This is a crash course in customer service philosophy across cultures.
Business 101 in America: the objective is to get your customers to spend money, period. Sometimes this objective is pursued at the cost of employees’ dignity, happiness, and integrity, but, for good or ill, every American knows the mantra, “the customer is always right.”
This attitude is reflected in the ease and efficiency of all transactions conducted in the United States. In general, buying experiences are designed to maximize immediate customer satisfaction.
Business 101 in France is quite different, where the objective often seems to be to get customers to go away. In general, transactions in France are bogged down by silly paperwork, responsibility-diffusing protocol, and a total lack of concern with whether you spend money or not.
I was most recently reminded of this cultural tendency last night as a group of my friends tried to get a table at a little café/bar with numerous empty seats. When we told her that we’d already eaten but would be drinking, the hostess looked at us like we’d just announced plans to take a sh*t in the middle of the floor. The kitchens were about to close, she said, but they were under strict instructions to keep the tables open for people who promised to order food, and no, we couldn’t stand at the bar or sit with the agreement that if someone did want to order food, we would immediately move. Meanwhile, the waitress working the overwhelmingly taxing single table outside practically shoved past us with a look on her face that said she’d overheard our sh*t-taking plans. It was the classic one-two French customer service punch: 1) “it’s out of my hands” and 2) “go away,” delivered with uninhibited disgust and condescension.
Here’s a tip, France: if six polite people come into your bar and offer to stand while they order at least one drink each, consider letting them or at least telling them to come back a little later. Maybe even smile at them (close-lipped, if you want, let’s not get crazy!) and make them feel welcome. I don’t need or want deference, nor do I deny that American customer service culture comes with its own set of problems. I’ve been on the other side of the transaction, and I know how hard it is to be friendly at the end of a long work day. But I expect owners and employees to at least make it easy to patronize their businesses. No, actually, not even “easy.” I would settle for a mere “not difficult or unpleasant.”