Tea Shops Don’t Care About Tea, part 3: tools for proactive tea shops

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I’ve heard a good deal from tea businesses, and on behalf of tea businesses, because of the first two posts in this series.  The comments tended to go along the lines of “Give ‘em a break, they’re only retail employees!  Don’t expect that they know anything!”  And I’ve got two responses to that before I get to the actual advice for tea shops promised in the above subtitle.

Drinking tea with an open book

First, to those who feel I’m giving the tea employees a hard time, consider that you may be more advanced along the path of tea knowledge than the average customer.  The average person who buys tea from a specialty tea shop does not have that attitude.  Having worked for several companies who retailed tea, I can tell you that the average person who walks into a tea shop to buy tea believes whatever they are told.  They believe that the tea shop employee, simply by virtue of being behind the counter of a specialty shop, knows more or less everything that needs to be known about tea.  The tea shop employee is expected to know the pharmacological effects of every selection in the store, and be able to prescribe the correct one for any malady a customer may have.  Customers also expect tea shop employees to be able to describe relative amounts of antioxidants, caffeine, and amino acids like L-theanine by type and by individual tea.  Tea shop customers expect tea shop employees to know.  And this series of posts has been based on the point of view that a retailer should follow that business truism that you should try to at least meet, if not exceed, your customers’ expectations.

The second thing I’d like to say to those who have questioned my premise: thank you.  Spread that message.  Tell everyone you know that retail employees know nothing about tea.  Because maybe if the retailers won’t train their employees to meet customer expectations, perhaps together we can get the customers to understand that they’re getting terrible information about tea and therefore customers should lower their expectations of the tea industry.  Either way would work.  If you think my position that the tea industry should rise to the occasion is an unrealistic expectation, then we all need to get to work letting the tea-drinking populace know that they’re expecting too much of tea shops.  This approach, too, was part of my purpose in writing this series.

Essentially, I’ve been trying to do two things: get consumers to put less stock in the tea industry by showing how bad the industry is at educating themselves and their customers, and challenging the tea industry to step up their game a little.  And it’s with that second part in mind that I’m writing this final post in the series.

An educationally proactive tea retailer has four primary ways of taking on this challenge to better their learning, and also, subsequently, the information they pass on to customers. They are as follows:

1. Cultivate a culture of learning.  If your company’s culture is one where people try to find out the real answer, instead of having an emphasis on simply saying what needs to be said to make the sale, over time the collective knowledge of your company will grow.  Training can also become easier because although you’ll typically need to do some training on the basics, new hires can learn some of the more specific things from their peers, as well as learning on their own.

2. Vary information sources to prevent bias and repeating errors.  There are tea shops out there, I am sure, who tell new employees to read James Norwood Pratt’s New Tea Lover’s Treasury or Ultimate Tea Lover’s Treasury and call it good for training.  While that’s better than nothing, what if he made an error?  Basing all of your training or educational work on a single source will result in additional repetitions of the same error (or, like a massive industry-wide game of Telephone, new permutations and variants of the error).  Using multiple sources doesn’t guarantee you’ll prevent information errors, but it will certainly increase the chances that you’ll discover them.  One day I’ll write a post about “myrcenal” and/or the white tea and caffeine thing to illustrate this in greater detail.

3. “Flip it” and other critical thinking skills.  In his book, When Can You Trust the Experts: How to Tell Good Science from Bad in Education, Daniel T. Willingham offers a couple of shortcuts to evaluating educational claims.  One of these shortcuts is “Flip it,” which means to look at the reverse of the claim to see how it seems.  His example: a product that claims to be “85% lean” could be flipped to say “15% fat”…and although it’s identical in meaning, one seems healthy and the other doesn’t.  Another way information can be “flipped” is to look for evidence of the opposite.  For example, you could see the claim that Longjing tea is only made in the area around Hangzhou and assume that the Longjing in your shop comes from Hangzhou.  But if you flip that around and look for the reverse (i.e., Longjing made in other places besides Hangzhou), you might learn that Longjing is one of the most frequently “faked” tea on the market, and that much of the Longjing in the US is actually produced outside of Hangzhou…and in most cases, in entirely different provinces.  Other critical thinking skills and techniques can be applied to evaluate which of multiple stories, whether discovered through using different sources or because of flipping a claim, is most likely.  I’ll have more on that in just a moment.

4. Record questions and refer to specialists.  Despite your best efforts, someone may ask a question of someone in the shop that the employee (or owner!) can’t answer.  Don’t make something up.  Instead, make sure everyone knows the following phrase: “I’m not sure, but if I could get your contact information I’ll see what I can find out.”  Then, do that.  Collect the questions of your customers.  Remember: if they asked the question, they expect you might know…so if you want to meet your customer’s expectations, you should find out.  Once you have the question and their contact information, refer to specialists.  You could do this in a number of ways, and it’s up to you to figure out the best way for your business, but one way would be to find out the answer from specialists and contact the customer yourself to deliver what you found out (citing your source, of course).  This way your shop looks connected, helpful, dedicated to accuracy, and responsive to customer needs, and your tea colleagues will want to check the “plays well with others” box on your report card for the referrals.

Taken individually, each of these four ways of addressing information gaps can move your shop in the right direction.  But the more you implement, the faster and more direct your journey to good data becomes.  Now, this blog post only touches on the main ideas and doesn’t give much detail on how to implement these techniques in a typical tea shop.  Both to keep this article as short as it is (I know, it’s not that short) and to keep from boring readers who don’t have a tea shop, I held aside much of the how-to ideas.

Now, to help you improve your shop’s tea education program, I have compiled these tips and techniques into a guide called “Be the Smartest Tea Shop In Town: Build Expertise with Every Interaction,” detailing what my ideal training and educational program would look like for a small tea shop.  It’s flexible and customizable, so it can be used in many different types of shop.  I want to give it absolutely free to any tea shops reading this because of how strongly I feel about the need to improve education in the tea industry.  Here’s what you need to do: click the link below, enter your email address, and I’ll send you the guide at no cost.

“Be the Smartest Tea Shop In Town” will not only show you how to implement the suggestions I’ve mentioned above, but will include not only a list of techniques and methods, but an area to write your own unique educational plan in minutes that you can implement right away.

So if you own a tea shop, or work in one, go ahead, click the button below, and I’ll send you the link to the guide.


Click Here to Get the Guide
 

Image source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Reading_and_drinking_tea_-_sunlight.jpg

5 Comments »

  1. Nelly Blue said,

    January 29, 2014 @ 3:20 pm

    I agree with everything you’ve written on these 3 articles. Sharing them on Reddit, though, has gotten me labelled as a “snob,” and worse. It’s an uphill battle to not only get companies to educate their salespeople about their tea, but tea drinkers, as well. And, it seems most tea enthusiasts–at least on Reddit–don’t want to be educated on what good, quality tea is.

  2. John Bickel said,

    January 29, 2014 @ 10:46 pm

    Nice, especially the part about culture change. This really doesn’t have to be limited to a training issue. I visited a major tea chain and the employee did great up until pu’er, which the shop was also really thin on. Just writing off that type was an option for them but using questions as input could’ve helped them be more aware of the gap to address it.

  3. Robert Godden (@The_Devotea) said,

    January 29, 2014 @ 11:18 pm

    Nice work.Will you be recommending “The Infusiast ” to anyone?

  4. Annelise Pitt said,

    February 1, 2014 @ 6:48 am

    This problem is systemic – not just over the counter at a tea shop. Just this week I read posts from two VERY respected tea knowledge sources. One told me that I can remove 90% of my tea’s caffeine in seconds; the other is a primer on the tannin in tea. Both are total opposites of previous statements in this discussion. Geez!! Who am I to believe?? I pity anyone trying to navigate this quagmire.

  5. Annelise Pitt said,

    February 1, 2014 @ 7:19 am

    I mentioned in a comment on Part1 that my tea shop owners group was discussing this series of posts. Some results: 1) They are not trying to deceive – calling shops who do ‘unethical’. 2) Many shop owners HAVE invested in training (online courses, WTE, STI ) 3) They are swamped with conflicting ‘facts’. 4) They think shop clerks are being held to an impossibly high standard that other industries are not. An example was drawn between a chocolate shop and a tea shop – does the clerk at the Godiva shop know everything there is to know about chocolate? 5) Tea knowledge is vast – is every lowly clerk expected to be a ‘tea master’, a process that takes years of study?
    During the discussion I linked to the articles from Nigel Melican mentioned in the series – they found them very informative. I have yet to hear comments on how useful they find the guide you are offering.

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