I was sitting in my new favorite coffee shop, Tampered Press, when the ambient noise typical of such a place was broken by a patron who was very upset with the owner.

  “You shouldn’t allow people like him in here.”

She was referring to a man with mental health challenges who frequented the place. Like everyone else in the shop at the time, I waited to see how the owner would respond. 

  “Doug is part of our community,” she responded, in a calm and confident tone. “If you don’t think he should be here, you’re welcome to visit the other coffee shops in the area.” 

With that, Caitlin put a stake in the ground. That’s how she chose to tell the woman that her business was values-driven and if the woman wasn’t aligned with those values, she wasn’t Caitlin’s ideal client. That moment has always stood out for me. Not only was Caitlin telling the woman what she stood for, but she was also communicating it to everyone else in the store. Tampered Press is a west Toronto landmark where Caitlin hasn’t simply built a good coffee shop, she has built a great community.

My very first experience of the coffee shop was only about a month before the incident with the disgruntled woman. I had just moved to the neighbourhood and had begun exploring the area. I didn’t yet know Caitlin, but I got a drink from her, sat at a table and began working. Sometime later, a man walked in who was clearly someone who struggled with mental health. I was curious about what would happen next. The man asked Caitlin for a coffee in exchange for a bus token and, with no hesitation, she gave it to him. I was surprised by how seamless the entire interaction was. It would turn out that the man frequented the shop.

My own introduction to the store demonstrates how she was always focused on engaging her clients. I moved to Toronto in September. After a few visits to the Tampered Press, Caitlin had learned I was new to Toronto and, by the time October came around, she knew I didn’t have any plans for Thanksgiving. So, she invited me to what she lovingly called her “orphans dinner”. For almost two years, I frequented that coffee shop and to this day if someone is in the west end and they ask if I know any coffee shops, I recommend Tampered Press. I continue to frequent the place long after I moved out of the neighbourhood.

Caitlin quickly engaged me as a client by asking questions and being genuinely curious about who I was and what my story was. Today, I remain invested in her success because she invested in mine.

Since the arrival of the COVID-19 threat, people in the neighbourhood have been going out of their way to buy coffee and baked goods they have so come to love. Her customers are committed to her success because she has been sowing the seeds of client engagement for more than a decade. Client engagement appears nowhere on her balance sheet and it has yet to be determined if Caitlin’s business will survive COVID-19. What is clear is that Caitlin’s highly engaged clients improve her chances of survival. Though it may not have been her conscious motivation, Caitlin has long spent her time building resilience by investing in the people and community she serves. Building and maintaining a base of highly engaged clients is simple, if not always easy, and there are some surprisingly simple things any of us can do.

Operationalize your values. 

When Caitlin chose to welcome those with obvious mental health challenges into her shop, she was operationalizing her values. She was clear about wanting to build a community space. Over the years, Caitlin has run food drives and toy drives for various causes. She has allowed the vendors in the farmers market across the street to use her toilets. I saw one guy keep his fish in her freezer until his customers could collect them.

Create an experience for the people you serve. 

Caitlin knows many of her customers by name. She knows their stories and what their children are up to. She remembers their drinks. When people come to her, they not only get coffee, they quite literally walk into a community. They become part of an experience. 

Ask questions and listen.

We teach our clients to master the conversational environment. Caitlin’s genuine curiosity for the well-being of her customers is obvious. She and I had some interesting conversations during my early visits to her shop. Why did I move to Toronto? Where was I from? What was I working on so intently at my table? She soon introduced me to others she thought I had things in common with. Through those conversations, I moved from being a transient customer to someone who felt seen, heard, and understood. I belonged.

When you take the time to connect with clients you not only build a business based on relationships, you increase your business resilience. In business, as in life, unexpected things happen all the time. No matter what, mistakes get made and customers become dissatisfied. When you engage your clients, you create a buffer of forgiveness for those inevitable mistakes. Wholeheartedly engaging with clients builds your resilience.

A friend once sent me a quote by Henry Ward Beecher: “‎Hold yourself responsible for a higher standard than anybody else expects of you. Never excuse yourself. Never pity yourself. Be a hard master to yourself—and be lenient to everybody else.” When it comes to engaging your clients, hold yourself to a higher standard because, if you take the time to invest in them, when you need them most they’ll come to bat for you.