Wednesday, April 7, 2010

French Customer Service: An Oxymoron?

I can't even count how many times I have heard the complaint, from expats living in Paris and visitors alike: "The French! They have NO sense of customer service!" Well, as a Frenchman, I can safely say that there is no point in trying to debunk that.
(This article was written by my husband, who is French, and was meant to share some cultural trips with foreigners wanting to travel to France...):

Customer service in France is a challenge. Their perspective on it is so foreign to travelers. "They ignore you! They don't smile! They're grumpy!" - clearly, every interaction with a customer service clerk ends with a fight, not getting what you want, and leaving with a sense of frustration.

Don't get me wrong: I'm not going to claim that customer service in France is good, and that every foreigner (and many French people) who ever left a store with a grunt of exasperation is wrong. But with a little perspective and understanding, one can save oneself the frustration, and even sometimes get their way.

Please note that I am not talking about restaurant and café waiters here: they constitute a class on their own. With a dining protocol that is so complicated (and highly observed) that only the most proper etiquette expert would not get frowned upon by the staff, one is always bound to commit a faux-pas so horrible that it will draw raised eyebrows and contemptuous scoffs. Add the exercise in patience that waiters often have to engage into when customers make long requests in a foreign language during the rush, and you'll certainly cut them some slack.

In a store or behind a desk, customer service clerks don't have that excuse. They do, however, have cultural reasons for not being cheery, overly friendly, and extremely helpful like in the U.S..

The first is that a lot of people in France don't define themselves by their job. They don't really relate to their employer, don't identify with their company, and don't care about the image that they give of the brand they represent. Work is only a means to a completely different end, which is spending as much time as possible eating vast quantities of cheese, drinking wine, smoking cigarettes, and generally not being at work. They don't want to be there, they only do it so that they can do something else, hopefully as soon as possible. Surely you can't expect them to pretend that they like it!

The second is that ultimately, France is socialist country, where people refuse to be subservient. They reject the idea that they have to do something for someone who demands it as a right; they only accept to do something if they want to do it. Since 1789, we value our right to not obey demands, and we think that those who make those demands should consider themselves happy that the guillotine was abolished.

So with that in mind, how do we interact with customer service agents? First and foremost, one has to change their expectations. By comparing every encounter with how it would have been back home, we're sure to end up frustrated - that is true of every encounter, in any foreign country. Seeing it as a "customer interaction" rather than "customer service" may not improve it, but at least it will lessen the resulting frustration.

The trick to possibly improve the service, however, is to try and etablish a personal rapport with the agent, if possible. Appeal to their emotions, rather than their duties; make smalltalk, crack a joke or two, be friendly (without taking too much of their time, if they have other people to tend to). Tell them about how awful that other store/office/branch/etc is, and how relieved you are to be here. Bring them on your side, you and them against The Man, whom they probably don't like anyway (because The Man underpays them, doesn't give them enough vacation, doesn't let them smoke at work and imposes silly rules like "you have to say hello to EVERYBODY"). If they feel talked to like a person rather than a servant, chances are the initial "no" will turn into a "possibly" and soon into an "of course". The angrier you get however, or the more you demand a service or threaten to call their manager, the more they'll resist, tell you how their hands are tied (they rarely are), and start looking at you like they're going to start a petition to reinstate the right to chase aristocrats and foreigners with pitchforks.

The ultimate strategy is to try and become a regular; then you're sure to get better-than-average service, even by U.S. standards. Go to the same bakery every day, have a friendly chit-chat with the same clerk, and you'll be sure to be called by name after a few weeks and get the freshest baguette they have.

But getting to that point is rare and difficult; most of the time, the best strategy is to choose to not get aggravated by the agent's lack of desire to be helpful. And to keep in mind that this treatment is not only reserved to foreigners - we French get it too. Just a few days ago I walked into a salon de thé, where a young lady was at a table doing crosswords. Not being greeted or helped, I stood by the door, waiting for someone to come in from the back room... after a few minutes, I asked the lady if someone was working there - she got up with a scoff and said "well duh, yeah, me, can I help you?". I'll let you imagine what went through my head.

This case was particularly bad, though. Usually, with a little friendliness one can get a fairly pleasant interaction. And it's all a matter of different perspectives: to me as a French person, I feel that the customer service in the U.S. is just the result of training and conditioning, that there are strict guidelines as to what to do and what to say, but that the agents are just going through the motions, to avoid being fired. One can agree or not with this perspective; but I must admit that at least it's more pleasant being greeted with a smile!

Ultimately, as in every interaction with an individual in a foreign country, the key is to use a bit of humility and cultural relativism. And if in spite of that you still have horror stories to relate, we'd love to hear them in the comments section!

**Photo Credit: Flickr CC - Some rights reserved by Zdenko Zivkovic

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