The other day I stopped in at a relatively new coffeehouse downtown.  I had heard pretty good things about it and they apparently served loose-leaf tea.  I stepped through the door and walked into a very contemporary modern art space that was truly a gallery-slash-café.  It was inviting, bright, and nicely furnished.  The smell of fresh espresso wafted throughout and the chill case had slices of apple strudel that made my mouth water.  I stood at the bar, peering across at the shelving suspended from the back wall, and noticed a bunch of little tins of various sizes and a box of tea sacs.  This was undoubtedly their “loose tea” selection.

The minutes ticked by and no one approached me.  I turned around to scan the café for an employee.  In the far corner, a younger lady was sweeping the floor and moving furniture around.  I walked over to her and asked if I could get some service.  Without a word, she put aside the broom, and headed toward the service area.

When she got behind the counter, I asked about her loose tea selection.  Her response was: “What do you want?”  “What do you have?” I asked.  “We have lots,” she replied.  I then asked: “Do you have any white tea?”  “What is white tea?” was her reply.  After a pause, I said: “OK – I’ll have an espresso macchiato then.”  I paid her and she disappeared behind the machine to pull me a shot of what I hoped would be local roaster’s finest espresso.

By the time my espresso macchiato was ready, over 15 minutes had elapsed since I entered the café.  In that period, the only dialogue I had with the lone staff member was the conversation highlighted above.  My thank you when I picked up my drink went unacknowledged and as soon as it was in my hands, she disappeared back to her sweeping.  I sat there gently stirring the macchiato, wondering how on earth a place like this managed to hire such a poor, uninterested, and unenthusiastic staff person.  It boggles the mind actually, because everything else was so well put together.

In the teahouse and café business, connecting with the customer, no matter how brief this interaction may be, is absolutely paramount for your long-term success.  Should I say it again?  Connecting with the customer is EVERYTHING.  Have you ever wondered how you successfully and quickly build a loyal customer base?  You basically open your doors and you start with nothing.  All you have is that one shot to bridge a connection with a new patron.  Think back to all the times that you have either been shunned or welcomed.  Which place did you ultimately return to?

If you hire staff who are more interested in sweeping floors or chatting with each other behind the counter or who are simply poor people people, you are essentially handing the success of your café over to them.  Before you know it, you’ll find that regardless of how great your tea or coffee offerings may be, your doors will rarely be swinging open.

During my tenure with Teaopia, I did a lot of hiring of staff for new stores.  In one case, I conducted over a hundred interviews in a week to find just five good staff.  Why was I so picky?  I was searching for a certain personality type – I was looking for a people person.  After hundreds of interviews, you learn to detect whether a person is an introvert or an extrovert.   I typically hire the extrovert.  That is the person with personality plus – the person who smiles a lot and is genuinely interested in what you are doing and how you are doing it.  They want to be part of what you got going on and will jump into the team quickly.  In most cases, with the right probing, you can also get a good sense of the true personality of the prospective new hire and can dismiss the concocted one that is only fabricated for the interview.

There is little as important to the success of your fledgling café as having smiling, engaged staff greeting your new customers and talking them through the myriad drink choices you offer.  This is the reason the staff are there in the first place.  It is the only way you’re going to build your business for the long term.  These new hires are essentially ambassadors of your concept, your dreams, and your aspirations – I would not be leaving this in the hands of someone who shies away from engagement or would rather sweep the floors.

So hire right, conduct tons and tons of interviews, commit to good training, and do not hesitate to get rid of the dead wood.  If they are not helping you build your business, they are, for the most part, detracting from it.  It’s your money and your store – this is no place for sentimentality, unless, of course, they are doing a great job!

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