Using Service Training to Empower Baristas


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[B]aristas often undergo hours, weeks, or even months of training before they’re allowed to serve coffee drinks, but how often do companies allocate the same level of training to the service side of the barista profession? Even when companies offer service training, many fall into tropes that reinforce the burden of flawless service on baristas, without offering them tools to make that level of service possible. When done correctly, service training can make the barista job infinitely easier, allowing baristas to craft positive customer experiences at a far greater frequency and scale while empowering them to address conflict at the counter if and when necessary.

Why Baristas Need Service Training

“Hospitality can and should be as much of an art and challenge as making drinks,” says Eric J. Grimm, director of events for Joe Coffee. Having worked in the hospitality industry for 15 years, he has noticed a massive disparity in how much time goes into training baristas on beverages as opposed to service. Not only is service training a crucial part of making shifts both satisfying and sustainable, says Grimm, “hospitality training can also give service workers the tools to create a welcoming and inclusive environment for customers.”

Sam Rogers, who has worked in hospitality for over 15 years with experience in both coffee and wine, agrees.

“Hospitality is a skill that is developed over time, and like any skill, it requires ongoing training,” she says.

Ellan Kline, head of retail education and HR specialist at Ritual Coffee Roasters, says that service training has the power to make shifts run smoothly and easily if done right.

“At its best, service training offers baristas the tools to manage their energy in a sustainable way,” she says.

Simply put, well-done service trainings have the power to create better service interactions that also require less work on both sides of the counter. Not only do they make good interactions less effortful and more well-rounded, they also have the potential to reduce incidence of harassment by customers toward baristas and make cafés feel more inclusive to customers.

The Pitfalls: How to Do it Wrong

While these are the benefits that come with an ideal service training, not everyone knows how to map service trainings in a way that empowers baristas and gives them the tools they need to create better experiences.

It’s not always obvious what the goals of customer service training should be, and many start with the false premise that service training is primarily about how to give customers a better experience. While that is a side effect of a great service training, the primary goal of service training should be to empower baristas to do their jobs well in a way that doesn’t leave them feeling burned out.

One thing Kline notes is that it’s easy to come off condescending and disempower baristas if you aren’t careful.

“Don’t go over things that are obvious, like telling baristas to be ‘nice’ or ‘friendly,’” she says. “There’s usually no point in saying those things, and if you do need to say them for some reason, explain why something so obvious needs to be said to a service professional who likely brings some amount of experience.”

Kline also notes that there’s a tendency in service training to imply blame on the part of the service worker when bad exchanges happen—but that’s hardly ever appropriate.

“Bad service exchanges don’t happen in a vacuum; there’s usually a larger context,” she says. “Businesses who simply tell employees to be ‘compassionate’ often don’t offer that same benefit of the doubt to their employees.”

In this light, she says, it’s important that cafés complement their service trainings with harassment trainings.

“It’s very important that you as a café have strong policies on what baristas do and do not have to deal with from customers, and that you stand behind your baristas when they draw that line or bring issues to light,” she says.

For example, because baristas take a lot of rude treatment without complaint as part of the job, they typically have pretty high standards for what crossing that line looks like—so, if a customer raises a complaint, you should never assume that the barista is in the wrong, she says.

Rogers agrees: “Putting up with harassment and abuse does not go hand in hand with providing excellent hospitality. The customer is sometimes just wrong, and that’s okay.”

Grimm also emphasizes the “customer is always right” approach to service training is misguided.

“In a good hospitality training program, service workers must be empowered with information and the ability to decide when a bad customer interaction is salvageable with empathy and patience and when they are being harassed and unfairly targeted and need the support of management or HR,” he says.

Best Practices: How to Do it Right

To think about what good service trainings look like, first think about what the worst service interactions look like: typically, they involve some amount of aggression, whether active or passive, coming from one party or both. The best service trainings help workers allocate their energy more stably, not only giving them more resilience and patience, but allowing them to project energy that minimizes conflict and address it when it does occur.

Aside from the usual troubleshooting service tips and courtesy guidelines that most service trainings offer, Kline believes that ergonomics and conscious body language have enormous power to foster positive service interactions.

“People get lost in the idea of hospitality training as the knowledge service workers provide and the way they speak to people,” she says. “They often don’t acknowledge that most of our interactions happen on a subconscious physical level with our body language. A good customer service training should involve ways in which to better inhabit your body so that you can respond to situations in an intuitive and natural way.”

Kline believes that service trainings should be broken up into different modules, one covering all of the basics like menu, general service style, harassment policy, and troubleshooting, and one about how to posture your body in a way that allows you to feel comfortable, confident, and resilient over the course of a week.

“One of the things that I like most about ergonomics and posture is that you aren’t focusing on the interaction with the customer, you’re focusing on your interaction with yourself and your environment,” she says. “You’re checking in with yourself and making sure you’re relaxed. When we work with our bodies, it’s very easy to internalize physical tension into emotional tension and create bad interactions, and vice versa.”

Rogers strongly believes in the principle of nonverbal hospitality as well.

“Nonverbal hospitality means making sure you have all of the tools in place to communicate a sense of welcoming from the moment a customer arrives,” she says.

This, she adds, comes in part from how management structures the space (Is it ADA accessible? Is the bathroom available for all customers?), but also from servers and how they can use body language like eye contact to create a sense of welcoming and acknowledgment of all customers, even during busy shifts.

Rogers also notes that nonverbal hospitality doesn’t mean smiling, rather, “it means being aware of how you move through a space and how your movements affect those around you.”

Grimm says that a beneficial hospitality program should “put service workers in a position where they are supported by their team and can give support to customers quickly and efficiently, but with an eye toward showing care, attention, and respect to customers who are likely to face micro- and macro-aggressions in many of their everyday interactions.”

He also says that empowerment is key: Not only should service trainings help workers avoid burnout, they should also set them up for growth, whether in the company or outside of it.

To Protect & Serve

Equipped with the proper tools, baristas can not only give consistently excellent service, they can have a consistently fulfilling experience serving others. Bad service doesn’t happen in a vacuum; it comes from systemic issues of disempowerment and discomfort on both of sides of the counter that can and should be resolved with thoughtful systems, communication, and training. With positive experiences on both sides of the bar, workers and customers alike will keep coming back day after day, making hospitality a worthy investment of any café’s time, energy, and money.

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RJ Joseph

RJ Joseph is a coffee writer focusing primarily on equity, workers’ rights, and structural alternatives to the status quo. She’s been a barista, a roaster, a green coffee grader and lab tech, and finally made coffee writing her full-time gig at Red Fox Coffee Merchants. In her decade in coffee, she’s also run a queer coffee events organization, written a blog on equity in coffee, and run a coffee satire website called The Knockbox. If you see her around, say hi.

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