Paris: The City of Light, Love, and Atrocious Service

In the BBC yesterday, columnist Emma Jane Kirby described the customer service experience in Paris – cab drivers refusing to take her (on crutches for breaking a leg skiing) because she was a “cripple,” vendors refusing to assist customers by selecting their produce, and restaurant waiters refusing to answer to anything other than “Monsieur.” It is a sorry picture indeed. “The customer is not always right,” she writes – as though this is acceptable behaviour among those seeking to earn money in a sinking economy.

What is the reason for this particularly French brand of incivility? Apparently, it dates back to the French Revolution. “The revolution of 1789,” Ms. Kirby writes, “Has burned the notion of equality deep into the French psyche and a proud Parisian finds it abhorrently degrading to act subserviently.” Americans in the service industry, on the other hand, use their first names and seek to “give us ‘good folks [i.e., patrons] a great time.’” Friendliness? Promptness? An enjoyable customer experience? Heaven forbid!

I wonder that the author of this article points to the French Revolution as the origin of French servers desiring equal status to their patrons, and yet contrasts their service with that in America. Didn’t the United States have a similar revolution, with similar aims and results? Indeed, I doubt that many countries exist with the idea of equality so firmly engrained in their culture as the United States, nor that of a strong work ethic. I have already posted about the fact that Americans work longer hours, are more productive, and make more money than Europeans. Granted, there are numerous problems that have resulted from the shift from an old, European artisan kind of work (like the article’s French grocer who carefully selects the right avocado for when the customer will use it, perhaps?) to the modern, Fordist division of labour in the American corporation. However, in the area of customer service, the Anglo-Saxon idea of the customer calling the shots clearly wins the day – in theory and in profits.

I suspect that the two countries have diverged in this way for very different reasons. In fact, I think the lingering resentment displayed by the French servers described in this article is more a holdover from the ancien régime than something created by its overthrow in 1789. It is a modern parallel to the old, chafing class consciousness, and reflects the old divisions of education, upbringing, and geography. French peasants – both urban and rural – were overtaxed and undervalued for most of French history. They felt as though they were ignored and treated as though their opinions meant nothing, particularly in Paris, where most of upper classes lived. This was the whole cause of the French Revolution. America, in contrast, began (ostensibly) as a society of equals, in which farmers and the urban working class had as much right to participate politically as the intellectual and social elites. There were – absolutely – de facto class divisions, but in a nation of immigrants, everybody had to start from close to nothing. In comparison to the old European system of birth determining all, the American system was, from the start, a meritocracy in which hard work was prized above all. 

And it’s no coincidence that the eminent management thinker, Peter Drucker (himself an immigrant to the US) was famous for arguing for both good, old-fashioned hard work and putting the customer first. They are closely related. I object to the idea of “Joe,” the American server in the article, who (the implication is) simpers his way obsequiously through the course of meal with no genuine pride in his work, solely seeking a fat tip. In North America, great customer service is a source of pride in itself. It is also a growing trend for companies to (re)focus on the customer. In the January-February 2010 issue of the Harvard Business Review, Roger Martin describes this trend as a new, customer-focused stage of modern capitalism. Are the French so out of sync with modern management theory as to willingly slight their customers?

Quite frankly, I find the idea of French customers being mere “irritants” appalling. Does the service ethic not apply to everyone? Should Nicolas Sarkozy refuse to serve his country if we do not refer to him as “Monsieur”? Is he inferior because he ‘serves’ his voters? Is Thierry Henry inferior to his audience/ticket holders because he ‘serves’ them by bringing in goals (and controversial World Cup qualifying berths)? No. These are their jobs. Few can afford to serve none.

On a personal note, I have always found customer service in the United States to be exceptional, in every regard.  It’s a large contributor to the overall pleasant feeling I have when I’m there – and for tourists, that feeling is invaluable. Perhaps the Parisians have something to learn from the American tourists they dislike so much.

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