How coffee taught me how to be a consumer advocate

Amenic181/Shutterstock
Amenic181/Shutterstock

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?

View Results

Loading ... Loading ...

Underwritten by

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by AirportParkingReservations.com

With nearly 20 years in the industry, over 128 airport covered in the U.S. and Canada, and over 1,000 Hotel and Parking Partners-we provide travelers the best options on how to get to the airport when flying. Whether you want to; drive yourself and park near an Airport (Airport Parking), stay the night before your flight at an airport hotel and leave your car (Hotel and Parking Package), or take a shared Shuttle/Private Car/Limo to the Airport- we got you covered. The best deals can be found online, and booking a reservation has never been easier. You can explore all of our options by visiting us at AirportParkingReservations.com, ParkSleepFly.com, AirportParking.com, and ShuttleFinder.com.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Cavalry Travel Insurance

Cavalry takes the worry of out travel by providing 24/7 access to medical and security professionals combined with the best medical evacuation and security extraction services. Cavalry gets you home safely when you need it most. Learn more at Cavalrytravelinsurance.com.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Seven Corners

Seven Corners has helped customers all over the world with travel difficulties, big and small. As one of the few remaining privately owned travel insurance companies, Seven Corners provides insurance plans and 24/7 travel assistance services to more than a million people each year. Because we’re privately held, we can focus on the customer without the constraints that larger companies have. Visit Seven Corners to learn more.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Sodexo North America

Sodexo North America Sodexo North America is part of a global, Fortune 500 company with a presence in 80 countries. Sodexo is a leading provider of integrated food, facilities management and other services that enhance organizational performance, contribute to local communities and improve quality of life for millions of customers in corporate, education, healthcare, senior living, sports and leisure, government and other environments daily. Learn more at Sodexoinsights.com.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Travelex Insurance Services

Travelex Insurance Services is a leading travel insurance provider in the United States with over 55 years combined industry expertise of helping people dream, explore and travel with confidence. We offer comprehensive travel insurance plans with optional upgrades allowing travelers to customize the plans to fit their needs. Compare plans, get a quote and buy online at Travelexinsurance.com.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by AirHelp

AirHelp is the world’s leading flight delays compensation company, helping passengers apply for compensation following a delayed or canceled flight or when boarding has been denied. It is AirHelp’s mission to fight for passenger rights by holding airlines accountable for flights disruptions that are out of passengers’ control. AirHelp has already helped 5 million people, taking the stress out of applying for compensation and making it as hassle-free as possible for travelers around the world.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Allianz Travel Insurance

The Allianz Travel Insurance company has built its reputation on partnering with agents all around the world to provide comprehensive travel insurance for their clients. Contact Allianz Travel Insurance for a comprehensive list of coverage.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Chubb

Chubb is the world’s largest publicly traded property and casualty insurance company, and recognized as the premier provider of insurance for successful individuals and families in the U.S. and selected international markets, offering coverage for high-value automobile, homeowners, recreational marine/aviation, valuables and umbrella liability coverage. As an underwriting company, Chubb assesses, assumes and manages risk with insight and discipline, and combines the precision of craftsmanship with decades of experience to conceive, craft and deliver the best insurance coverage and services to individuals, families and business of all size.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Fareportal

Fareportal’s portfolio of brands, which include  CheapOair and  OneTravel, are dedicated to helping customers enjoy their trip. Whether you want to call, click, or use one of our travel apps, one thing is clear: We make it easy to take it easy.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Insuremyrentalcar.com

An independent provider of low cost CDW/LDW insurance for use with rental cars. Up to $100,000 cover with no deductible. Policies available on a per day, per trip or per year basis. Also works with overseas rentals. Try  Insuremyrentalcar.comnow.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by G1G.com

Since its inception over three decades ago, G1G has continued to revolutionize the travel insurance industry by being the only aggregator to operate a customer portal, placing all of the user's primary needs in one place. We have continued to innovate and disrupt the market by reimagining the way travel insurance can be delivered to the end user in ways no competition can. Simply put, no one knows the market as well as its founders and no one else shares G1G values and mission.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Mediacom Communications

The nation’s fifth-largest cable operator, serving the smaller cities and towns in the Midwest and Southern regions of the United States. We are a high-performance broadband, entertainment, and communications company that brings the power of modern technology and quality customer experience to life inside the connected home by combining ultra-fast gigabit speeds with personalized local and over-the-top entertainment choices that fit your lifestyle. Details at  Mediacomcable.com.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Arch RoamRight

Arch RoamRight is one of the fastest growing, most-highly rated travel insurance companies in the United States. Travel advisors love working with us, and travelers feel protected with our trip cancellation and travel medical insurance coverage. We also make it easy to file a claim online with our fast, paperless claims website. Learn more about RoamRight travel insurance.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Virtuoso

The leading global network for luxury and experiential travel. This invitation-only organization comprises over 1,000 travel agency locations with 17,500 advisors in over 45 countries, and holds preferred relationships with 1,700 of the world’s finest travel companies. Virtuoso advisors collaborate with their clients to create personalized itineraries featuring exclusive perks, while also providing advice, access, advocacy, and accountability. For more information, visit  Virtuoso.com.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by VisitorsCoverage

As a company that is constantly striving to simplify travel insurance, VisitorsCoverage, is on a mission to help travelers make the better decisions about purchasing travel insurance, quickly. VisitorsCoverage has helped millions of travelers globally to buy the suitable travel insurance and explore the world with confidence. Get insurance for your next trip at  VisitorsCoverage. Lowest Price Guaranteed.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by MedjetAssist

Medjet is the premier global air-medical transport, travel security and crisis response membership program for travelers. With a MedjetAssist membership, if you become hospitalized more than 150 miles from home, we will get you from that unfamiliar hospital all the way home to the hospital you trust. All you ever pay is your membership fee. MedjetHorizon members add 24/7 personal security and crisis response benefits. Elliott.org readers enjoy discounted rates. Travel safer with  MedjetAssist.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Southwest Airlines

The mission of Southwest Airlines is dedication to the highest quality of Customer Service delivered with a sense of warmth, friendliness, individual pride, and Company Spirit. We are committed to provide our Employees a stable work environment with equal opportunity for learning and personal growth.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by TravelInsurance.com

TravelInsurance.com makes it fast and easy to compare and buy travel insurance online from top rated providers. Our unbiased comparison engine allows travelers to read reviews, compare pricing and benefits and buy the right policy with a price guarantee, every time. Compare and buy travel insurance now at  TravelInsurance.com.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Squaremouth

Squaremouth helps travelers easily and instantly compare travel insurance policies from all major providers. Only companies that meet the strict requirements of Squaremouth’s Zero Complaint Guarantee are available on the website. Compare policies on  Squaremouth.com to save over 70 percent on your next purchase.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Travel Leaders Group

Travel Leaders Group is transforming travel through its progressive approach toward each unique travel experience. Travel Leaders Group assists millions of travelers through its leisure, business and network travel operations under a variety of diversified divisions and brands including All Aboard Travel, Andrew Harper Travel, Colletts Travel, Corporate Travel Services, CruCon Cruise Outlet, Cruise Specialists, Nexion, Protravel International, SinglesCruise.com, Travel Leaders Corporate, Travel Leaders Network and Tzell Travel Group, and its merger with ALTOUR. With more than 7,000 agency locations and 52,000 travel advisors, Travel Leaders Group ranks as one of the industry’s largest retail travel agency companies.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Travelers United

If you’ve been mistreated by the airlines, Travelers United is your voice in Washington. Join the #1 travel advocacy organization working with Congress to improve and protect travelers. Plus, get $400 of annual benefits you can use for travel for only $29/year. Add your voice to ours. Make travel better.  Join today.

Send this to a friend