Cupping For The Customer

Jo McGarry
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Wednesday - October 12, 2005
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One of the lessons I’ve learned during my years in this wonderful business of food and wine is that people who deal with customer complaints in a positive and gracious manner win every time.

It makes me wonder why some large companies don’t take the time to listen more carefully to complaints. It was thoughts like these that led me to the cupping room at Hawaii Coffee Company one morning a few weeks ago, as president Jim Wayman and his staff set about investigating a customer complaint. Wayman is big on resolving problems. “We listen really carefully to customers,” says the affable Wayman. In fact, he says he’s never had a customer problem they couldn’t solve.

Oh, and here’s another thing about Lion Coffee. When you call and ask to speak to the president of the company - you get Jim on the line. Or he’ll call you right back. No automated responses or administrative assistants trying to keep you from talking with their boss, just the president of a company that has sales in excess of $20 million a year happily chatting on the phone with customers to see how they like his product.

So, the morning I spent with the quality control group was an eye-opener in terms of customer service.

Some guy in Michigan had called to complain that the particular flavor of coffee that he’d bought in Honolulu - one that he’d always enjoyed - just didn’t taste the same. Jim asked him to send back the bag, and the quality control team and I set to work to determine what was wrong. I, of course had no clue. Hot, fresh coffee all smells pretty good to me, so I sipped and watched while the experts got to work. The market in gourmet coffee has grown so much in the past 15 years that premium coffees now make up more than 55 percent of the market. That’s a jump of about 40 percent in the past decade or so. Part of it is a generally better-educated, food-savvy public, and part of it is, as Jim points out, the excellent quality of “$5” bags.

“Our definition of quality is consistency,” he explains, “and we direct a consistently high quality product at people who are willing to pay $5 a bag.” Easy when you have the best coffee beans on the planet at your disposal, and easier still when you’re the largest buyer and roaster of Kona coffee beans in the world. What’s not so easy is sipping your way through 20 or 30 batches of freshly made coffee a day to make sure your product is consistent.

“Our group tastes every batch of coffee that’s made here,” says Wayman, “and that means we brew up 10 pots of coffee in the morning, and then maybe another 20 or 30 in the afternoon. All to make sure that customers, like our man from Michigan, are happy.”

At the end of our cupping session, turns out the team thinks the sample had flavors of “old, tasteless coffee.” Not generally one of Lion Coffee’s flavor profiles. The team decides that the customer probably kept the eight-month-old bag in less than perfect conditions. Nevertheless, Wayman calls him a few days later and asks him to Fed Ex the remaining bags he has at home back to Honolulu. “We Fed Ex’d him a whole new batch to replace the six or seven bags he’d bought while in Hawaii,” says Wayman. “We told him that we’d done a blind tasting with his coffee and that we, too, thought there was something not quite right with the flavor. The guy says he’s going to recommend us to everyone in the world.”

Problem solved and, more importantly, mission accomplished. Being recommended to “everyone in the world” is sort of how they’d like to keep doing business.

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