How coffee taught me how to be a consumer advocate


It’s one of the most common questions I get as a consumer advocate: How did you get that job?

The answer: It started with coffee.

Seriously. My odyssey into advocacy began in 1984 with my first gig at a small business in Mountain View, Calif., that specialized in roasting gourmet coffee. It happened to be owned by my late uncle, who offered my younger brother and me a job and a place to stay in his spare bedroom.

You’re probably picturing me delivering lattes to the pilots at Moffett Air Field. Cushy job, right?

It’s true, our warehouse shared a fence with one of the runways. But this was no Starbucks summer.

From April until July, from 8 a.m. until 5 p.m., I stood next to a blazing-hot roaster and processed one-pound bags of whole bean Colombian Dark, Guatemala Antigua and Tanzania Peaberry.

Fill. Wrap. Pack. Repeat.

Temperatures on the factory floor pushed 110 degrees on most days, and for relief we fled outdoors, where it cooled off to a more tolerable 90 degrees.

I’m not complaining. The summer of 1984 was, as one of my former editors would call it, a character building experience. So when people ask me about advocacy, I tell them how useful it was to do my time with the beans. Here’s what I learned:

Coffee makes people lose their minds.
After several weeks of working on the factory line, I was assigned the task of filling orders. That meant for the first time I saw how much people were paying for their gourmet coffee. Surprisingly, the Hawaiian Kona beans fetched the highest price. I say “surprisingly” because one of the perks of working at a coffee roaster is that you get to drink all the coffee — as much as you want — and the Kona was fine, but it wasn’t anyone’s favorite. Customers seemed to prefer it because it was more expensive.

There’s a relationship between price and quality, but as I learned that summer, reason has little to do with it. Customers will pay more — often much more — because they think something is better. Even when it’s easy to prove it isn’t.

Later, when I began fighting for consumers, I saw the same poor decision-making with other products and loyalty programs. Customers didn’t always think before buying — and then turned to me for help. Thanks to Kona coffee, I understood.

A mistake is an opportunity.
When I made a mistake on an order — say I threw a bag of French Roast into a box instead of Espresso — I would get an earful from my supervisor. No one likes to make a mistake, and errors are often unavoidable. When you’re looking at a stack of orders and the clock says 3:30 p.m., you do your best with the time you have.

What I didn’t understand then, and wouldn’t until much later, is that it isn’t the poor customer service that really matters; it’s how you respond to it. If you want to improve, what steps do you take? If you don’t care, what does that say about your company? I’ve actually seen businesses that don’t give a hoot if their customers are happy with their product. The apathy is in their corporate DNA. The problem is unfixable.

That wasn’t the case at the coffee plant. After making enough mistakes with my orders, I was sent back to the packing line. And in retrospect, what were they thinking, asking a 16-year-old to fill orders?

You’ve gotta respect the beans.
One of the most lasting lessons of the summer of 1984 didn’t come until after I left. In late July, I collected my final paycheck and flew to Los Angeles to visit my grandmother. (What self-respecting teenager wouldn’t want to see the summer Olympics?) But here’s where I got to see how consumers were enjoying the coffee I spent all summer processing — or more to the point, not enjoying it.

My grandmother had boxes of coffee she’d received from my uncle. She was proud of his business and never wasted an opportunity to share his product with friends and family. But she didn’t really understand that fresh-roasted coffee is meant to be ground and enjoyed quickly. She stored the coffee in the freezer or left the open packages on the counter, where it soon turned stale. In order to make the brew drinkable, she doctored it with heavy cream and sugar. Yeah, it was 1984 — none of that artificial sweetener, thanks very much.

I learned that no matter how great your product is, it’s meaningless when the customer doesn’t get to enjoy it. It’s like the telecom company running a high-speed fiber line through your neighborhood, but connecting it to a copper phone wire. The “last mile” renders the bandwidth all but useless. The consumer gets to decide if your product is any good. So respect the beans.

My first job, which paid $3.35 an hour, helped me begin to understand the complicated relationship between businesses and customers. The lessons I learned from packing bags of steaming hot Blue Mountain, Java and Sumatra beans into paper bags have served me well as a consumer advocate.

And here’s today’s unrelated poll …

Which drink is superior?

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or contact him at . Got a question or comment? You can post it on the new forum.

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