Sunday, March 27, 2011

Customer Servass

In Paris, customer service is almost as elusive as Big Foot. I am not the first person to write about this fact, but now I can write about it from the perspective of my own numerous experiences. The ubiquitous principle in the States, "The customer is always right", is the exact opposite in France. As a Parisian consumer, one becomes accustomed to being made to feel small, insignificant, bothersome, and/or just plain wrong.

Take for example, restaurants (the ones without those little Michelin stars). Waiters do not work for tips, therefore, their attitude of annoyance at even our tiniest and most basic request, such as, "Le addition (the bill), si vous plait?" will not affect their take-home pay. Soren and I ate lunch with friends recently at a popular establishment frequented by Parisians. This place, we were told, serves a fabulous Magret du Canard. They must have had to go out to the country after our order to slash the ducks' throats and pluck their feathers before bringing them back to the restaurant for cooking because an hour after ordering, still no Magret du Canard at our table. Our friend, who speaks better French than Soren, got the attention of our busy waiter and inquired about our lengthy wait. In response, our waiter shrugged his shoulders, looked miffed, and basically retorted something hautily French  along the lines of, "What can I say, it's taking long because it's taking long." Fifteen minutes later, our meals arrived without any acknowledgment or apology. And no free drinks or dessert as compensation either! Alas, this is the French way.

It is also the French way to charge customers money when we call the customer service department of say, the electric company, who charges us twenty cents a minute on top of the initial 1.20 euros we're charged to make the call in the first place. Is this backwards or what? The obvious question is what incentive do these companies have to provide efficient service in the first place when they make more money if they are anything but?

Last month, while browsing in a shoe store, I noticed a style in the window display that I wanted to try. I knew better than to touch it (see previous post "Shopping: Je Ne Comprend Pas").  Upon hearing my request, the clerk tells me that shoe is unavailable in my size. However, I see that the one on display is, in fact, my size. I indicate this knowledge to her and she flatly refused to allow me to try it. I am so perplexed by this logic; obviously, the store will make money from the sale of those shoes, right? Aren't businesses in the business of making money? I am beginning to think French businesses are in the business of pissing off customers by not giving them what they want.

Case in point: the grocery store. I have witnessed shoppers present coupons only to be lectured by the cashier and eventually, the manager, about how and why the coupon cannot and will not be honored. I am fairly certain it's not a simple matter of an expired coupon date because the conversations that I have witnessed between employees and customers have lasted too long and are way too contentious. Of course, I always unwittingly wind up in line behind these coupon-bearing customers. My best guess is that the customers have presented their coupons  midway through the check-out process and the store's antiquated computer system is incapable of processing a coupon for an item that has already been scanned. I imagine that updating their computer system would obsolete the long-standing rules and procedures that managers and employees believe to be the cornerstone of their (unfriendly and inefficient) business model.

Speaking of antiquated, we take our dry cleaning to a 'presse' that does not have a modern computer system logging their customer's transactions by their name, address, and/or phone number. We had not given any thought to their outmoded system until one day, Soren arrived at the presse to pick up his dress shirts. He came back to the apartment empty-handed, explaining that he did not have his claim ticket with him upon pick-up. "Can't they look you up in their computer," I asked? Uh, no. See, it works like this- no ticket, no shirts.

The lady at the presse told Soren that he needs to go home and find his ticket. Soren unsuccessfully searched through every pocket, shopping bag, and trash can hoping to find this darned ticket. The only hope he had now was that the written description (in French) of his shirts that he left with the presse lady along with his mobile number would result in a phone call from her explaining that she had found his shirts.

The next day we passed by the presse while out running errands and Soren decided to give it another try because he noticed that a different lady was behind the counter. This lady clearly did not want to be bothered because she coldly and dismissively told Soren, "Vous venez demain à 13:00h."  Does she know for a fact that his shirts are going to decide to appear exactly at 1:00 p.m. tomorrow or is there actually going to be an employee present at that time who will actually help to find them?

The next day's agenda was completely structured around this 1:00 p.m. call-time at the presse. Cold Lady was there again, and she was no warmer today than yesterday- in fact, she pulled a diva maneuver on me when I attempted to film Soren speaking French to the other nicer presse lady. Cold Lady put her hand in front of my little Flip video camera and told me not to film. I explained, in French, that I was filming only my husband. The other nice presse lady was smiling at me, but Cold Lady would have none of it. So I stopped filming. It is Cold Lady's voice you hear at the end of this short clip, telling me not to film:


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Nice Lady explained that we needed to walk next door and enter the door code that would allow us passage into the back of the presse. But why? Amidst the strong dry cleaning odor and the hundreds of bagged clothes hanging from the mechanical rack, I wondered, "How many other customers get to come back here because of a lost ticket?" At this point, Soren was asked what day and time he had originally dropped off his shirts. As the wife (a.k.a. The House Manager), I obediently replied since I retain all kinds of useful information that pertains to the daily managing of our life while Soren retains other kinds of information that does not leave room in his brain for dates and times of dry cleaning drop offs.

Nice Lady proceeded to use this data to search through the computer, presumably to pinpoint where, on this mechanical rack, we would have the best chance of finding Soren's shirts. If this is the format under which they store their data, why didn't one of the presse ladies ask Soren this question two days ago? Granted, a lost claim ticket does present the presse with a nuisance given their outdated system of record-keeping, but certainly it's their obligation to do their best to find their customer's items, right? Apparently not. Instead, it is the customer's responsibility to do so which was made evident when Nice Lady demonstrated to Soren how to operate the mechanical rack by pushing the green button to start it moving and the red button to stop it. She had more important things to do like attend to the other customers  waiting at the counter so she left us to fend for ourselves. We couldn't believe this was happening. I was excited to film this novel experience, but I was hesitant because of the presence of Cold Lady. "Screw it," I thought, "I'm filming!" That didn't go over very well with Soren or Cold Lady as seen in these next two clips:

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Soren started and stopped the machine several times as we searched in vain through other customers' shirts to find his. Every few minutes, Nice Lady had to interrupt our search so that she could operate the rack to find the clothes of the customers at the counter. Eventually, I spotted the shoulder of one of Soren's shirts peeking through the clear plastic garment bag just as Nice Lady found the computer record of the date and time of Soren's drop-off. Turns out that I was off by a day. It's not like I have a computer for a brain, but I'll bet that my brain operates more effectively and efficiently than most French businesses. This was proven beyond a reasonable doubt when Nice Lady filled out a handwritten claim form, requested Soren's signature, then proceeded to staple this form into a large three-ring binder full of similar claim forms belonging to the elite group of others who, like us, have been granted access to the back of the presse to find their clothing items.

Another recent example of the glaringly different mindsets regarding customer service occurred at the fitness club. The three or four mornings a week that I exercise there I see the same cleaning team, a man and a woman, who diligently mop the floors, wipe down the machines, buff the mirrors, clean the toilets and tidy the locker room. The lady seems nice enough. I have seen other gym members conversing with her and I have said my pleasant and polite "Bonjours," to her when I pass by.

Sometimes, since I quickly get bored with the machines and nautilus equipment, I set myself up in the aerobics studio with a little circuit training that includes a floor mat, a step, free weights, and my gliders (round neoprene discs) that I bring from home. Two weeks ago, I was working out with this setup and Cleaning Lady entered the studio with her large dry mop. At the time, I was in the middle of a set of tricep dips that I do using the storage locker for the sound system since it is about the height of a workout bench.  Near me was the step and my other equipment. In the back of the studio were two older men completing reps of their Jane Fonda floor exercises. From across the room I could tell that Cleaning Lady was speaking to me. I removed my headphones to better hear her, and, not surprisingly, I couldn't understand what she was saying, but, since context is key when trying to understand a French person speaking French, I pretty much assumed she was asking me to move my stuff. With my few words of French and my pantomiming, my hunch was confirmed and I heeded her request to move the equipment to the front corner of the room so that she could clean that section of the floor. I didn't mind at first, I was nearing the end of my workout routine for the day and it hadn't occurred to me to be anything but accommodating. Yet, afterward, as I rode home on the Metro, I couldn't help but think about how the cleaning crew at Renaissance Clubsport in Walnut Creek would never inconvenience a member in the middle of their workout.

Fast forward to last Friday. Same scenario, only this time Cleaning Lady was armed with a vacuum and I was in the middle of a cardio portion of my interval training. In the mirrors in front of me, I eyed her circling the room with that vacuum, moving ever so diligently closer to me and my equipment. As I was in the middle of some jump squats, I decided then and there that if she asks me to move, I will not accomodate her request for two main reasons: I am growing weary of being inconvenienced as a French customer and, at this particular moment, I was in the middle of my workout and happened to be in a really good grove with a really good tune playing on my iPod. Sure enough, she asked me to move. Without missing a beat or a jumpsquat, I looked her squarely in the eye and said, "Non." Cleaning Lady's eyes widened with surprise momentarily, then narrowed with a flash of anger. I can imagine the frustration she was feeling at knowing that she could not communicate with me since she already knew I am a non-French speaker for I too was feeling the same frustration. I wish I had been able to clarify my defiance and explain to Cleaning Lady that that I pay membership fees to workout at this gym and that a portion of my fees contribute to her salary and therefore, as the customer, I expect to workout without being interrupted. To drive my point home further, I would add that her interrupting my aerobic studio workout is no different than if she had asked me to get off the treadmill in the middle of my run so that she could wipe down the machine and since I have never seen that happen, certainly, the same courtesy can be extended to me in the studio. Obviously, much remained unspoken between us and she left the studio shortly thereafter, but not before AC/DC's "Thunderstruck" came on and a feisty feeling flooded my body and I began my next set which coincidentally happened to be a two-punch roundhouse kick combo. Cleaning Lady's been thunderstruck by the Américaine and doesn't know what hit her. I do feel a little bit bad, but not really. The (Américaine) customer is always right, right?

Boutique clothing stores in our neighborhood are one place that I have experienced customer service; the kind which makes me usually want to shoo the clerk away like a pesky fly. Back home, I am familiar with the stores that use 'hard sell' commision-based tactics and I avoid them almost at all costs. But these Parisian boutiques have so many unique fashionable items, plus, these smaller stores are not heated to sauna temperatures- unlike the grand Parisian department stores- so I grin and bear the hovering of these boutique clerks.

In these small establishments I have no way to blend in with other shoppers (I am oftentimes the clerk's sole customer) or ensconce myself with a rounder of clothes in the far back. I become the clerk's mission; they want to succeed in selling me something- anything- even if it looks like crap when I try it on. I have learned that they will tell me that pants that have an extra inch around the waist look, "Tres adorable!" while they bring me a belt and proceed to cinch it around my waist, hoping, I'm sure, to sell more items ("I sold the Américain pants and a belt!"). A shirt with absolutely nothing flattering to offer my frame or skin tone will be lauded as, "Magnifique!" and anytime I am in a dressing room for more than 3 minutes, the clerk asks me, "Madame, everything is okay?" as if I may have vanished into thin air behind the curtain. I hate Paris boutique dressing rooms. They are the size of a phone booth and there are no mirrors. The mirror is always inconveniently located on the wall outside of the dressing rooms so that customers are forced to emerge and subject themselves to the eagerly awaiting sales clerk so he or she can start laying on the frequently false compliments.

Once, there was a male sales clerk that was so intent on sharing his opinion with me that he tried every possible way he could think of  (in less-than-perfect English) to express himself, albeit unsuccesfully. I had tried on a dress that I had decided I liked very much. He concurred, however, he was not fully satisfied with his assessment and he asked me to show him my "form" so that he could determine which type of something- either there was not an English equivalent word or he could not recall the correct word or words- I'm not sure, but apparently, this dress called for that very something and he was determined to go fetch it for me. But first, I had to show him my "form". Thank goodness he was gay (at least I was 99% sure) because my natural assumption that he was asking to check out my ass did not bother me much at all. Yet, showing him my backside did not satisfy his need to know what 'form' I currently have. I then figured he was inquiring as to the type of underwear I had on. Again, thank goodness I'm thinking he's gay at this point because I nonchalantly replied, "Thong," while pantomiming a narrow strip with my thumb and forefinger. Still, this left him unsatisfied. He struggled a bit longer, trying to explain himself. Finally, I asked him, with obvious dismay, "You want to see my underwear?!" Shocked, his eyes bugged out and his hand flew up to his pursed mouth while his cheeks flushed a bright shade of crimson. "Madame, non! Désolé, non! Oh la la, non! I am not that way, I say this to you! Forgive me, my English is bad!"

Now I feel terrible! I have completely embarrassed this guy- we were having a complete misunderstanding- he was simply trying to be (overly) helpful and sell me both the dress and the something else that apparently, was not underwear. Pink Cheeks then dashed away, presumably ashamed by his English skills and his assumed offense. I reentered my dressing room actually quite amused- this was the most enjoyable pesky clerk experience yet. It's not often that I get to experience a stranger trying to check out my over 40-year-old ass- imagined or real, gay or straight, and my ego certainly is not going to be picky. Better yet, I got a great dress and a great memory! I am still dying to know what the heck Pink Cheeks was trying to ask me. I do give the guy an 'A' for effort- he puts the 'A' in customer servass, that's for sure!

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