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ESTABLISHING CONFIDENCE: Product Knowledge Is Essential In Selling To Informed Clients

by Len Rashkin
Posted On: 9/2/2010

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office coffee service, OCS, Len Rashkin, office refreshments, office coffee delivery service, OCS business, OCS sales training, sales training, vending, vending machine, vending machine business, coffee education

Several years ago, while I was conducting a sales training seminar for an OCS company, one of the participants asked, "Why do I need to know about coffee and tea, and how they are grown and processed? I just sell what my customer wants." My internal response was to ask myself, "How successful can this salesman be with that shortsighted attitude?"

And then it occurred to me that this had been my attitude, too, for many years. There is a good answer to his question, but just like him, I saw no reason to develop coffee and tea knowledge when these products simply were called "coffee and tea" years ago.

Looking back, before all of the specialty coffee cafés and shops -- Starbucks, Gloria Jean's, Tully's, Seattle's Best, Timothy's, First Cup and Barney's, among all the other wonderful places -- consumers in the U.S. and Canada had little knowledge about these beverages. Their understanding of coffee generally was limited to the idea that it usually came from Central or South America. There were two types of coffee, regular and decaffeinated. The most noted producing country that branded its quality coffee was Colombia. The spokesperson and logo for the Colombian Coffee Federation was Juan Valdez, standing beside his donkey.

Now a new breed of entrepreneur enters the coffee arena: it's the OCS operator. Operators are now selling nationally and regionally branded coffee to their office clientele. Eventually, local and regional roasters came up with "private label" coffee packed in fractional-pound packages with the coffee service's name on the label. The advantage was that it was good quality without the national brand marketing expense, which reduced the cost per pound. Operators now had their own brand and it was mostly 100% Colombian coffee, regular and decaf. Life was good and simple for the operator; he sold only a few different national or regional blends or his own brand.

Coffee service customers were not demanding. If the coffee tasted okay and was reasonably priced, their employees would have a nice free perk in the office and not have to leave the office to get coffee.

You already know the history of the cafés' expansion, and how every street corner in the big cities sprouted a coffee shop. Most colleges and universities opened cafés where their students would sip their favorite brew while socializing or studying for exams. Workers on the way to their offices would wait on line to get specialty coffees and espresso-based drinks. The coffee-drinking public had now developed a different taste profile for coffee; the coffee in the office did not taste as good as before.

Therefore, office managers and buyers began to ask for something different, and if the operators were slow to respond (or did not respond at all), coffee sales in the office began to slow. So operators started to feel the loss of fractional-pack usage as employees stopped at the cafés on the way to work and left the office at lunchtime to get their favorite brew.

OCS providers responded to this challenge, and worked with their roasters to become more competitive by offering a range of higher-quality coffees. Offices now could order Full City Roast, French Roast, Vienna Roast, Mocha Java, Brazilian Santos, and on and on, from their coffee service providers. Frac-packs were now being offered in a variety of heavier weights. The coffee revolution was here. The next item to be promoted and developed was tea. This beverage's recent history has paralleled coffee's.

Single-cup brewers came on the market, and an abundance of "straight" coffees and teas, along with their blends, were being marketed to offices -- everything from regular, decaf, flavored, specialty, hot chocolate, lattes, cappuccinos and even soups.

Now, back to the question, "why know about coffee and tea?" The answer is simple: Because most office decision-makers now are knowledgeable about coffee and tea. Therefore, you, as a sales representative, must know more, to appear professional and to be able to answer questions about your products.

One of the largest clothing companies here on the East Coast has a motto, "An educated consumer is our best customer." But an educated consumer requires a well-informed sales representative.

Here is a brief scenario that has taken place many times while presenting OCS.  A sales rep sits down with a decision-maker, and the buyer requests a good cup of coffee for his employees. The salesperson suggests a full-bodied French roast, and the buyer inquires why it will cost more for this coffee over the 100% Colombian coffee they are now using. If the rep answers, "I don't know," what do you suppose the buyer is going to think? But, if the rep explains the following:

"Our French roast is roasted longer to get it darker, and there is something called 'shrinkage' -- the beans lose a percentage of their weight as their moisture content is reduced by the extended roasting time. And the longer the roast, the more fuel is needed to run the roaster. But the process creates a taste profile by bringing the sugars in the beans to the surface, sometimes referred to as caramelizing, producing a very rich robust taste in the final brew in your cup. Mr. Buyer, can you see now why our French roast is a bit more expensive?"

So, if you were the buyer, do you think that you would feel that that your salesperson knew what they were talking about? Would you want to do business with a professional? I think the answers are obvious.

If you have any suggestions for future articles or would like to say hello, please contact me at (516) 241-4883 or OCSconsultant@aol.com.


LEN RASHKIN is a pioneer in office coffee service. He founded Coffee Sip in 1968 and after 22 years merged it with Dell Coffee, of which he became president in 1991. Sales at Dell topped $7 million dollars. Rashkin is also a founder and officer of Eastern Coffee Service Association and National Beverage Products Association. His industry honors include NCSA's (now NAMA) Silver Service Award and NBPA's Lifetime Achievement Award; he was inducted into NBPA's Hall of Fame in 1996. His marketing excellence earned him NBPA's Crystal Bean Award and three NCSA Java Awards. He is a frequent speaker at national and local trade conferences, consults on OCS sales and marketing and has is the author of two OCS training programs.