So many times as we progress in our chosen profession and become more knowledgeable in our field, we pick up words and phrases that are specific to our industry.
Since this column is called “Lessons from the Coffee House,” I’ll use the simple analogy of coffee terminology. At least once a week, I stop in at one of our local, independent coffee shops (in other words, not Starbucks). I’ve been going to this same shop for over a year, and by now I am used to their routine.
They’ve got the “We’re not Starbucks” concept down almost to an obsession. I know that I can’t go in and order a grande. I know that if I ask for 2 percent milk, I’ll be asked if a combination of whole and nonfat is acceptable.
I get it. They’re not the giant, they’re not the chain and when you’re an “indie” anything, there’s also the idea that the chain is evil. Maybe it is.
But let’s remember, Starbucks came first. Back in 1986 when they introduced espresso-based beverages, they were blazing a trail for themselves. The smaller shops, the indie shops and drive-through stands came on their coattails.
An indie coffee shop holding a grudge against Starbucks is sort of like a small soda company hating Coca-Cola, or a bandage company disliking Band-Aid. Of course, as the new guy, you need to find a way to distinguish yourself, your brand, your message, your quality.
But you can’t very well create a new type of bandage and then be upset when potential customers refer to your product as a Band-Aid.
Back at the local coffee shop, even though I know their routine, my husband does not. He’ll occasionally join me and he orders a tall vanilla latte.
We’ve actually had more than one barista at this shop give him grief over this. “What is a tall supposed to mean?” “This ain’t Starbucks, I don’t know if you realized.”
Always a rude off-the-cuff reminder that we’re not at the coffee giant, that they do things differently here and how dare we, the paying customers, come in and order incorrectly. Never mind the fact that the Starbucks drive-through is much more convenient and would be quicker; that we’ve specifically chosen to come into this shop to support a local business.
Using the Starbucks vernacular to order might indicate that we’re frequenters of the mighty siren, but consider this: We’re here now. Why guilt-trip us for coming in and not already knowing your verbiage as opposed to that of the coffee giant?
It would be fine to educate us, to point out that you don’t have size names and just refer to them by ounces. It’s all in the attitude.
“You ordered a tall, that’s 12 ounces, right? We don’t use those names here and I want to be sure I have your order right” is a much more customer-friendly response than the “this ain’t Starbucks” approach.
In any industry, you’ll find words and phrases like this — tall vs.12-ounce, Band-Aid vs. bandage, FSBO vs. private seller. The intent is the same, but the wording is different and not everyone is aware of all the correct terminology.
It’s fine to use your own terms, especially if you’re trying to set yourself apart. Just remember, though, that even Shakespeare used the existing framework of the English language to introduce his new words and phrases. You must do the same.
No matter your line of work, you must work within the existing vernacular before you can move beyond it. Likewise, you must be able to fluidly join your vernacular with that of any lay person who is, or has the potential to be, a client or customer.
Whether you own, operate or work for a business, when you deal directly with customers you are acting as a customer service representative. Your customers won’t always know your jargon and it’s your job to help educate them and get them in-the-know without criticizing them for having worked with a competitor in the past.
They’re here now.
Kim Bowsher started her management track at Starbucks. She put to work the lessons she learned in the coffee business to help small businesses. She currently works with a private firm in Salt Lake City. Contact her at email@example.com.