Big Shoulders Coffee is Winning the Customer Experience Battle. Are You?

by Anne Reuss

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You guys. I met an actual, living and breathing creature who is the model of an enlightened leader we often speak of at 360Connext.

Allow me to introduce you to Tim Coonan, founder of Chicago’s Big Shoulders Coffee.

He exists!
He exists!

I hope I can do Tim justice.

He understands what many leaders don’t.

Some may say there’s a craze in Chicago with assorted coffee roasters and joints setting up camp. Is artisan coffee becoming overcrowded?

Oh wait, we’ve heard something similar before, haven’t we? Kind of the same way we saw entrepreneurs bolting after the bagel and frozen yogurt trend or the sudden abundance of social media “gurus” popping up on the internet.

The true battle isn’t against the size of your industry. It’s the experience you deliver. Tim knew this.

ChicagoAveChoosing the Right Battle from Day One

A chef with a tasty background of cooking in France, Italy, NYC and Chicago’s Spiagga, he saw it was more about competition behind the scenes than customers. Coonan knew it wasn’t the right battle. He eventually left to become a full time father and started roasting beans at home. When his customer base started to grow, he opened a location on Chicago Ave dead set on making it known for exceptional customer service. The opposite of what he faced when he worked in the hospitality industry. (Oh the irony!)

It doesn’t matter how crowded your industry is.

You have a very real chance for a successful business if you embrace these lessons from Tim and Big Shoulders Coffee:

1) Experience > Product 

Your product will have trouble surviving on its own. You could be sabotaging your success by not investing in the experience. One of Tim’s baristas, Lindsey, said in her entire 10 years working in the coffee industry, she was accustomed to seeing employees wrapped up in the making of coffee and neglecting to build relationships.

Before she met Tim.

To give you an idea of the type of attention he gives to the experience, what better than hearing it from the customers? Head over to Yelp and you’ll find reviews exclaiming about:

  • The fresh, glass bottles of mineral water included with your purchase. (Read: micromoment! And it is absolutely divine.)
  • “Fantastic java” customized to your liking.
  • A very helpful, friendly staff that “readily share their expertise” with you. (No sense of exclusivity) 
  • The television for commuters “with a schedule of when the bus or train will arrive – that’s awesome!” (Another opportunity to provide delight)
  • “They have self-serve drip coffee, which means I never dump half an inch into their trash can in order to get enough room for cream.” (The only bias the staff has is they want you to enjoy your coffee and they’ll help make it happen. Coffee snobbery banned!)

Writing reviews takes time and usually is ignited by some kind of an emotional reaction. As a result of thought and care put in all kinds of interactions the customer has with your product, you can spur the same kind of reviews Big Shoulder often sees.

2) Finding Your Brand Promise, Values and Meaning of Community

The divine water! You're also looking at an excerpt from Carl Sandburg's "Chicago" poem.
The divine water! You’re also looking at an excerpt from Carl Sandburg’s “Chicago” poem.

“You should drink coffee black to appreciate the bean” – a line I have heard several times before from hardcore coffee drinkers.  Apparently, I’m disrespecting the bean otherwise.

While the quality of beans undoubtedly makes a difference in drinking black enjoyable, some people just want to savor a latte. Or add milk and sweetener. And you know what? Big Shoulders respects each customer’s desire and listens.

Let’s be honest. Coffee can be a bit complicated. Whats the difference between Guatemala or Ethiopian beans? Light and dark roast? AND you could write a book on techniques. How many grams of beans should you grind? What is a Chemex or Clever Drip?

Do we have an upcoming generation of wine sommeliers, posh courses and tastings?

Maybe. Probably. It’s starting to feel a bit elitist in some places if you don’t know your beans and jargon.

But fear not. Big Shoulder’s Midwestern style hospitality and mission have encouraged new and old customers to come in with their questions and newly brought products without being embarrassed. The shop is an inclusive environment eager to create and nurture relationships, teach and answer questions, and simply allow you to enjoy exceptional coffee, however you may like it.

3) Empower your Employees

Tim made a point to tell me he wouldn’t be where he was without his employees. Being on the “front lines, they need to be empowered to deliver excellent service.”  Be still, my heart. An enlightened leader will provide employees with the tools and motivation to thrive in their role and own their piece of the customer experience. It starts with hiring based on gut feeling, providing training and perhaps most importantly, trust.

For instance, he had taught one of his employees to roast the beans and now she’s in charge of roasting. Not only that, he encouraged her to send some of the beans to renowned coffee reviewer Ken Davids, and she almost did NOT.

But with Tim’s faith in her, she eventually sent them. And she got a killer review on Kenya Kalilani and its “seductive sweetness.” Imagine how empowering that must have been for her?

Oh and remember barista Lindsey? It’s the best job she’s ever had. Her words, not mine. How would you like to hear one of your own employees say that?

Staying committed to a unique experience –  as we’ve been reminded by Tim – is directly influenced by your mission, community values and hiring the right people by listening to your gut. With that, your product will bloom.

Customers will gladly put in the extra effort (in the words of one reviewer “we live downtown, far closer to coffee shops, but we drive or train for Big Shoulders as often as we can”).

But not until you choose the right battle: Delivering the best experience you can for the customer.

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