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Bad beer, good coffee, grinders, and libraries

July 13, 2012

flickr – pinkangelbabe

Working in a service profession, customer service is on my mind a great deal. Being who I am, beer and coffee are also frequently on my mind. Here’s what happens when they all get mashed together.

One could suggest that the customer service experience is largely driven by two things, getting the small things right and consistency of experience. That oversimplifies a lot of the customer service research a bit, but I think it’s hard to argue that small things matter, a lot, and that one wants to be able to predict how a service entity will respond. We may all crab about cable companies, but really, you have to admit it’s a consistent experience, so we’re all still paying.

Bad beer

A few years back I heard the founder of a small and successful brewery deliver a fun and insightful lecture on the state of beer brewing in the United States. He pointed out that in the 1990s, breweries popped out of the ground like so many weeds. As we moved into the new millennium, however, there was a contraction in terms of producer numbers. His astute observation was that it wasn’t so much the objective quality of the beer that led to survival, but the consistency of product.

To illustrate his point, he mentioned a study that he’d read from Wales where some professors in a brewing program took over a marginal Welsh brewery that made objectively bad beer and improved the product using their science and skills. What happened? Sales nosedived. Why? They did some customer surveying, and discovered that people didn’t like the fact that it had changed.

As someone who fancies himself a beer aficionado, this makes sense. A lot of that beer that was coming out in the 90s was horrid, and worse, you never knew what you would get. One month an IPA from Some Funky-named Brewery was stellar, the next month it tasted like hop tea. Sam Adams isn’t a great beer, but it’s hugely successful. If one could time travel and score a bottle from 1998, I would wager that it would be indistinguishable from a 2012 vintage.

The point: you don’t have to have the best product, just a good enough product that tastes the same every time. In library terms, that means that the same question should get the same answer, regardless of to whom one poses the question. I think we fall very short on this front.

Good coffee

Like many people, I have a love/hate relationship with Starbucks. On the one hand, they’re a corporate behemoth crushing smaller coffee shops left and right. Personally, I’m also not fond of businesses that create new languages for themselves. Small/medium/large make universal sense, so why create silly names for sizes that make no sense? On the other hand, they’re able to crush their competition because they are utterly maniacal about quality. Order a drink in Anchorage, Düsseldorf, or New York, and odds are they will taste nearly identical. McDonald’s set the bar here, and we see where that has gotten them. So while I may get the heebies about supporting a machine that is slowly taking over global coffee consumption, I have to admit that more than once I have been utterly grateful to walk up and be handed coffee that made me happy.

At MPOW, there are a few Williams Fresh Cafe locations. Let’s just say I wouldn’t recommend buying shares in the firm. Depending on location, their coffee ranges from good (thankfully, the one close to me) to utterly abysmal. Caveat emptor. Often I just bypass them and buy my coffee–like a good expat–at Tim Horton’s. Qualitatively it’s average at best, but it’s brutally, corporately consistent.

So, just like beer, people will flock to the place where they know what they are getting before they walk in the door. Again, I’m not sure libraries do well on this front.


What do grinders have to do with customer service? They illustrate how getting the small things right really matters in the customer experience. My wife and I are fairly coffee addicted, but are not so over-the-top addicted that we buy green beans and then roast and grind them ourselves. We don’t even want to grind our beans. I know, I know, true coffee snobs just stopped reading, but really, we consume a pound of coffee so quickly that freshness really isn’t a major issue for us. Why have yet another device with a cord on our counter to grind a handful of beans once a day?

But here’s the catch: we do like our coffee to be good and strong, which means having the right grind for the machine. Our go-to device is the ingeniously simple AeroPress, which requires a fine grind–but not espresso fine–to make an optimal cup. What this means is that not just the quality of the coffee, but its grind, matters a lot to us. What we’ve found, sadly, is that the grinders in some of the local grocery stores, including the super basic commercial Bunn grinder everyone knows, provide a very consistent and reliable grind. We’d much rather support local businesses such as Homegrown Hamilton, which roasts some great beans, but has a grinder that after repeated trips hasn’t gotten any better and creates a grind with way too many large chunks. Thankfully, there’s a booth at the local farmer’s market where the owner has good coffee and a magical Bunn grinder, so we have options beyond grocery chains.

The lesson: even if you have great products, pay attention to small details in order to win and keep customers.


There’s a lot of talk these days about the relevance of libraries and whether they will survive. Let’s bat those aside for a moment and assume that really, it’s higher ed that’s in flux, and as it goes, so too will libraries go. For now and the foreseeable future, we have libraries, so we have to make ourselves relevant to our customers right now. In terms of consistency and attention to small details, we have a long way to go, I think. I don’t pretend to have all the answers, or any answer, but tend to think that they are to be found in doing a better job assessing our services, which means doing more than counting numbers, as well as investing far more in training our staff and building their skills. It’s hard work, but if Starbucks can teach us anything, it’s that if your employees all understand and represent your core business well, the path to success is open.

  1. July 13, 2012 09:54

    It’s all about customer service, for sure. Of course, getting even two reference librarians to agree on how to answer questions can be impossible. You’ve given me something to think about, regardless.

  2. July 13, 2012 09:57

    Exactly. We’re a bunch of entrepreneurs when it comes to answering questions. Example: when I used to work reference, if someone came up to me and said “the wireless isn’t working,” I should have followed policy and referred them to the IT staff. But I know how to fix it (better than said student IT staff), and am a nice person, so I’d fix it. Now imagine that that same person has an issue three days later and hits a colleague who knows nothing about wireless (but could perhaps knock other questions out of the park where I would just babble platitudes). That’s something of a service train wreck.

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