagement, or bring in an external consulting team to assist, it’s essential that your operation have a strategic training plan in place.

Training begins before day one

Many retailers assume that staff training starts the first day an employee arrives on the job. However, many industry professionals say that owners and managers should begin thinking about training before they even embark on the hiring process. Consider what types of people are most likely to thrive in your retail environment. Those are the people you want to make sure to hire in the first place: the ones who will fit in and be successful.

Louisa Graves is the co-owner of CoffeeTrainers.com, a Los Angeles-based company that offers barista training, one-on-one consultations, store design advice, and general staff training to coffee retailers. She suggests that retailers have staff training in mind during the initial stages of the employee hiring phase.

“Make sure you hire engaging people,” Graves says. “You want your staff members to be friendly, welcoming, and able to effectively engage with your customers so those customers turn into repeat customers.”

For many coffee retailers, training can be divided into two main components: drink preparation and customer service. On the customer service side, it’s important to stress the same types of good customer service skills necessary in every retail environment: greeting customers with a smile, engaging them in conversation, being friendly, and being courteous. However, there’s one key element to good customer service in a coffee shop that isn’t necessarily a huge factor in every other industry: speed.

The majority of coffee consumers have a grab-and-go mentality. Most of them don’t plan on sticking around your shop for a long while. They’re on their way to work or have a quick break in their day, and they ducked into your store intending to buy their drink and be on the road again in a few minutes time. These people don’t want to stand in long lines or wait 15 minutes while their drink is being prepared. Speed is of the essence when it comes to great customer service, and unfortunately that’s not something most baristas can learn overnight. Retailers need to be realistic in their expectations when it comes to staff training, giving baristas time to learn the ins and outs of drink preparation before they are able to master the all-important efficiency skill.

Scooter’s Coffee & Yogurt owns 29 stores and franchises 80 additional locations across several states. Tracy Bouwens, Director of Operations with Scooter’s, says that speed is the ultimate goal for all Scooter’s employees. Not only do customers expect to get their drinks in hand as quickly as possible, but certain locations may only have one barista working at a time, so it’s imperative that he or she can accomplish things quickly. Bouwens stresses that although the average formal training at Scooter’s lasts seven to ten days, the ongoing training process continues for much longer than that.

“It generally takes our baristas four to six weeks before they’re really starting to master things and are able to perform at that quickened pace,” Bouwens explains.

Hands-on training is also the focus for new employees with M.E. Swing Coffee Roasters. Swing’s has two retail locations, one in downtown Washington, D.C., and the other smaller cafe inside the company’s Alexandria, Virginia, roasting and cupping facility. Neil Balkcom, Director of Coffee Operations, says that the drastic differences in the company’s two retail locations require very different training programs.

“Our D.C. location is probably the busiest coffee shop in the city. We may have up to eight baristas working at once, and there’s always a line out the door,” Balkcom says. “You can’t ever fully prepare anyone for the realities of working in that environment, and a lot of barista training is done on the floor.”

All new Swing’s baristas spend several weeks in a hands-on training program before taking a certification exam consisting of written and skills tests. Once the certification has been passed, employees receive a raise.

In addition to preparation guidelines and customer service skills, Balkcom incorporates a great deal of education about the history of the coffee’s origin into the training, and the effort that has already gone into maintaining its quality. Baristas are the last people who have a hand in quality control, and they’re also the people who are conversing with customers about the product. It’s imperative that your baristas understand the product and know how to deliver a perfect cup every time.

The human aspect of the industry is another aspect of the training program that Balkcom impresses upon all of his staff.

“In so many cases around the world, coffee is a family business,” he says. “This industry strives to not only improve the quality of coffee, but also quality of life for many people. Coffee matters because of those reasons. It’s an important world crop.”

Swing’s employees at both locations also benefit from ongoing training, which comes in the form of weekly information sessions led by Balkcom and the company’s Wholesale Director. The content of each session varies depending on location, as employees in Alexandria have access to the cupping and roasting facilities. However, all staff members participate in knowledge courses (a recent topic: acid in coffee), as well as question and answer sessions with company administrators. Training at Swing’s doesn’t end with employees, either. Balkcom has invested time into developing certification courses for wholesale clients who are interested in expanding their industry knowledge as well.

Scooter’s also invests in ongoing training for existing staff members. The company recently launched a new manager-in-training program for baristas who have demonstrated exceptional leadership opportunities and have been identified as future company leaders. Those baristas are eligible to receive additional leadership training in order to prepare them to possibly take on managerial positions within the company down the line.

“This program really allows our baristas to go deeper and let them take more ownership of the business, and we’ve seen them really stepping up and demonstrating great leadership as a result,” Bouwens says.

Explore outside resources

Both Scooter’s and Swing’s developed and oversee their own staff training programs. However, retailers who are interested in partnering with outside training specialists have plenty of options from which to choose.

CoffeeTrainers.com provides hands-on training or one-on-one consultations for anyone interested in the industry, whether it be an established retailer looking to enhance staff training programs or an individual looking to deepen his or her professional knowledge of the industry. Similarly, Coffee Solutions is a Massachusetts-based coffee product testing and development company that also offers monthly training workshops and other programs for businesses and individuals.

“We work with folks who are new to the coffee industry and who are looking to confirm their entry into the market, and also people who have been in the trade for many years and are interested in refining their skills,”explains Todd Mackey, QC Coordinator and Trainer with Coffee Solutions.

The Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA) offers myriad professional development opportunities, including licensing programs and private corporate training. One of the main benefits of seeking training expertise from the SCAA is that, as a non-profit organization, many retailers find the programs to be cost-effective (professional development opportunities are offered at a subsidized rate for SCAA members). Additionally, because SCAA standards are developed through collaboration, the information provided in the training programs tends to focus on the general industry knowledge base, which has an extremely broad application.

“One of our most popular programs is the Coffee Taster Certificate Program,” says Ellie Matuszak, Director of Professional Development with the SCAA. “This is something that’s applicable to anyone in the industry who wants to be more professional, whether you’re a manager or a barista or a retail associate.”

Additional certification program options include the Roasters Guild Certificate and the Barista Guild of America Certificate, which Matuszak says are big goals for industry professionals looking for that official completion designation, which is something that is generally respected and supported by employers.

Integrate technology

While nothing can replace the practical, hands-on training that all coffee shop employees need to complete in the store, some retailers might want to explore online learning options as an additional training resource.

The SCAA recently developed several e-learning programs which Matuszak reports have quickly become the fastest-growing segment of the organization’s professional development offerings. Available courses include those which don’t include a hands-on learning component. Classes are offered in real time, with a live instructor facilitating.

At Scooter’s, the company has incorporated a web-based platform known as Scooter’s University into its training program. According to Bouwens, Scooter’s University exists to reinforce important details that might get lost during the intense training program baristas undertake alongside managers before they are ready to work behind the counter on their own. In addition to the in-person training, new baristas must complete four levels of online training–and pass four tests with a score of 100%–before moving on to the next section. The use of an online training platform also assists in maintaining consistent training practices across multiple Scooter’s locations.

Bouwens reports that most baristas successfully pass the online training tests on their first or second attempt. If an employee is struggling, managers can log into the system to see which areas the barista is having trouble with in order to help address those issues one-on-one.

Scooter’s University isn’t just for new employees. The company requires staff members to go back and take refresher courses several months down the road to make sure the material sinks in. The website also offers additional education resources, such as newsletters, videos, and blog posts designed to share current information about the company and the coffee industry, and also to reinforce the goals and values of the organization.

“The blogs are written directly by the president of Scooter’s, who is also the founder of the company,” Bouwens explains. “It’s a great opportunity for a barista who might never have the opportunity to meet our president in person, but can read about the mission of the company in the president’s own words.”

Essential training tips

If you’re thinking about ways to revitalize your staff training programs, here are some basic tips to keep in mind:

Be courteous. A personable staff member is great, but make sure your team members are also well-versed in the art of courtesy and good customer service.

Good training results in a good end product. Everyone knows that the most important attribute of any coffee shop is its product. Training is an essential part of that process. Baristas need to know how to correctly prepare and serve your products. Additionally, staff members should be trained on how to customize drinks based on customers’ personal preferences.

Appearances count. Make sure to stress the importance of having a clean apron every morning, washing hands regularly, and being well-groomed. These are essential in the coffee industry, where staff members are dealing with drinks and food.

Safety first. Working in a coffee shop can be dangerous. If a barista is making a hot drink and turns away for even a second, he or she could end up burning themselves. Train your staff members to keep their eyes on the drinks at all times. Tell them that even if a customer is clamoring for their attention, it’s okay to tell them, “I’ll be with you in just a moment” until the drink preparation is complete.

Make suggestions. Graves recalls being in a coffee shop recently and witnessing a customer inquiring about a chocolate muffin. The man behind the counter apologized, stating that they were out. “I went up and told him that what he should have done was suggest that the customer try a chocolate chip cookie or a brownie instead,” Graves says. “It was a missed opportunity. The customer was obviously in the mood for chocolate or for something sweet. Your staff should never just send them away without suggesting another product that the customer might end up liking even more.”

Cross-train, cross-train, cross-train. Every staff member in your store should know how to do everything, from preparing drinks to working the register to restocking product.

Don’t just focus on the newbies. Staff members who have been with you for some time still need opportunities to ask questions and be informed of new policies. Schedule a monthly staff meeting to go over new business with your team, answer any questions, and address any concerns of your own. 

Be present. No one will ever care about your business more than you will. It’s important for store owners to spend as much time in their stores as possible, making sure that staff members adhere to their established standards.

Have a plan. Any plan! Just make sure there is an official training system in place that everyone at your location is following. “When you’re dealing with a bigger company, you probably have more resources at your disposal to help you develop something like a training website,” Bouwens says. “But even if you’re a smaller operation, you should have a standardized checklist that everyone in your store is following during the training process to ensure consistency.”

Stay connected. Coffee is a competitive industry, but it’s important to network with other retailers to share success stories and offer helpful suggestions. Participate in organizations like the SCAA and get to know your fellow retailers. You might walk away with some great tips on training, and many other topics as well. Also, stay connected with the SCAA via its Facebook and Twitter channels to learn about upcoming professional development opportunities.