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Coffee. Above all else. (Including customer service.)

I met a colleague at ink! Coffee in Denver last week. I appreciate great coffee as I’ve blogged about before and was really looking forward to trying ink!’s.

My first impression was positive as the barista welcomed me and briefly shared ink! Coffee’s philosophy regarding product quality and freshness.

After determining that I was meeting someone for coffee, she dispensed the coffee into a sturdy ceramic mug—which was refreshing. I took my first sip and was truly impressed with the quality. As advertised, it was rich, smooth and not at all bitter.

About twenty minutes into my appointment, the barista came by our table and mentioned to me that they offer free refills.

“Free refills?” I said. “That’s great! I’d love one. Thank you.”

Then she said something that shocked me.

“Oh…but I don’t get it for you. You have to go to the counter to get it.”

She then justified her response by explaining that we were a team and, as such, we all played different roles. Apparently, her role was to prepare and sell me a cup of coffee and my role was to pause my meeting, get up, go to the counter, and wait in line to request a refill.

ink! Coffee’s slogan is: Coffee. Above all else.

Clearly, this includes customer service.

In the men’s restroom, there is a sign boldly displayed which reads:


In 1994, ink! started in Aspen, Colorado with one cart and a lot of passion. We continue to hand-roast our coffee at high elevation in the mountains which allows us to roast longer at a lower temperature making the coffee rich, smooth and never bitter.

Beans are delivered fresh to ink! stores, brewed into coffee, and served to adoring customers. And because we take pride in freshness, we only keep a pot of coffee around about as long as it took to brew it. Same goes for beans. We never stockpile them.

Our baristas have a passion for great coffee (without the attitude). And most importantly, they know how to make the perfect cup.

At least they’re consistent. This sign really does accurately capture the ink! Coffee culture that I experienced: A focus on coffee—not the customer. Notice the only reference to customers is in the second paragraph where we’re described as “adoring.”

I found this definition of “adoring” at To worship or honor as a deity or as divine. In the context above, it would seem that customers are expected to “worship” ink! Coffee. That’s flawed. It’s reminiscent of American automakers’ attitude towards their customers until they began defecting to imported brands at an alarming rate. Only then did Detroit begin to refocus on customers.

In the third paragraph, it’s noted that “baristas have a passion for great coffee…And most importantly, they know how to make the perfect cup.” Both of these references have to do with ink!’s product, not service. In fact, there’s no mention of customer service anywhere—so I really shouldn’t have been at all surprised that the barista had no intention of refilling my cup of coffee for me.

I am a huge supporter of smaller, independent brands that compete against the behemoths and I want to see them succeed. That said, it’s unlikely for a coffee shop (or any other business) to succeed based on product quality alone. Service quality must be part of the equation.

If I were advising ink! Coffee, I would emphasize that its highest priority should be to create promoters of the ink! Coffee brand.

Global consulting firm Bain and Company defines promoters as those customers who are the least price-sensitive, have the highest repurchase rates, and are responsible for between 80 and 90 percent of positive referrals to a company or brand.

Promoters respond to the question, “How likely is it that you would recommend ink! Coffee to a friend or colleague?” by selecting 9 or 10 on a zero-to-10 scale with 10 indicating they are extremely likely to recommend.

Promoters recognize product quality and they expect a commensurate level of service quality. If customers get one without the other, they’re less likely to recommend the company or brand to others. And, by definition, they’re not promoters. They’re either passives (indifferent about your brand) or detractors (responsible for 80 to 90 percent of the negative word of mouth).

ink! Coffee has a great location in Cherry Creek and an amazing product. But the reality is that there is a Peet’s Coffee & Tea and a Starbucks located on the same street. And ink! simply will not succeed in creating promoters and growing market share by focusing exclusively on product quality while remaining indifferent about the customer experience.

Order Delight Your Customers: 7 Simple Ways to Raise Your Customer Service from Ordinary to Extraordinary by Steve Curtin or purchase from select retailers, including Barnes & Noble.
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