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Customer Service Lessons from France (mais oui)

4th Sep 2015
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I visited France for the first time in a few years last week, and I’m glad to notice that nothing has changed. They’re still providing very French customer service… could we learn something from it? Apart from the obvious, which is “don’t be rude to your customers”... well, maybe we could.

Here's what I learned from the French...

Value your role, others will value you

You may think of French waiters as rude, and many of them are. However, you cannot deny that they are good at their job. They’re good because they value their profession. When I worked at a restaurant in Paris, the waiter had been there 15 years, and had never worked in any other profession. He wasn’t an aspiring actor filling in time and paying the bills - he was totally devoted to his job.

He was totally devoted to the minuteae of his work. Every last detail was honed to perfection, and as a result, he earned more in tips than anyone else. Even the girls.

There’s a valuable lesson here. Whatever you do, no matter how menial, should be valued and perfected. Take nothing for granted, never rest on your laurels - look for perfection in every element of customer service, from your choice of words to your delivery. Get a voice coach, maybe. Work on being the very best in your profession and customers will value you even more.

Good work is good customer service

Too often, customer service excellence is viewed as ‘service with a smile’ - I’ve seen the notices hidden behind the till at the local supermarket saying “smile and ask the customer if they’re having a nice day”.

No one in France has ever asked me if I am having a nice day. Very few people in shops have ever smiled at me.

However, quick, efficient service is all that’s needed in this situation. Getting this right is good customer service - you don’t need the smile and the “how are you guys today” if your actual service delivery is excellent.

Be the expert

I always liked to compare electrical shops in France and the UK. My experience in the UK has always been quite poor. For instance, when buying a fridge, I might ask which one is best and a stock answer would be “well this one’s more expensive, so it’s better.”

I’m generalising a little, but in comparison to French retailer Darty, it’s embarrassing. At Darty, I was always taken aback by the level of knowledge of the staff. They knew everything about their products, they’d even tested them.

At the multimedia retailer FNAC, the employees were devoted to the books they sold and were even paid to learn about the products. Paid to read.

That’s why it was always a delight to shop in those two stores. Expertise is highly valued in our sales process these days, but seemingly less so in customer service. Again, you don’t need a smile and a “how’s your day going” when you have staff who know their product inside-out.

Technology is knowledge

Having the right technology can make all the difference, especially in a B2B environment. My old colleague Warren Butler wrote about developments in Dynamics that wrapped in the old Parature knowledge base - and it’s important to understand how technology can help you drive that knowledge. The fact that the major providers are injecting this into wider technology shows how internal knowledge is bleeding into customer service more and more.

When I worked in France, internal knowledge was absolutely vital - and I found that they were streets ahead in terms of using knowledge bases around a business.

You have to avoid seeing knowledge bases as a ‘dump’ and see it more as a resource that develops your workforce and improves your customer service. Gameify your business’s usage of knowledge bases, get people contributing and updating as if it’s your own internal Wikipedia.

In a B2B context, I found this experience invaluable, and again, you don’t need to smile and ask people if they’re having a nice day if you’ve got the competitive advantage of having knowledge at your fingertips.

Soyez sympa, un peu…

And of course, we should never forget that even if you have all this knowledge, the technology to support it, the expertise and the passion, and the drive to improve yourself - be nice. The litany of customer service failures I’ve experienced in France means I could write a book. One day I might. I’ve boycotted supermarkets, walked miles to find a pharmacy that values politeness… in England we value personal relationships as much as anything.

Again, it’s not about smiles and “hi guys are you having a great day” - we’re not American - but establishing a relationship, albeit fleeting, with a customer gets you a long way in the UK.


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