Can you remember a time when a total stranger made your day?
Chris G. from Richmond, British Columbia can remember a moment like this, and it was a barista at a local coffee shop who turned their day around. The barista didn’t do anything over-the-top; it was just a small gesture that showed she cared.
Chris tells the story like this:
“I visited a coffee shop on what had been a particularly rough day to pass the time before meeting my wife. When the barista asked me how I was doing, I simply told her it had been a rough day & wished I could press a restart button. She empathized and apologized on behalf of "the world." I smiled and we went our way. After fulfilling my order, I sat down at a table to pop open my laptop. No more than five minutes later, she approached me and offered me a fresh made cookie with the word "restart" drizzled in chocolate.”
That's pretty great customer service, right? What's crazier is Chris says this happened over ten years ago and it still resonates with them today.
How did a coffee shop create a powerful customer experience that is still remembered a decade later? The answer can be found in the psychology of surprise and delight.
Surprises are a strong emotion for humans, and companies that use them properly can see a lot of benefits. Tonia Luna, author of Surprise: Embrace the Unpredictable and Engineer the Unexpected, says surprises hijack our attention and make us focus on the present. They force us to change our perception as we try to make sense of the unexpected, which then leaves us wanting to share our experience with others. When the surprise is good, it leads to customers singing a coffee shop's praises. If the surprise is not so good, you can bet that story will travel around town, too.
Not only do delightful surprises encourage customers to share their experience, it also makes them more likely to return to the shop. A joint study conducted by Emory and Baylor Universities found that people who are given an unexpected reward feel more pleasure than when they expected the reward. Unexpected rewards have the same effect on the brain as eating chocolate or cheese, which means people literally crave them. Shops who successfully create moments of surprise and delight could see more return customers seeking that experience again.
How can coffee shops deliver more surprise and delight to customers? We teamed up with Barista Magazine to find out. We surveyed over 1,200 customers and coffee professionals about coffee shop experiences and loyalty.
We asked two questions about how coffee shops deliver surprise and delight to customers. First we asked both customers and coffee professionals if shops have done anything “unexpected” that customers really liked. Next we asked customers about what they wish coffee shops would do more, or not at all.
We found that coffee shops create surprise and delight in five areas of the customer experience:
It was also interesting to see that most cases of surprise and delight came at little or no cost to the shop, which is great for the 70% of coffee shops who spend less than $100 a month on marketing.
We picked out the 48 best responses from coffee shop customers and professionals and share them below. Read them, steal them, and use them to deliver surprise and delight to your customers.
"A free cup when buying a bag of coffee is awesome. Also when I went to my first third-wave coffee shop, the barista was super helpful and patiently walked me through their processes and answered my question. Then they gave me a free cup of coffee. Which was huge. Hospitality goes a long way."
- Josh R., Denton, TX USA- Coffee shop customer
"I have been going to this coffee shop pretty regularly, and I noticed they had mugs made with their logo on it. NICE MUGS at that! My husband knows my love for coffee mugs and said I have enough and we didn't need to buy it! Well, my barista said to me, "Well now you have one more, it's on me!" #bestdayever #wifeforthewin #bestbarista"
- Jasmine Walker, Atlanta, GA- Coffee shop customer
"Free treats for doggies."
- Coffee shop customer
"A coffee shop in Eugene, Oregon, had a fantastic staff that remembered what I had ordered the day before and treated me like a regular on my second visit. Being remembered like that elevates a coffee shop into something special."
- Coffee shop customer
"Coffeehouse Northwest in Portland, OR. Best owner (Adam McGovern) and barista staff I've ever come across. Several times I've seen them apologize and toss out a drink because they knew it wasn't up to par before handing it to customers. Reasons include: extraction didn't look right (too fast/too slow, weather shifted!), the milk pour wasn't symmetric, the volume was just a little shy. They've also overheard me saying to a friend, 'This is good and there's a really pleasant bitter finish,' and said, 'Oh no let me make you another one, this espresso should finish like sweet blood oranges!' To that, she spent a couple minutes adjusting things, then pulled another couple of shots for us that tasted even better than the first!"
- Coffee shop customer
"Customer Appreciation Days (in lieu of a loyalty card program). We provide a "Free Menu" where customers can choose one drink on the house. It encourages customers to try something new. It was a huge success. Everyone appreciated it. (E'rybody loves free things!)"
- Jess Steffy, Square One Coffee, PA- Owner
"I always love when baristas are willing to suggest what they would like for you to try in their shop. And even more so, when they believe so much in a drink that they pour you a taste of it to try."
- Gary Ford, Bangkok, Thailand- Coffee shop customer
"I was in Atlanta, GA on the kind of trip where I was expecting to just kind of hang out in my hotel room the whole time. Then I went to Empire State South for coffee, and everything changed. They found out I was visiting and the whole staff got together to make me a list of the places I should check out. I ended up barely seeing my hotel room at all, and I had a blast seeing all the local spots around town. Leaving Atlanta, I went back and they remembered me and gave me coffee and pastries for the road. The ESS staff not only made me feel special while I was at ESS, but they turned the whole Atlanta experience into a memorable one."
- Josh Aldy, Hattiesburg, MS- Coffee shop customer
"I've had a shop offer a free upgrade on a drink to try something I wouldn't normally try. For example, I went to my regular haunt and asked for my standard black coffee, they offered me a drink of my choice (with a recommendation) for the same price. The idea was to get the customer to try something new, and potentially more expensive. It accomplished that and in addition made me feel more loyalty to the location."
"Free coffee during renovations. We have had to close for updates a couple days during the year. We usually just brew a few FETCOs of coffee and keep a table with cups out front of the shop for all of our regulars to grab free coffee while we are closed."
- United By Blue Coffeehouse & Clothier, Philadelphia, PA
"The building I worked in also housed a theater for live shows as well as a convenient coffee shop I frequented. I guess a matinee had just let out when I arrived for an afternoon latte because the line was out into the hallway. I shrugged and got in line. Two minutes later, the barista walked out from behind the counter and handed me my usual. 'You can pay tomorrow,' he said."
- Finch, Wilmington, DE- Coffee shop customer
"Instead of forcing the customer to stand awkwardly and listen for their drink to be shouted at them to be picked up, we remember the people who order which drinks and walk them out. This allows customers to feel more relaxed after placing an order."
- Dylan Connell, Sump Coffee, St. Louis, MO- Barista
"Our first-time customer card is great. We buy the customer's first drink and offer rewards up until 10 drinks, which concludes with a free t-shirt."
- Adam L., Manhattan, KS- Barista
"We try to constantly keep a healthy and positive culture with our staff and train our baristas and chefs to talk to customers and provide customer service that is above and beyond. We are encouraged to genuinely ask customers how their days are and keep up with their personal lives."
- Minnie Antonio, Calgary, Alberta, Canada- Assistant Manager
"We have a protocol that if any barista feels like a customer was not served in a timely fashion, or a mistake was made, they give out a free drink card to ensure that the customer knows we appreciate them and want them to come back...and understand that even super star baristas make mistakes. ;)"
- Jay Weatherly, High Five Coffee, Asheville, NC- Owner
"This shouldn't be "unexpected", but I truly appreciate the rare occasion when I'm approached by someone at the coffee house who wants to talk coffee. Specifically asking me about my personal taste and experience...not in a "let me sell you something" way, but out of genuine curiously and passion for the craft. Relationships should be as important as sales."
- Shawn Anderson, Tustin, CA - Coffee shop customer
"I love when I can geek out with a barista. Recently I was at The Semi-Tropic in LA and the head of their coffee program was working, and once we got chatting he realized I'm a coffee nerd and really engaged with me in a cool way. It's great when I can learn from someone."
- Chaya, Los Angeles, CA- Coffee shop customer
"After complaining about not liking Sumatran coffee, [a coffee shop] held a mini sampling later that week and sampled different roasts and plantations for comparison. Totally changed my view of Sumatran coffees."
- Mike G, Flyover Country, USA- Coffee shop customer
"[A coffee shop] explained some of the different aspects of making a cappuccino. They informed me about the option to select a temperature (scalding vs drinkable) and making it wet/dry (foam vs steamed milk)."
- M. Nelson, NC, USA- Coffee shop customer
"I remember the first time I visited Lemonjello's in Holland, MI. It was my first time visiting a real specialty coffee shop and had no idea what I was doing. I have to say it was the amazing customer service that really defined that visit. A barista saw that I was kinda clueless and spent their time personally talking over the coffee and menu with me. Explaining any questions I had (of which there were many), and when I finally settled on drinks. The barista brought them to my table and set down sparkling water with my espresso. I was so confused and then they walked me through tasting espresso and my coffee. The quality of coffee and the top-tier customer service is what ended up sending me off on my journey through specality coffee. I don't think I will forget that small little shop!"
- Alex Pittman, Rochester, MI USA- Coffee shop customer
"The most helpful and enjoyable experiences I've had in coffee shops are when the baristas are able to scientifically explain what is happening to the grounds, justify each step of the process, and identify the aromas and tastes that I will experience before I try the coffee. This piques the interests of my scientific mind, while addressing the creative interests I have in the methods and flavors at the same time. Best of both worlds!"
- J. Denham, Lawrence, KS, USA- Coffee shop customer
"I visited a coffee shop in Chicago and when I ordered my coffee, I asked if they roast their own coffee or outsource. They said they roasted their own in house and asked if I would like a quick tour. I said yes and received a really nice quick tour of their shop and roasting space."
- Jeff P., Minneapolis, MN, USA- Coffee shop customer
"I went into a local shop that I visited once every week or two. I was simply ordering a pourover of a local roasters beans. From there, I was chatting with the barista generally about coffee because I was interested in buying beans to take home. This conversation lead to the different brew methods and the subtle differences of each method with the beans of interest. I ended up ordering a pourover of the beans to try them because I use a Chemex and V60 at home. At the conclusion of our conversation, I found myself a table to do some work. Because I ordered a pourover, I knew it would take a few minutes before I was served my coffee. To my surprise, the barista served me four cups of coffee (not full servings). Each were made with the same beans, but each was made using a different method (pourover, french press, drip, and espresso). The barista recognized my interest during the conversation so she decided to brew the beans with each of these methods. It was a big surprise, and definitely exciting because I was able to try the same beans brewed different at the same time and personally test the differences of the different methods."
- Chad M, Portland, OR, USA- Coffee shop customer
"While visiting Ritual Roasters in San Francisco CA, the barista gave me a flight of coffee/espresso when I couldn't decide on what to select. The barista then charged me for just one cup of coffee. Completely unexpected and since then I've continued to be a loyal customer."
- Bill G, Long Island NY- Coffee shop customer
"When I was learning to brew coffee at home I had lots of questions that I had difficulty finding answers for. I went into my local shop, Victrola Coffee, to order a pour over so that I could taste how a properly made one tastes like. I mentioned how I was learning to brew at home and they offered to let me watch them make my drink. They answered all of my questions about grind size, timing, and everything else I could think of at the time. I was so impressed I became a loyal customer immediately and I have enjoyed going back regularly since."
- David Inden, Seattle, WA USA- Coffee shop customer
"We conducted a mini workshop about coffee appreciation with the local roaster as our speaker. It was attended by customers and friends who are coffee drinkers and non-coffee drinkers."
- Marian Gogil, HQ Art Cafe, Philippines- Owner
"We created a farm level bar that shows the direct relationship of our farmers, processing methods and the journey of coffee from seed to cup. Customers can come get a pour over on our mod bar and learn about the coffee they chose and the farm/farmer it came from. The transparency is amazing and allows customers to see the whole picture."
- Jenna Elise, Verve Coffee Roasters, Los Angeles CA- Barista
"At Four Barrel in San Francisco, I had ordered a coffee from their single origin bar that they hadn't gotten their espresso grinder dialed in for yet. Instead of them saying, 'pick something else', or, 'wait while I dial this in', he said, 'Let’s get it right together.' He poured shot after shot while we chatted about the attempts. Really made me feel part of the process."
- Jared Wyles, Sydney, Australia- Coffee shop customer
"A coffee shop in Seoul gave me a small piece of handmade chocolate to complement my coffee."
- James Webb, Incheon, South Korea- Coffee shop customer
"Colectivo Coffee has sparkling water on tap! It's a nice, refreshing complement to my rich coffee."
- Corinne, Madison, WI, USA- Coffee shop customer
"It's a home run if the barista pairs their excellent espresso shot with a small glass of mineral water."
- Duffy- Coffee shop customer
"I enjoy little touches like artistic designs in latte foam or the option to sprinkle cocoa, nutmeg, or cinnamon."
- Coffee shop customer, Arlington, VA
"The managers of my local café made an effort to get to know me and other regulars and even stocked a unusual beer that I recommended."
- Norm Sohl- Coffee shop customer
"As much as I don't think that food is important for a coffee shop, I wish that they would be more consistent with having scones or other things to nibble on. On a Friday night after work, I want something to eat along with my coffee."
- Amberle, Cleveland, OH - Coffee shop customer
"I wish my local coffee shop would have more variety in guest roasters. There are so many great roasters out there that get limited or just local exposure in coffee shops."
- Joseph Fowler, CT, USA - Coffee shop customer
"I just love when multi-roaster cafes surprise me with a new roaster. So much good coffee out there!"
- Anonymous, Oakland, CA, USA - Coffee shop customer
"Our goal is to remove the separation between the barista and the customer. In making a cup of coffee, we offer a two-step process:
1. Choose Your Bean
2. Choose Your Method.
We've noticed that when you introduce a choice of method into the process, it tends to spark interest and questions regarding the process of making their coffee. They leave having a better understanding of the specialty coffee world and we gain a consistent customer."
- Seth Enos, Copper Kettle Coffee, Colorado Spring, CO, USA- Owner
"We started using cocktail bitters in drinks and make what we can in-house. Design drinks to compliment the espresso and not hide it. They also love that we have multiple rows for free drink punches so they can save them for a rough week."
- Nick Christian, Spitfire Coffee, New Orleans, LA, USA- Owner
"We offer flights of coffee: One coffee prepared three ways to taste brewing differences or three coffees prepared one way to taste profile difference."
- Kat Stauffer, Caravan Coffee, Newberg, OR- Manager
"[A coffee shop] allowed a violinist to play, and I even took my headphones off. I would hate having a band through."
- Clarence- Coffee shop customer
"Board games and local musicians. Please don't have TV's. They're distracting and takes away from the atmosphere."
- Billie Ingalls, Madison, WI, USA- Coffee shop customer
"There's a coffee shop in North Portland that has a whole playroom with dress up costumes for the children of customers. The playroom is separated from the main room by a large plate glass window so you can see the kids playing but you can't really hear them."
- Stephanie, Portland, OR, USA- Coffee shop customer
"Triangle Coffee in Boston used to be a cart in a rock climbing gym. They were really open minded about different and interesting drink combinations, so much so that they named a special drink after a rock climbing term! I really love the multi-use space they created and how the coffee shop molded itself to its community."
- Elle C., Los Angeles, CA, USA- Coffee shop customer
"Having an open studio where people can do art work, offering locally made art or handmade goods."
- Owner, The People's Perk
"I wish more shops paid attention to the layout of their shop as it relates to the customer experience. Great shops put a ton of thought into where you have to go to finish up your drink, find a lid, and walk out the door. Bad shops make you bump into customers—spilling hot coffee on your hand—every step of the way."
- John, Chicago, IL, USA- Coffee shop customer
"We are constantly improving/changing up the interior of the shop. This gives customers something to look forward to seeing and then customers feel like they belong to our history when they can remember when it looked different. it helps build community and loyalty."
- Renee Blanchard, Church Alley Coffee Bar, New Orleans, LA, USA- Owner
"We let our regulars keep their own reusable cups at the store and they get a discount for using their own cup."
- Kali S., Puerto Rico- Barista
"We have a calendar with regular guest's birthdays. They are rewarded with a card and beverage when they come in around that date."
- Matt Soness, Flying Horse Cafe, Dallas, TX- Owner
"There is a cool shop downtown where I live and they have couches, a bar to stand at, and quirky books around to read while you sip good coffee."
- Ken Hubbard- Coffee shop customer
"I love it when coffee shops host pourdowns. It really unites the coffee community in a friendly but competitive way."
- Rachel C, Oklahoma City- Coffee shop customer
"Coffee education events. Maybe more cupping events to try different types of coffee and help educate on tasting coffee."
- Jeff P., Minneapolis, MN- Coffee shop customer
"I would really appreciate my local coffee shops providing classes and opportunities to learn how to brew coffee manually and even how to pull shots and do latte art. As someone who is interested in those things but doesn't have ambitions to be a barista, the local coffee shop scene seems like the best way to get some hands on experience trying out a new skill. I think coffee shops that offer teaching opportunities make themselves even more accessible to their customers and open up chances to building relationships within the community."
- Bethany E., Taylors, SC- Coffee shop customer
"Besides creating a comfortable environment for all sorts of people, our customers really appreciate our dedication to community - from involvement in our immediate neighborhood & city (being supportive of other local businesses, donating to local non-profits, helping out schools, etc.) to a more global scale (supporting lots of environmental efforts - composting, sourcing sustainable, organic, and fair or direct trade products, recycling, etc.)"
- Stacy Neff, One More Cup, Kansas City, MO, USA- Owner
"Caturday! We held a cat adoption day at the Cafe! We got 27 kittens adopted in 3 hours. It takes the shelter about a week to get 20 adopted."
- Roberto Torres, The Blind Tiger Cafe, Tampa, Florida- Owner
"Our customers can purchase our green beans and roast them on our public roaster."
- Owner, Matador Coffee Roasting Co.
"One thing that keeps customers coming back is our mission. We are a non-profit that provides opportunity for street-involved young people to reclaim their lives, one cup at a time. Apart from our mission - Customer service IS KEY. You could have the best coffee in town, but if the customer leaves with an unpleasant experience, they might not be coming back. In this day and age, everyone is trying to do this specialty coffee thing. Why should they frequent/support your shop over somewhere else? Well, here at Street Bean we have a great product, provided by out-of-this-world customer service. The fact that we are a social justice oriented shop seeking to give back to the community is another reason why people keep coming back. If more shops were interested in seeing coffee as a means to something greater and not just the ends, they might see customers more driven to support that local company."
- Matthew Lynch, Street Bean Coffee, Seattle, WA, USA- Manager
"We hold monthly passion project events that allow customers to share about a passion they are committed to. Communicate that vision in a comfortable community forum and raise money for their effort."
- Jeremy Bale, Aspen Coffee, Stillwater, OK, USA- Owner
"Have more arts and cultural events like poetry and singer/songwriter nights."
- Dennis R, Houston, TX, USA- Coffee shop customer
"I love when coffee shops feature local art on the walls."
- E Cruise, Denver, CO, USA- Coffee shop customer
"Open jam nights!"
- Akiko H, Calgary, Alberta, Canada- Coffee shop customer
"We've had two regulars who were diagnosed with terminal cancer. I delivered a nice cup of coffee and sat with them, 'cuz hospital coffee sucks."
- John M. Chandler, Proprietor - Oblique Coffee Roasters
The coffee shop experience isn’t just about glitzy equipment and single origin espresso. It’s about connecting with a customer on a deeper level and showing them you care.
These are a few real examples of shops creating surprise and delight for customers, but there are an infinite number of ways to do it in your shop. The challenge for coffee shops is taking that extra step and delivering the unexpected when the moment arises.
Take the time today to surprise and delight your customers, and they just might thank you for years to come.