The 3 Most Important Things I Know About Consumers I Learned From Bartending

#1 — it’s never really about the product

My day job is in digital marketing. By night, I bartend.

And it’s kind of remarkable how consistent the two are — mostly because:

People are people.

1. It’s never really about the product

People don’t drink because they need alcohol. People drink to socialize, to kill time, to have fun, to fit in, to numb their existential crisis. They drink to feel something — or stop feeling something. (This is true even for people who make alcohol for a living — some of my area’s local brewery and distillery owners sometimes pop into the bar on their nights off, and even they drink simply to take a load off, not for the drink itself. Everyone does.)

Conversely, my previous business was in women’s clothing. Not a single one of my customers actually and truly needed another dress. They were all solving for some other problem — to feel important, to feel beautiful, to feel special, to feel more comfortable or confident in her skin, to feel younger or more sophisticated or whatever else. This was the case even when I worked with other women in the industry, who lived and breathed clothing — as products — every day. When it came time to dress themselves, they were the same as all of us. It’s never about the clothes — the clothes are simply a means to an ends, and solving for other, bigger problems.

It’s the same with any product. Unless you are selling electricity or heat or the absolute most basic of food and clothing to someone in dire straits, you are never, ever selling a product. And the need is never what it seems.

Understanding these needs goes a long way. You almost never want to speak or market directly in terms of these needs, because it freaks people out and breaks the “magic” of what they’re doing, but understanding the deeper motivations goes a long way in building rapport.

2. People want to be guided

People don’t want to do the heavy lifting of decision-making. Very rarely do customers come to the table knowing exactly what they want — and if they do, it’s either because (a) they’ve built experience in the subject matter or, more likely, (b) already received input from some other source ahead of time (i.e., “my friend told me…” or “I heard…”)

Outside of this, most people want guidance.

a. People want to know your expertise

“What do you recommend?”

This is by far the number one question I get asked — as both a bartender and in my day job in digital marketing.

People know that this is your domain. They know you see countless exchanges just like this one every single day. They trust your expertise. And, most importantly, they trust this more than they want to entrust themselves with the responsibility of deciding.

To be honest, this question can be a bit frustrating at the bar, mostly because it’s usually asked cold—i.e., the first thing the customer says to you, with no further context. So I always counter, “what do you like?” Because we gotta start somewhere, people — a whiskey and a pina colada are very different drinks, and I would never recommend one to the other’s crowd.

At the day job, it’s easier — because (a) you almost always have some context — you at least know what their business does before they ask this — and (b) when it comes down to it, there are infinitely fewer options. The power is really in the execution.

But either way, people are always looking for your recommendation.

b. People want to know what everyone else is doing

“What do others do?”

Again, one of the most common questions I hear at both the bar and at my day job. I’d estimate the most popular drink at the bar accounts for 30–50% of the cocktails we pour. And almost everyone who orders it does so because they heard it was the most popular.

The funny thing about this is that it’s circular and self-fulfilling. The “most popular” has a good chance of staying the most popular, because the minute people hear this, they want to have it, too.

Of course, for those paying attention at home: this also means you can “create” a “most popular” item simply by telling people that it’s the most popular. This is sometimes the truth behind “featured products” lists.

Social proof is a powerful thing. And with great power comes great responsibility.

3. Consistency vs. Novelty


On the one hand, people love consistency. They want to believe that they are consistent — and will often continue historical behavior in order to demonstrate this — and they want consistency in their environments. They want to understand what they’re getting into.

You can pretty much always tell when it’s someone’s first time in the bar, because they’ve always got a look on their face like they’ve never been out in public before and they smell dog poop. They don’t hear the bartenders’ greeting. They don’t know where to sit. They look at the menu like they can’t read and they glaze over looking at the wall of booze and beer. They’re lost, they’re disoriented, and they need foothold.

This is probably how people feel when they first interact with a brand online — each time acting as though they’ve never used the internet before. And a look on their face like it smells like dog poop.

Customers want rapport with you. And themselves.

Regulars are confident; secure; happy. They walk in and they know where they want to sit. They know where the bathroom is. They know your name. And most importantly, they know what they want to order — even if it’s different than last time. Because their drink is an extension of their personality, mood, or needs, and it’s important to them that the two are consistent; that one serves and satisfies the other. And that you’ll get them there.


If you put something in front of people, they will engage with it.

I was recently working from a (different) bar while on a business trip (for the day job), having a beer and minding my own. It was mid-afternoon, so the place was pretty empty. But it was a knock-off of one of those big-box restaurants, this one “Caribbean” themed, so the bartender was making mixed drinks.

I’m not a fan of mixed drinks. And I’m definitely not a fan of free sample (srsly — don’t make it weird.) But I’ll be damned if when she set a few ounces of the extra from her most recent concoction down in front of me, I didn’t down that white, syrup mystery like I’d ordered it.

People love new shit.

I definitely get this question — “what’s new?” — a lot more in my day job. Clients always want to know what new functionality we offer that we didn’t last time we all met — and, more specifically:

“Can you give me a taste of what others’ are ordering?”

“What else you guys making?”

“What am I missing out on?”

And it trickles right down to their customers, who have come to expect that each time they hit your site, there will be something new. That’s consistent and the same.

People love new. They love novelty.

Free Shit, Full Prices, Rapport and Reciprocation

Now’s as good a time as any to include a note about “free shit.”

People love free shit. They love beer samples. They love giveaways. They love discounts.

When companies — and bartenders — give little shit away, it gets people engaged, and it inspires them to come back and spend, through the power of reciprocity. They feel like you guys really had something special.

The caveat, however, is that it has to seem targeted, special, and unexpected. If customers know that you’re giving everyone a sample of beer — or 10% off — the magic is broken. They’re definitely still going to reciprocate — but it’s going to be in like-kind. They’re going to treat you as a source for discounts. If you want this, awesome — seems like it’s working fine for Costco. But if you don’t want this, tread lightly. Build the relationship instead — or alongside.

There’s a little local deli two blocks away from our office, and a group of us go there for lunch almost every day. They make good sandwiches, the prices are good, and the employees always remember us — and our orders.

I had heard that they had “get a free sandwich on us!” cards floating around — at least one of my colleagues had received one — but they don’t hand them out like candy. They don’t shove them in your face as you walk by on the sidewalk; they aren’t laying around on the counter. They are given person to person, probably with first names used, and unexpectedly. And when I finally got one, on probably my 100th visit, it was simply icing on the cake — an almost superfluous acknowledgement — and not something I was grabby for.

People want to like you

And they want you to like them. And perhaps most importantly, they want others to like them. And they want to like themselves.

The closer you help them get to all of these goals, the closer you are to your goals as well.

This story is published in The Startup, where 258,400+ people come together to read Medium’s leading stories on entrepreneurship.

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