Shooting for the Stars: Developing a Staff that Shines

By Heather Ringwood

In our common thread of specialty coffee, we find coffee to be a premium product that is essential to our business operations, yes? Well, I am here to argue that the success and development of our employees is just as critical, if not more so, than the coffee. If your business values address investing in your staff, it will give you paybacks well into the future.

We are an industry who cares about a quality product and the people involved in the process. That product is made better by the people who present it to you. Consider your favorite places to frequent, whether they be online stores, a grocery store around the corner, or your favorite restaurant. More than likely you are drawn to the place based upon your need for the product but you keep coming back because of the relationship you have developed with the employees there. We have all heard this story a million times but it rings true.

Having a staff that represents your business operation, and fills you with pride, takes preparation and planning but will save time for you and your staff in the long run. That preparation should include developing job descriptions, writing a training manual, and clearly outlining your expectations for the time it will take for training. I also suggest that you make it clear in your employee manual what the implications are if your expectations are not met. This will allow you to communicate concerns most efficiently and not spend unnecessary time on an employee who may not be working out.

Being focused on quality and service is critical to your success. This success starts with hiring the right people. But who are the “right people?” Based upon your business concept and core company values you should identify the type of people you need. Identify the strengths and weaknesses that you bring to your business and balance those qualities with your hiring. For example, if you won’t be at the business day to day, hire someone who will be able to be there. If your strength is connecting with your customers, hire someone who has the tendency towards making the products; preparing for the next visitors and running the behind the scenes operations. In an office environment, if you are the first to pick up the phone and handle customer calls and orders, your ideal employee may be someone who will create systems to make the operation more streamlined and make it easier to put your fingers on the information everyone needs to support the person on the call.

In addition, if we develop a well-skilled and well-rounded group of people, we support the expanded needs of customers and support a larger variety of customer types. Have a job description in place for your positions. In the hiring process, the job description will help you identify the right person for your staff. When looking for new staff members, matching the person’s experience to the job duties you are looking to fulfill is a critical element. It is also important to find also a personality fit with your existing team. By identifying strengths that your organization may be lacking and adding those in your new hires will help round out your staff.

When Hiring Falls Apart

Things can go wrong with hiring in several instances. Hiring your friends may sound like a good idea at first but without a clear working agreement that addresses each role problems can occur. Outlining that work is work, and friendship is outside of that is of vital importance. Also, all too often I have walked into a shop and noticed that the whole group of staff has the same specifically focused skill and passion. By doing this you run the risk of missing business segments you may not have wanted to alienate or you may find yourself with a team who loves people but doesn’t care about knowing how to make great coffee, which may not meet the needs of your mission. In addition, keeping people employed who may not be the best fit for your business usually puts a strain on the team and your resources. Even if you feel that you need that number of people, it may be worth it in the long run to let the person go.

I sometimes see people who hire their team and then set them free to run the business. Often, the next step is utter disappointment from the owner or manager regarding how the employees are working. Product preparation can become inconsistent, service can become sub-par, and your workspace may not be maintained to your expectations. Without clear direction employees will make their own priorities the business priority. Our employees can make or break our business. The next time you are frustrated with a co-worker or employee’s performance, consider whether they are feeling valued and a part of the overall operation.

Take the time to develop, organize and implement a comprehensive training program. It will be invaluable in the long run for your business. Your training program should include hands-on training and also include supportive materials in the training manual and handouts. Consider all learning styles: audio, visual and kinesthetic in the development of your program. Be clear of what your expectations are for each specific area of your business: coffee preparation, customer service and business operations. Revisit the program from time to time to make improvements.

Invest in your employee’s personal and professional development. Yes, I said personal. In my experience, particularly in an entry-level position in a retail or office setting, you will need to support and sometimes develop personal skills such as timeliness, dress code and communication skills. Some people need to learn the importance of being on time to work. They may not understand the impact that it has on your business and their co-workers. Requiring timeliness will not only support your business, but will also help them in other areas of their life. Having a strict dress code may or may not fit with your business concept but you will more than likely have expectations of cleanliness or coordination. In my opinion, attire shouldn’t distract from the customer experience.

Having good communication skills is something a person can take with them anywhere. Setting an expectation for proper communication with co-workers and customers may not be something you have indicated as critical in your business but modeling and encouraging friendly, positive communication will support customer service and team dynamics. You might consider including the topic in your customer service training or isolate it as a separate training all together. Having communication as a topic for on-going training will benefit your employees; the topic is unending and can be utilized in many ways in your business.

Developing your training plan will require you to go back to your core company values and business concept. Information will need to be shared about your specific products and coffee as it relates to your business sector. A typical training program for a roaster or a café might include: introduction to coffee, orientation to the work place and work systems, beverage preparation, menu orientation, and company knowledge. Never underestimate spending the time to discuss and set your expectations for customer service as well. Also, take advantage of the resources available at the SCAA. The Professional Development tracks for Barista and Roasters will help fill in the meat of your training program and provide your staff with a certification from a viable program—a skill that they can take with them in the future.

Training shouldn’t only happen when the employee is hired. On-going education should be included in your day-to-day operations. This will help your business stay up on current trends and expand employee knowledge. An ongoing training program might include team tastings, employee-led on-going education, and company attendance at industry events such as trade shows, barista competitions or coffee location tours. Also, adding opportunities for skill development in time and project management, supervisor skills development and communication skills will benefit the entire team. Look to your community associations and business partners, such as a roaster partner or software provider, for training opportunities that are low or no-cost. Having your staff present their learning to one another will expand everyone’s skills.

A well-trained and empowered staff creates employee longevity, develops customer loyalty and saves you money. Investing in a training program is pricey up front. However, employee retention saves the cost and the time of retraining new staff members. Developing a regular customer base gives you a dedicated income that you can count on. Those committed customers will tell their friends about you as well. Building your business through word-of-mouth will bring loyal customers in your door.

In these tough economic times, sometimes pay increases are smaller than they have been in the past and bonuses are less frequent. Having a comprehensive and varied training program that includes professional and personal training gives value in a non-financial way to your staff. Whether they plan to make a career within your company or move on in the future, you have the opportunity to give them skills that they can carry with them throughout their life. That is just as valuable, if not more so for some, than financial acknowledgement. Keep your training program current and you will have a happy, well-educated and experienced team.

What can you learn from your staff?

  • In hiring people that have strengths in areas you do not, you have an opportunity to gain new skills from them.
  • Your staff is your direct line to your customers—trust them to tell you what your customers need. A happy customer is a committed customer!
  • Take inspiration from their excitement and passion. There are times when you will be buried in the doldrums of business operations and getting re-inspired about the business will often come from those who work for you.

Continue Reading on the Digital Chronicle:

Ildi Revi on Job Descriptions and Employee Manuals:

Discover SCAA Education Online:

SCAA Professional Development Tracks


Heather Ringwood oversees operations for Batdorf & Bronson Coffee Roasters in Olympia, Washington and Atlanta, Georgia. In her 15-year career, Heather has been committed to pursuing excellence in customer service and coffee quality. Heather has volunteered for the SCAA for seven years and is a USBC Head Judge.