The Teaching Triangle: 3 Ways to Educate Consumers

Imagine a class called Coffee 101. Now imagine that you are the teacher of said class, tasked with imparting coffee information to a classroom full of consumers. As you teach, you notice some of them are reading from their textbooks, many are looking out the window, a few are doodling in their notebooks, at least one is playing computer games in the back row, and one or two are actually paying attention to you.

Now that you have that image in your head, you can begin to understand how complex and ever-changing the job of educating consumers can be. Not only does every consumer begin in a different place—some know nothing about coffee, others are near-experts—every consumer also has a different knowledge threshold—some want to know everything about the coffee they’re sipping; others couldn’t care less as long as it tastes good.

To add another layer to that complexity, it’s important to understand that everyone learns differently. When it comes to teaching about coffee, one size most certainly doesn’t fit all. Some consumers learn best when they’re in the midst of conversation with your baristas, exchanging information in a social, interactive setting. Others prefer to read and view things in your store, letting the information wash over them at a pace that’s right for them. And still others are most geared toward a more point-and-click mentality, getting the majority of their learning via an Internet classroom of web pages, social media sites and links.

If your business is currently only hitting one or two of those educational angles, it’s time to take it to the next level. By utilizing all three sides of the teaching triangle, you can provide consumers with a variety of learning opportunities that will work best for them.

The Power of the People

Once considered mere slingers of coffee, baristas today should understand that their role is two-fold: make amazing coffee and educate consumers. “I think a barista now, if doing their job well, is first and foremost serving the best espresso and coffee they can with the coffee they are using,” says Jared Truby, founder and co-trainer at Verve Coffee Roasters. “To me, taste, presentation and amazing customer service are the gateway to getting the consumers’ attention and letting them feel comfortable being educated. Back in the day—and a lot of times even now—baristas act like they are too cool for school and have this attitude like they are doing you a favor for making your coffee and they are entitled to praises. If you are good, you have ADD and OCD, you are engaging, inspiring, and attentive while delivering any and all information you have whilst serving the most amazing coffee anyone has ever tasted and enthralling people to seek coffee at a higher level.”
Still, it’s important not to overwhelm the customer by dumping all of your knowledge on them at once. “The way to really educate is to not overload, not everyone is a coffee geek like we are and if you try to tell them every single point you find exciting, then it’s over,” Truby says. “They end up saying yeah, yeah, yeah, and get whatever whole bean you say. Which is sort of a win…for you, not for the customer.”

Keep the conversation simple, especially in the beginning, and try to stick to laymen’s terms, unless you know that the customer already has an in-depth understanding of coffee. “Never complicate your customer education by using industry-specific words and phrases,” suggests Justin Johnson, roaster for Water Ave. Coffee. “That’ll only serve to intimidate and turn off a customer to the industry and alienate them.”

Instead, Johnson suggestions, invite the customers into your world—whether you’re a roaster or a barista. “I love to bring a curious customer right up close to the roaster as I roast and explain what it is that is happening with the coffee and detail the changes that the bean is undergoing,” he says. “I always try to compare roasting to cooking so that I can inform the observer in a way that they can relate to. I have always had luck with this approach. It breads loyalty and future patronage. I also hope that it spurs conversation outside the cafe environment in order to spur interest in the craft roasting movement.”

Reading & Writing

Using materials in your shop—whether you’re relying on words, images or a combination of the two—are the second step in educating and enticing consumers. Scott Lucey, barista trainer at Alterra Coffee, finds that a combination of styles and formats are most helpful. “To me, the things that can work really well have to be visually pleasing, or as simple and clean,” he says. “Cupping notes, farm information, photos and videos are all excellent things that should be available for consumers to see.”

The strength of point-of-service materials is their ability to help consumers connect the coffee in their hands to the long journey it has made prior. “Although most consumers will never visit a coffee farm, being familiar with all the steps and people along the way can help forge a feeling of personal connection and accountability,” suggestions Kate LaPoint, president of Early Bird Brand Coffee. “For example, if our customer loves a particular coffee that we roast, even if we have not visited the farm where the beans come from, perhaps our importer has visited, or knows someone who has who can then talk to us about some of the unique aspects of the people, farm and region.”

It’s incredibly easy to use photos, posters, movies and even bag labels to get consumers excited about the coffee chain. “Seeing the faces and places behind coffee at origin is a very compelling way to get consumers interested in the story behind their cup,” LaPoint adds. “For retailers, it should be very easy to get information and photos from their roaster that they can assemble into a photo book or flyer to help tell the story of any particular bean or origin.”

Again, the key is to provide enticing bits of information that will heighten consumers’ excitement and curiosity without making them feel overwhelmed or bored. “The more information you can make available—without being overwhelming or pretentious or shoving it down your customers’ throats—about your products, the better,” La Point says, adding that her customers use a variety of informational flyers, table tents and menu cards to great success. “I also have a couple of customers who use digital photo frames to scroll everything from origin photos to ingredient facts to daily specials. Saves space, time and paper!”

Go beyond the usual to find something that really makes you and your coffee stand out. LaPoint gives an example of a company that did just that, to surprising results. “I worked with Cafe Mesa de los Santos, a coffee grower in Bucaramanga, Colombia,” she says. “I had the chance to visit there and couldn’t believe the abundance of wildlife in this jungle of a coffee farm. The farm’s owner, Oswaldo Acevedo, had the idea to create a CD that was the ‘music’ you heard in the morning when you woke up at the hacienda and all the birds were singing. A beautiful background, this reminded people that not only is coffee wonderful to drink, but it actually provides necessary habitat for resident and migratory wildlife in coffee-growing regions! Combine this with some photos and a personal tale or two, and you’re cultivating a connection between your customers and the farm.”

The Virtual Classroom

What about those customers who are hooked on the net? There’s where the third element of education and connection comes into play. “Media can be such a strong ally in helping educate the costumer—you have the opportunity to connect with them when they’re not even in your cafe,” says Steve Kessler, wholesale manager at Anodyne Coffee Roasting Co. “Here at Anodyne, we have several things to help connect with our customers. We have a Facebook and Twitter account. We also have a blog (http://theespressolounge.wordpress.com), where we post our cupping notes and other general information about Anodyne. We like to tie in Facebook with the blog to get people more informed about our coffee offerings. We also recently started posting videos of different brew methods. It’s a great way to get the customers more interested in different brewing methods. It helps them to really understand just how dynamic coffee can be.”

Perhaps the hardest part of online instruction is that you don’t even really know who you’re attempting to teach. “Users of online material are such a wildly diverse group, ranging from know-it-all aficionados to absolutely clueless coffee neophytes, so it is difficult bridging that gap in any on-line coffee communication,” says Kenneth Davids, editor and principal writer for Coffee Review. “For years on Coffee Review I would simultaneously imply that the reader knew the difference between dry processing and wet processing for example, while at the same time defining the difference in context assuming that most readers either did not know or had forgotten. In other words, I try generally to neither patronize readers nor assume a lot of knowledge. It is quite tiring trying to do that gracefully, of course.”

On the other hand, it’s important not to try and reach only the group that you know is out there. That can lead to consumers feeling like they’re not part of the cool clique, which can quickly alienate them. “I think the problem with forums and interactive sites is that there is usually an in-crowd demonstrating their knowledge rather than well-designed informative communication—even though there are good things happening on those sites,” says Davids. “I think we do a good job at Coffee Review, but I wish we could afford to provide more content. I think people use other static sites like Wikipedia, which has very good coffee information overall, and www.coffeeresearch.org. So generally my feeling is that static sites or formal periodical sites like Coffee Review are probably more effective than blogs or forums in pure education. There is some very good educational material on some company sites.”

However, once you do get your customers interested in coffee via the web, you might find that they become your best way of connecting with new and potential consumers. “We also do a lot of tasting demonstrations for local community events, and we found that customers like to post this on their social networking platforms and the word of mouth really spreads,” Kessler adds. ”It’s great to see people come to these things really excited to watch you do pour-overs. It opens the door to really educate them on the differences of coffee. And it all started with them reading a tweet or post. It’s always great to talk to people about orgins and help them identify what they’re tasting.”

This three-pronged approach to consumer education might seem like a lot of work at first, but you’ll soon discover that all three elements work together to create a unified way of reaching customers. Whether your customers are talking with your baristas over the bar, watching the newest origin video in your cafe, or following your company on Twitter, they’re going to appreciate the care you’ve taken in reaching out to them, providing not just education but also an amazing coffee-teaching experience. They might even come back for Coffee 202.

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