A couple of weeks ago, Nancy came home from the coffee shop, took one taste of her double tall, skinny vanilla latte and knew it was not right. She called the coffee shop manager who told her to come back in and get one on the house. During the call, the manager explained that the latte was likely made by one of the shop’s inexperienced “holiday hires.”

If you are a regular reader, you know that I am taking a novel writing class. Last month I wrote: If I write a novel about a law firm…I need your ideas. The class has been very enjoyable I have done a great deal of reading on structure, character development, dialogue etc. In our recent classes, we have brought “scenes” we have created and shared those with a classmate.

Since starting the class, when I go to sleep I keep having these ideas for a novel racing in my head. Some are pretty wild. Here is one. I realize that I could never sell it as a story for a novel or a screenplay, but for some of us it might be an interesting story. Maybe the title would be: If Coffee Shops Were Like Law Firms, Would Customers Buy Lattes There?

photo credit: Paul Stevenson via photopin cc

So let’s begin the story. To paraphrase a line from the beginning of Law and Order Episodes:

The following story is fictional and does not depict any actual person (lawyer), coffee shop (law firm) or event (the real law firm world).

Tom (the protagonist) graduated at the top of his class from a Tier 1 “coffee school,” and passed the coffee “bar exam” and accepted a job at a “Big Coffee” firm with shops throughout the United States. In coffee school he learned all about different coffee grown around the world, with special concentration on coffee sold in his state.  He also learned about the history of coffee and the steps from planting to making a cup of coffee.

In coffee school,  Tom did not learn how to make a Latte, much less how to make a double tall skinny vanilla latte. He and fellow students spent no time learning about the people they would be serving at the coffee shop. Instead they read about people involved in coffee cases, where something had gone wrong, and the case had been appealed to an appellate coffee court.

When  Tom and his classmates finished coffee school they all joined the  National Coffee Association USA. Once they were licensed, some, like Tom started working as “associate baristas” at a coffee shop. Some went to work to make coffee for a government agency and some went in-house to make coffee for corporations.

During his orientation at the “Big Coffee” firm, Tom learned, that as an associate barista he would need to record 2000 hours of billable coffee making time each year. He was told not to worry about attracting customers 0r getting to know them.  His primary focus should be on “getting his hours.”

During his first few years at the “Big Coffee”  firm, Tom and other new barista associates were assigned small tasks, like putting the sweetener into the cup.  “Big Coffee” firm customers were charged in .10 hour increments for both the associate putting the sweetener in the cup and the senior barista actually making the latte. If the senior barista and associate  had a meeting to discuss making the coffee, both recorded their time and charged the customer.

In late 2008, the  Coffee industry faced a difficult economy, with customers not buying any coffee, or taking their business to smaller coffee shops, or buying an expresso machine and making coffee in-house.  The economy created great angst among the “Big Coffee” firms. Each was concerned that its ranking in the American Barista Top 100 Coffee firms might be affected. As a result those firms took several measures to maintain their status.

In 2009, the “Big Coffee” firms laid off associate baristas and staff and began to de-equitize senior baristas whose production was down.  His “Big Coffee firm also cut its training budget and its marketing budget. Tom was fortunate. He did not get laid off, because a senior barista valued his work and went to bat for him.

“Big Coffee” firms raided other “Big Coffee” firms to steal top producing senior baristas and expanded into other cities.

Recognizing their own potential jeopardy, senior baristas began hoarding their customers like never before. Even the most senior baristas had no customer succession plan. Tom’s “Big Coffee” law firm began to have silos.

In 2012, Tom and the two other associate baristas who were still with the firm received their annual review. They would be eligible to be promoted to partner barista for the first time in 2013. For the first time they were told they would not likely be promoted because the “Big Coffee” firm had decided not to promote associate baristas the first time they were eligible. They were also told that to be considered in 2014, they would need to develop their own business. It would not be enough to just make a top quality latte for the senior barista’s customers.

For the first time, Tom realized that his senior barista mentor and sponsor could not protect him and help him get promoted. He soon realized that his only job security in his “Big Coffee” firm would be to have his own customers.

Tom felt tremendous pressure to change from just making a great cup of coffee and getting his hours to actually having to attract, retain and expand relationships with customers.  He felt he had been lied to when he was told to not worry about customer development. (I almost wrote: When he was told “If you like your health care plan, you can keep it, period.)

Each year a well known university coffee school issues a report on the “State of the Coffee Business.”  In the 2013 report, coffee customers made very clear what they expected from coffee firms:

  1. Responsiveness,
  2. Efficiency,
  3. Certainty and
  4. Cost Effectiveness

Coffee firm leaders throughout the United States read the report, but made no changes in their business model other than cutting more senior baristas, cutting other costs and seeking out more lateral senior baristas. In the meantime, more business customers are making lattes in-house and fewer students are applying to coffee school.

At that point I woke up in a cold sweat, thankful I never believed it when I was told: “just do good work.”  You should not believe it either.