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Teaching Staff About Tea

There's an ancient Fujian saying, "No one ever learns everything there is to know about tea." Isn't this lovely pursuit one of the reasons you're in the tea business?

By now, of course, you have discovered that a teashop or tearoom cannot be a one-person experience, you need qualified, educated staff, and consistent, regular training is the key, especially about tea itself.

Ask yourself these questions:

  • How much does your staff know about tea in general, and your inventory specifically?
  • Can they define the teas listed on your menu without looking at the menu?
  • Would they be able to conduct a tea tasting in the shop?
  • Could you send them to an event to represent your business?

  • All of these are big requests to ask of your staff, but it's a win-win situation when they can. As your staff gains confidence, expertise, and the pleasures from tasting a variety of our favorite beverage, you get a knowledgeable staff willing and eager to interact with your customers, and generate sales. Here are some specific ideas to help.

    Host Regular Staff Tea Tastings
    This is the easiest, simplest way to make sure that your staff gains experience tasting teas, learning the many ways to brew tea, and becoming familiar with your marketing message for tea.

    You can do comparison tastings of greens with greens, oolongs with oolongs, blacks with blacks, pu-erhs with pu-erhs, whites with whites. Taste scented or flavored teas with similar unscented and unflavored teas to give everyone an idea of how the additions enhance or overpower the basic teas.

    Meetings can be quarterly, weekly, monthly or whatever suits your schedule. They should always be conducted on company time, during regular business hours so that staff understands that learning about tea is a part of their job. The meetings needn't be long; fifteen to thirty minutes is plenty of time to taste a new tea, go over new products or additions to the menu, or take questions.

    If you have a large enough shop, do the tastings off the floor and in a quiet space where staff can utilize all their senses to enjoy the experience of the tea. Ask your senior employee to oversee the shop while you train the other staff.

    If, however, your place is too small to train the staff all at one time in one place, conduct smaller groups or even one-on-one tea tasting demos throughout the day in your office or backroom. Taking the time and effort to acquaint staff with tea, and helping them understand its many delights is a very inexpensive investment that will provide long-range, profitable results for all of you.

    Regularly-scheduled meetings are a good opportunity to discuss what is selling, and what is not and why; how to improve the inventory; how to meet the customers' needs; how to improve the tea tastings themselves, and of course, answer any and all other questions the staff may have about tea.

    Let Staff Learn Outside The Shop
    Some people by attending tea tastings and other demonstrations, and others learn best by practicing the art of tea in the privacy of their own homes, reading about it, or viewing videos and other visual art. Encourage all avenues that lead to increased knowledge about tea, such as:

    Giving staff samples of teas for them to taste at home. This is an excellent way for them to get really comfortable with brewing techniques and the variables of brewing times and tea quantities for their "perfect cup".

    Keep samples of equipment you sell available for staff to take the home to experiment with them. The more familiar and comfortable they are using the equipment, the easier it will be to sell them to customers. And, yes, it's fine for them to appreciate teas different than your favorites; the point is to help them to embrace tea as an integral, important part of their lives. Long after they leave your employ they can continue to be tea buyers!

    Invite one or two staff members with you when you shop for teas, attend seminars, conventions or other outside activities involving tea.

    Involve staff in the books you have for sale about tea. Select exceptional tea books and make them store copies. Loan them out to interested salespeople to take them home to study at their leisure. They will not only learn more, they'll have experience with the books and can suggest them to customers who want to learn more about tea and you'll have increased sales.

    Invite Experts In To Teach
    Ask your vendors if they conduct in-store demonstrations; many offer training tools from videos to printed handouts and they should be available to answer any questions you have about their teas or accessory items.

    Before you plan special events, invite experts in the field in to train your staff about experiences from the Taiwan gung fu or Japanese chanoyu tea ceremonies to the innovations in cooking with tea, making crafts with teabags or dried teas.

    These will be fun for your staff to experience, give them additional information when you stage the event at the store, and widen their perspective about the world of tea.

    Prepare An In-House Tea Primer
    No matter who is minding the store, answers to customers' questions should be available at all times.

    One of the key tools is a handy primer. You can develop your own based on your particular inventory of teas, separating them into categories of processing (green, black, etc.) and include a list of your packaged teas, too.

    Keep one primer in a three-ring notebook under the counter for reference by salespeople, and give each staff member their own binder to take home to study at their leisure.

    Create A Faq List Of "Frequently Asked Questions"
    Add this list to your primer binder. On this list should be the answers to common questions, such as:

  • How much caffeine does this tea have?
  • What makes green tea green?
  • Why don't all blacks taste the same?
  • How much tea should I use for a cup? For a party of twenty?
  • How long should I brew my tea?
  • How hot should the water be?
  • Should I use bottled or tap water?
  • Can I brew this tea in the microwave?
  • Will this tea taste good iced?
  • My tea gets cloudy, what should I do?
  • I hate to throw leftover tea out; do you have any suggestions for what to do with it?

  • Keep a list of "Unusual Questions" in the primer book. This allows the staff to share with others questions they were not able to answer and you can then include them in your FAQ List. You can discuss them at the next meeting.

    Role Play!
    Playacting is a fun and important teaching tool for new staff and the best technique to discover if your staff has actually learned the material, prior to sending them onto the floor.

    Have a few be "customers" and others be "salespeople" and let them interact. You'll be delighted at the questions the "customers" will ask and how the "salespeople" answers them will give you a good idea what, if anything, needs to be repeated.

    Using the primer as a guide, staff "customers" can use it to help "salespeople" learn the answers to questions they will surely be asked every day. By repeating these questions, and asking their own, all the staff will become increasingly knowledgeable and more confident about tea.

    Recreate your actual tea promotions. For example, you can have a thermos of brewed "tea of the day" and have staff serve and be served, provide information about the tea, and ask and answer questions about this particular tea. (This is a great idea when introducing a new tea to the shop.)

    Or, have staff select a canister or two or tea, and offer it for the "customers" to see and sniff, and talk about the attributes of that tea, and answer questions.

    If you have literally hundreds of teas, make it easy on everyone, and attach a 3x5 card on the inside of the lid with tea name, origin, processing type, suggested quantity to use per cup, brewing temperature, brewing time, and any anecdotal information that is appropriate.

    Some staff will have remarkable memories for minutiae and others need a "crib sheet." The goal is to make it easy for staff to answer the questions of customers. You want to make sure that information is available whenever and wherever they need it.

    Rate Your Training
    Former New York Mayor Ed Koch was famous for always asking his constituents, "How am I doing?" If you do the same, you'll get the same result: answers will keep you driving on the path to having the best-trained staff around.

    In between tea tasting meetings, continue to ask staff if the information on tea is sufficient. What questions do they have? Is practicing with tea at home help?

    You should see an increase in excitement about tea that will translate into a staff eager to share what they have learned about tea with customers.

    Ask your customers, too, what they want/need in the way of information and add these ideas to your training meetings.

    Tea is a simple pleasure but a complex subject. By training your staff to savor all the complexities of tea you empower them to be people your customers can trust to provide the right information to make the most educated tea buying decisions.

    Adagio Teas has a tea training site. Your staff can log in, learn about tea and the site will track their progress. You can have access to the results to make sure they are "studying."

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