Sometimes The Customer Is Wrong
from the better-customers dept
My friend Jacob Grier weighs in on a story that's been getting a ton of attention: some guy went into a DC-area coffee shop called Murky Coffee (where Jacob once worked) and asked for an iced espresso. The barista told him that the shop has a policy against making iced espresso. The barista agreed to give the guy an espresso and a cup of ice so he could ice his own espresso, but a shouting match ensued and the customer wound up leaving a dollar tip with a message that's not printable in a family blog. The owner of Murky's Coffee responded here.
At first glance, it seems like if the customer wants his espresso poured over ice, that's what the customer should get. But Jacob makes an interesting point: Murky's fastidiousness (or pig-headedness, depending on your perspective) about coffee quality is part of what sets it apart from the run-of-the-mill coffee shops. Murky isn't just selling coffee, they're also trying to build up a clientele that takes coffee seriously. This reminds me of a great post Don Marti wrote a couple of years ago called "FUD is good for you." Marti pointed out that while it's true that Microsoft's disinformation about free software could actually drive away some potential customers from free software, that's not necessarily a bad thing. These are, after all, likely to be the least technically-savvy customers, customers who will consume a disproportionate share of tech support resources and unlikely to be repeat customers. In the long run, the company might find it's actually more successful because some of its customers were scared away by FUD. I think we can see the same kind of attitude at Apple. For example, Steve Jobs took a lot of heat when he unveiled the iMac in 1998 without a floppy drive -- one small part of a broader strategy of giving customers what Jobs thought was good for them rather than what they asked for. That attitude has alienated a lot of potential customers over the years, but it has also produced a lot of repeat customers who are more loyal than the customers of any other computer company. In contrast, the PC vendors that have tried to serve every customer have wound up in a brutally competitive market with razor-thin margins.
There are two lessons here. One, not all customers are created equal. To most customers, coffee is all pretty much the same, and one coffee shop is about as good as another. (Just as one all PCs and software stacks are pretty much the same.) But there's also a minority of customers who pay more attention to quality, and the latter will tend to be a lot more valuable because they'll be more loyal and more prepared to pay a premium for quality. If it's true that icing an espresso ruins it (personally I think coffee is all revolting, so I'm agnostic on the question), refusing to serve iced espressos may be a good business strategy; the customers it drives away probably wouldn't have stuck around for very long anyway. Similarly, Apple's high-handed approach to its customers seems to have worked fairly well for it. It's a niche player in the PC market, but it has proven to be an extremely profitable niche. Second, sometimes customers only discover quality after it's shown to them. It turned out that Jobs was basically right about the floppy drive; I bought an external floppy drive for my iMac but almost never used it. Similarly, Jacob notes that the coffee shop customer seems to have enjoyed the alternative iced beverage that was suggested to him. I doubt that particular customer will be back, but there may be others who develop a taste for the specialty coffee served at Murky and then start to notice the defects of coffee from run-of-the-mill coffee shops. Niche businesses can create loyal customers by guiding them towards more refined tastes, and this can be more rewarding than trying to comply with every whim of every customer.