Your coffee shop’s team is the most important part of your business to invest time and effort into. Equipment can break, foot traffic can change, deliveries can be late, but a good team can make the best out of any problem.
Even if you think you’re a great manager, there’s only so much you can do without proper hiring. Management is most effective when it’s about guiding an employee, building on what’s there already. Expecting to be able to transform someone is asking for frustration. That’s why hiring, and the questions you ask in an interview, are so essential to coffee shop owners. It’s not enough to find the first person who’s available to start. You need to take the time to find candidates that fit the job and with your own style. If you wait to hire until you’re desperate for help, you will never find the right employee.
In our experience, most coffee shop owners don’t ask the questions that matter. It’s deceptively simple: the most important questions require thoughtful answers yet are very concretely related to the job. Ask questions that allow both you and the interviewee to picture yourselves working together.
Here are some of the questions we’ve had the most luck with. These can be your inspiration, or you can take them word-for-word. We won’t know! Our hope is that they help you build a better team for your coffee shop.
Tell me about a time you received negative feedback.
How did you handle it? What did you learn from the experience?
What this question tells you: How does this person handle criticism and uncomfortable conversations?
If you ask any question on this list, let it be this one. Critical feedback is an unavoidable part of any job, and working with someone unwilling to take feedback directs a ton of stress back at you as the owner/manager. Especially in a coffee shop, sometimes feedback needs to be given in the heat of a stressful situation. You need someone who can take the feedback and make things less stressful, not more.
This question can also help you gauge an applicant’s maturity. Working with someone who is petty or holds grudges is exhausting, but usually you can ferret out people like that with this question. We’ve encountered plenty of older folks who don’t handle criticism as well as certain young adults, so don’t assume age equals maturity either.
Have you ever worked on a team project where someone wasn’t contributing as much as the others?
How did you handle it?
What this question tells you: How is this person’s work ethic, and how do they treat others with different work ethics?
It would be great if everyone you hired gave 100% effort all the time, but it’s just not going to happen. You could get upset at this, or you could build a team that encourages each other and picks up the occasional slack for other members of the team.
As the candidate answers this question, pay attention to what tasks were and weren’t done. Usually, you can tell if the candidate is a hard worker or a bit of a slacker themselves. For example, they might say “We had to do a project and were each assigned three slides. I got mine in a week early, but one of my partners still hadn’t done them on the night before the presentation was due.” In that case, you can reasonably expect the candidate to be a proactive and hardworking person because they turned in their portion ahead of schedule.
If you hear something like, “We all got them in the night before, but then we had to wait on one of the group members,” that might indicate that the candidate will do a reasonably good job, but is perhaps not as proactive. This is not an inherently bad trait. Someone who can take direction and do exactly what you ask is a great asset on your team. It’s just useful to start thinking about how you might manage the applicant if you hire them.
The other insight to gain from this question is of course how the candidate works on a team. Are they compassionate towards the underperforming group member, or annoyed? And more importantly, how did they address it? A response like “I ended up doing their part for them,” certainly means the candidate is hardworking and capable, but is not super encouraging for their performance on a team. It might not be an outright rejection, but you’ll certainly have to keep that in mind when managing.
A more ideal response would be something like “I reached out the group member and made sure they were doing okay. I also helped format their slides so it was easier for them to finish”. This response shows the applicant is supportive and able to identify tasks that are helpful to others without pushing themself to do two whole jobs.
Tell me about a time you experienced bad customer service.
Why was it bad? If you were in that role what would you have done differently?
What this question tells you: Does this person have a sense for customer service? Are they passionate about it?
Being able to identify a problem with something is much easier than being able to fully describe something. If a candidate is able to identify qualities they don’t like in customer service, that’s an excellent start to building proactive skills.
As the candidate answers this question, first see if you agree that what they describe as a problem, is actually a problem. Ask followup questions if you need to. A “rude” barista can mean a lot of things. What about the interaction was rude? As much as possible, try to get the candidate to be specific about what the example they bring up.
When it comes to what they would have done differently, it matters less that they say what you would want them to do and more that they have the right idea. Maybe you don’t want your employees to hand out free drink vouchers easily, but that’s still the right direction. You can always coach specifics, but it’s much harder to change mindsets.
It’s also not necessarily a red flag if the applicant gets fired up about a small customer service injustice. This passion can be channeled into delivering amazing service in your own shop.
What does customer service mean to you?
What this question tells you: The flip side of the previous question, how does this person think about customer service?
This question is a little harder than the last one, but it’s also more open ended. There’s not really a right answer, but this question is meant to show you the candidate’s mindset. Ultimately, customer service is a soft skill that can mean different things in different situations. Describing things like making customers’ days better, being friendly and efficient, or making each customer feel catered to are all good signs. Any indication that they view customer service as a burden is not such a good sign. The more excited your employees are to be interacting with people and facilitating excellent transactions, the better your coffee shop experience will be.
To be clear, no one can be on the ball all the time, and it’s important to acknowledge that. What matters is a desire to make a difference for customers instead of seeing customers as simply a means to show off coffee skills.
This position involves a lot of cleaning.
Are you okay with that?
What this question tells you: Is this person willing to do all parts of the job?
Coming back to the beginning of this article, the best questions you can ask are concretely about the job. This is a simple question, but it’s vitally important. New and experienced baristas can both develop an attitude about cleaning. We find it’s actually more common in experienced baristas. Objectively, a lot of work in a coffee shop involves keeping it clean. Cleaning is often gross and tiring, so this question is making sure the candidate is prepared for that.
More broadly, it signals a willingness to get things done. Coffee shops are almost always made up of small teams, so there really isn’t room for an employee who isn’t willing to switch tasks when needed. Someone may be able to pull amazing shots and pour fantastic latte art, but that’s really only half (at best) of the job. You’re always better off hiring someone with a desire to learn and a willingness to help than someone who is skilled but turns their nose up at doing anything but making coffee.