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An Inconvenient Truth - Accessibility

October 09, 2013

Since writing last, I've changed the title of this post a little. Indeed the conclusion of the last post does itself produce many inconveniences, it means taste aesthetics need to be communicated and discussed when presenting a product rather than the invisibility that was the inspiration for the original title. It means considering what speciality coffee means rather than just saying this is a speciality classified bean and therefore it is a speciality coffee product that you are drinking. It means asking whether speciality coffee is being made accessible if the format that many of the drinks are consumed in is not representative of speciality coffee’s taste aesthetics.


Accessibility is a bit of a buzz word in speciality coffee, and correctly so. The coffees, their flavours and information represent a small specialist field that could very easily be off-putting and frightening, discouraging those who might be interested.


To recognise the potential of a barrier to entry is one thing, but understanding what exactly makes something accessible isn't quite so simple. My intention here is to explore notions of invisibility that occur when considering accessibility, many suggested solutions swirl around attempts to hide speciality coffee amongst existing normal coffee paragons. These suggestions hide behind notions such as that speciality is just a better version of coffee; it is objectively ‘tasty’ to all. Often this approach, which I am labelling as invisibility, is instead being seen (not particularly helpfully) as approachability.


Is the success and approachability of speciality coffee about its ability to appeal to a commodity market? Is the existing bulk of the market (a non-specialist market) really our market at all? ‘Wait,’ I hear you say, but how’s it ever going to grow if we don't push it beyond the existing market share?


True, but push how? Preaching to the uninterested is a wasted effort. Speciality coffee’s market share will consist mostly of a small proportion of the normal coffee market and partly of a fresh interest in coffee that didn't exist without the emergence of speciality coffee.


The problem regarding accessibility is that speciality coffee’s appeal may actually be limited through misrepresentation and aims that don't suit its purpose.


I think that understanding how your goals and aesthetics relate and differ to the whole market is key to making the most of the available potential. This can then allow a maximising of possible gains through correct targeting rather than wasted time trying to persuade a market to partake in a version of a product they are likely to have no interest in.


The accessibility question is often also tied up with the questions: "is the product meeting customer needs?” “Is it what they are looking for?”


But has it been made clear what speciality coffee means, what it even is? More than one thing can be looked for in coffee. Are speciality coffee’s aims clear to the customer? That was the intent of the last post, to ask at what point is it no longer speciality coffee? And when that point is reached, surely accessibility is being compromised if the very product that you’re aiming to make accessible is no longer there.


The inconvenience of this is that it impacts heavily on the notional solution of the accessibility question, that of invisibility.


It means that communication through presentation, environment or service is just as important to customer satisfaction as being polite and smiling.


Plunging headlong into dialogues with customers does present many of its own issues (In my opinion worthwhile problems). Staying quiet and letting the drinker make of it what they will is an immediately easier prospect, but aiming to be more accessible requires more communication in order to eliminate confusion and disappointment.


For instance, I was recently flicking through reviews and write ups on various shops, and stumbled across one, which I think perfectly displays the barrier created by invisibility – by endeavouring to be more accessible through offering the coffee politely with everything the customer could ask for. In the end the accessibility was lessened as the customer was just left confused and disappointed with the result.


We have ourselves been at the illogical end of some unfair reviews and therefore I approach others that I read with a pinch of salt. This one however, seemed reasonable to me. From a coffee point of view the shop buys and prepares speciality coffee exactingly, and within the speciality coffee community is known for it. This customer was not given any information before he ordered his filter coffee, he was presented with the option of cream, and as he always does he plopped it straight in. He then explained his confusion at what he tasted. He quite astutely came to the conclusion that it resembled a tea more than a coffee. He wandered up to the server to enquire about this strange beverage. The server was pleasant and informed him that they brew it to taste balanced and elegant black and you can add cream if you wish. He was surprised that not only was it nothing like he expected and wasn't informed, but doubly surprised that they brewed it to be served black, but offered it with cream.


This is a prime example of the invisibility problem. It inevitably leads to guidance and advice being purely post-service.


In this instance there was access to speciality coffee but was it being made accessible? No. The customer had to have already understood it to partake in it. There is an argument that the experience was positive, as the difference in the product was clear and he can now next time have it without cream. So what’s the problem? The thing is, in all likelihood, people will not like thinking that they got it wrong, that they were caught out. They don't like to feel that they should have known better, or that they didn't get what they felt they had ordered. Post-purchase service inflates this possibility of a negative feeling.


This customer also does not represent the norm. He was open to engaging with speciality coffee, and even when he wasn’t sure he liked what he tasted, was willing to talk reasonably with the serving staff to learn more about why. For the reasons above, this will not be the case with all customers, especially not if they feel, embarrassingly, that they’re the one who got it wrong.


There will always be a tricky little bit of navigation regarding this feeling, because with speciality coffee you can, one way or another, be in danger of making someone feel like they should have known better, and that they feel silly for not knowing, just by virtue of it being different. The only fool proof way to avoid this is to not serve it at all, which isn't the solution we are looking for from this journey.


But I do think that carefully presented this feeling will become very rare. In fact the drinker may not even want buy the drink at all, which is not a problem. Actually this has the potential top be a good thing for communication and trust with the customer, even if not for the immediate sale.


Of course this last bit can present a stumbling block for many. If the customer doesn't want to buy it surely this means that speciality coffee has been made inaccessible.


No, because speciality coffee may not be what that customer is looking for, that’s fine; the fear that if speciality coffee is not what everyone wants then it’s a failure is also flawed. At face value this notion seems like an earnest and sweet thought but it’s actually just naive.


You could argue that this customer is not part of the speciality market and that they fit into the high percentage of the market that speciality isn't aiming at. But is there any need to make that realisation painful and troublesome, will that really aid potential accessibility when there is interest?


It would also seem that when the specifics of different cultures are thrown into the mix that the need for speciality coffee to fit the existing mould is even more paramount. It seems that this may be a specific possibility in America. This is only speculation on my behalf, as I have not run a business or worked there, but have merely observed others and heard their challenges second hand. I don't think it would be surprising that the autonomous extreme of certain aspects of service culture in America would then make the notion of serving something with guidance that didn't fit the 90-percent norm as being near impossible.


Yes there will be stores that strike a middle ground, serving the expectant and established market needs whilst also having an offering that allows for some exploration into speciality coffee.


However, if the only way to make something accessible is to make sure that it fits with the existing majority then it may never really become accessible at all. Accessibility requires the thing that needs to be made accessible to be clearly understood and not be invisible or non-existent.


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