Monday, November 19, 2007

Job Descriptions

We live in a country where Customer Service exists and is pretty darn good. Customer Service does not exist in France. Well, not as we know it in the United States, anyway. This can really be infuriating if you need to get something accomplished or just accomplish getting through the day without getting ticked off. Take for example the French policy of returning items to the store for exchange or refund. Oh wait, it doesn’t exist. Each item we purchase, be it a washcloth or a small appliance, is carefully checked out and debated between us, because we know that in France, the customer was always wrong. Even if said appliance spontaneously combusts. This really puts the pressure on, because I hate retail commitment, especially in light of my bad luck; if there is a defective one of something , I’ll be the one to buy it. Even if I reach in the wayyyyyy back of the shelf and grab the untouched one, it’ll be sure to be the malfunctioning one. Even if I, against my better judgment, grab the first one, it’ll be the faulty one. And why can’t I bring it back if I have the receipt, mean French lady at the counter?

Maybe it’s not her job. Because we heard that a lot. My brother was living in Switzerland at the time we were in Toulouse and one day he hopped a train to surprise us. Settling in on the train, he fell asleep. While he was in a deep slumber, the train stopped somewhere along the way, split in two, and went their separate ways. One half going to Toulouse, the other half going to Spain. When the train-half that my brother was on stopped at the final destination, he woke up. But not in France. He was, you guessed it, on the wrong half.

He had to buy another ticket from Port Bou, Spain, to Toulouse.

Being that he didn’t speak French and I did, I decided to stand up for my brother like any big sister should, and become his personal translator and get some compensation! I never would have thought of this on my own, but every person we reported the story to said, “That qualifies for a refund! You must explain the situation to SNCF and they will give you compensation. ”

After standing in line at the train station for almost an hour, we finally got up to the counter. There was another mean looking lady. I smiled and greeted her (with no reciprocation) and I told her at great length what happened and how traumatized my brother had been to have opened his eyes to see he was not in a familiar place…. The lady apathetically stared at us and after a long pause she said, “I’m sorry, but you are in the wrong line. You must go over there, because this is not my job to help you.”

She pointed us to a lady at a desk, so we walked over. We were told to sit down in the waiting area and…wait. We waited for almost 30 minutes while she sat at her desk typing. When we were finally called over, I again translated the story of what happened. She listened as if she was going to care. I included, “Since my brother was never informed when he bought the ticket that the train was going to be severed, and that he should sit on the France end of it, he is entitled to some sort of compensation. After all, can you imagine how traumatized to wake up and find you are in another country? “

She just looked at me and said, “We cannot compensate your brother for his mistake. And besides, this is not my job. You were supposed to be at that lady’s desk over there, she’s the one who deals with this kind of thing. This is not my job, Madame.” And she pointed to a desk about 20 feet away, where the young woman (girl) was just sitting and looking bored. My brother began to raise his voice and I stopped translating. Frustrated that I didn’t continue the translation, his voice got louder and louder. I calmed him down and said, “Let’s just go over to the girl at the other desk.”

So we did. We (again!) explained the unfortunate events of the previous day’s journey and it wasn’t falling on deaf ears, but sympathetic ears that resulted in a profuse apology. Finally, we thought, someone who will take pity on us and give us compensation (now in our minds it wasn’t compensation for the train splitting anymore, but compensation that we had to endure the French work ethic!) But then, she said something that should not have shocked me since it seemed to be the thought of the day. ”But I’m sorry, this isn’t my job. I cannot help you. You have to go through the door behind me into office number 100 and talk to someone in there.”

At that point in time, I informed my brother his translator had quit and he was on his own. Because the only thing I cared about then, was getting away from all French SNCF employees. And besides, translating is not my job!

It didn’t go well in room 100. And there was no compensation. But I, thankfully, was no longer involved.

But just when you think you have it all figured out, “they” change it again on you. A few weeks later, Hubby’s brother and another friend came to visit us. It was their first time in a foreign country and things had not started off smoothly. They decided to fly into CDG Paris and take a train to Toulouse. (And yes, they were warned about the tractor/TGV collision.) They were told by someone at the airport they could not buy train tickets at that train station; they would need to go to one in the center of Paris. So they bought tickets to that particular station, found the ticket counter and successfully purchased them.
And then the same man who sold the tickets to them said, “Oh, by the way, you aren’t leaving from this train station. You must go to Gare du Nord (which was across the city from where they were!) and your train is leaving in 20 minutes, so you won’t have time to make the train!”

They tried anyway and as they made it all the way across town and onto the platform they showed an SNCF employee their ticket and as she looked at it she said, “Oh, see that train that’s just pulling away? That is your train. You missed it.”

Feeling like jumping in front of a moving train, they purchased yet another set of tickets from this lady who informed them they “must buy First Class tickets, but you will be going standby. “ What that meant, they later found out, was they paid for First Class seats but ended up in the luggage portion between the train cars, taking turns sitting on a pull down seat the size of a small pizza box. Why they couldn’t have paid Second Class prices for the no-class “seat” is something we’ll never know. But I'm sure it wasn't her job anyway!

They finally made it to Toulouse, about six hours later than we estimated. We took them home, fed them and let them sleep. We hit it hard touring the next day. When they could take no more, we stopped at Place St. Georges, for refreshing drinks. Bro-in Law said with a heavy sigh, “All I want is a Pepsi with ice!” and Our Friend said, “And all I want is a water with lemon!” Hubby and I looked at each other and burst into fits of laughter . It was one of those moments of relief or a pressure release....having other Americans (and family at that) to share our bottled up, frustrating un-American experiences with. Trying to gain our composure we said, “Um, we’ve been here for three months now and we’ve yet to get a cube of ice in a drink, and forget about something as luxurious as a lemon to go with your water! It’ll never happen!”

We ordered our boissons and told tales of warm Cokes being the norm in France, and how lucky we were to have ice at the flat, and how the French guests we had over begged us not to put ice in their drinks. Clearly disappointed, our guests just moped and withered in the heat and 100 percent humidity.

And then the waiter brought our tray of drinks. There was a Pepsi for Bro-in-Law, garnished with… a lemon! And a bottle of water with an extra glass of ice to the brim for Our Friend. They looked at each other, traded luxuries and burst into laughter. Hubby and I sat in stunned silence and then we all laughed ourselves silly.


La Belette Rouge said...

Bonjour, CC
The artwork is hilarious.
I wonder if this is part of the reason French women are so careful about what they buy...once they get it they are stuck with it. My mother when she shops, will take home 20 dresses to try on at home and only keep 2 of them. That would not work in France, huh?
Now that you are back in the states do you find that you more appreciate the customer service? Or, did you find you quickly acclimated back it expecting a higher level of customer service? Don't you find, that as your back in the stated, the customer service is not all it once was here?
À bientôt,

My Inner French Girl said...

Bonjour, CC!

I sympathize with your brother. I think that if it had been I to go through that mess, I would've just committed suicide right there and then.

My DH and I went through something similar in India few years ago, when we missed a train because we were on the wrong platform and the PA system making all the announcements wasn't working properly. DH was ready to fight with the stationmaster for a new ticket, but I knew that that would get us nowhere (growing up in Asia, you learn things like that). I very sweetly begged the stationmaster, telling him that we were clueless, helpless Americans who really needed assistance, and could he please be the one to give it to us? We still had to pay a US$10 'compensation fee,' but we got our tickets to the next train.

I love traditional American customer service, although I do think that it's worsened over the years. Refunds are still fairly easy to get, but then the lines for them are also getting longer and longer.

Great post!!!


Cris in Oregon said...

Oh my.. it sounds like it takes great mental strength to live or tour in France. Yikes.
I think the service we get in the States has changed alot in recent years.. Seems like people don't want to work in the first place much less say the customer is always right. Guess it ISN'T THEIR JOB anymore. ;)

Cassoulet Cafe said...

Salut LBR,
Isn't that hilarious, though? ;) No, your mother would not fair well in France if she bought and returned like that, malheuresement.

When I got back to the States, I definitely appreciated the customer service. We had so many bad experiences with the customer service in France that ANY here was better than that.

But, as all things do, things went back to normal here at home and you have the same frustrations as you always had, including bad service. I do find that customer service is really declining here in some areas. The work ethic of the younger generations is infuriating (of course, I am just generalizing here, based on my experiences in my own town.) It's like people just don't care anymore.
On a side note, we went to Hawaii recently and they had much the same attitude towards customer service as the French. Very infuriating. One example: We rented a car for the week, left the airport and the tire was about to blow, it was making such a loud noise that sounded like a motorcycle. Inside the agency they said no problem and fixed it all on paper. When we drove it up to the booth to exchange it, the guys acted like we were stupid and it really bothered them to job, which was to check it back in. They said, "Yeah right" when we told them it was about to blow.
Anyhow, I think that as the world seems to be getting more self indulgent, their seems to be a decline in good customer service.
Oh, and our local office supply chain here is the worst! I better stop there, or I will have to retract my post today about the French. ;)

Cassoulet Cafe said...

Salut marjorie,
Yes i would have died if i ended up in another country. I may like to travel, but only if I'm in control of my destination! :)
Wow, I would like to hear about your time in India! Will you post about it sometime?

Cassoulet Cafe said...

You got it! maybe instead of the French getting Americanized, we're getting Frenchified in ways. lol!

But don't let my negative posts/experiences deter you...because France is all bark and no bite. :) You just have to realize that things are not done the same way as here. And they just like to make people jump through hoops. They really hate it almost as much as we do, they are just more used to it. And I should post about the things that I hated about America when we came back, kind of a reverse culture shock.

Angélique said...

It is possible to complain to the SNCF when they actually ARE going to work.

As of today, they have been on strike for a week. I had guests who were backpacking from Manila, and we WALKED in the freezing cold for eight hours because there were no trains and all the taxis were taken.

The SNCF has been spoiled by past governments. I really hope that this current government stands their ground, but in the meantime ... gotta flex those thigh muscles.

eclat said...

I think it's really sad when we actually gush over them being "polite" or at the very least..doing "their job". This is the reason why I tell my American friends in France, don't tell me people are generally kind, friendly, or polite here...because when someone actually is, it's shocking enough for us to actually make note of it and talk about it afterward.

At home, that's par for the course...if someone's impolite, unfriendly, etc. THAT's notable. Not the other way around. Sigh.

And EVERYTHING is NO ONE'S job here. Laziness really irritates me.

Anyway, I don't spend money here...I'll tell you honestly. At least not on ANYTHING that's a meaningful purchase (unless the salesperson went out of their way beforehand...only happened to me twice in five months that I've been here). Because I know how I react in those sorts of I'd just rather not put myself in said situation.

Plus, I do believe in NOT spending my dollars/euros in a place where they're not welcome. If someone doesn't know how to act, I'm the queen of int'l shopping...I'll always take my money to the UK/Germany/US, etc. where people actually know how to act.

Cassoulet Cafe said...

Thanks so much for stopping by and commenting ;) I found your MlleSmith blog right before you moved it, and I laughed so hard at your post about your frustrations in France, of course, sympathizing with you as well! but it all rang so true! You shoulp re-post that post on your new blog.
Thanks again for coming by!

Angélique said...

I just had to add ...

Today I was at the Mc Donald's on boulevard Saint-Germain for a fast food fix. It took over five minutes for my Filet-O-Fish to arrive, so the manager gave me a FREE Cheeseburger. (Take note: This is an American enterprise, not a French one).

My stomach can only really take just one sandwich, so I pocketed the free Cheeseburger and gave it to a beggar on the street. Was half-hoping that the kindness karma goes full circle back to me, in another moment of French service.

It's really funny how people going the extra mile (in the service industry) are an exception. In Asia, people SMILE and even BOW to the customer.

Cassoulet Cafe said...

Don't you love the Filet-O-Fish in France McDo's? They taste so much better than here, I don't know why.
Yeah, at least McDonald's has great customer serice over there and you can use the bathrooms without paying for something!

My Inner French Girl said...

Merci, CC! I'll try to figure out how to incorporate my India trip (which was actually just one part of a very long [four months] backpacking trip my then-best-friend-now-DH took) into my French-themed blog. Otherwise, you'll just have to wait for when the book comes out. ;-)


Deb said...

Yikes! Well, I do think that customer service in France is SLOWLY starting to get better.

When I talk to French friends and family and ask them about what (limited experience) they have had with American customer service and what they think, the response I most often get is....too mechanical and superficial.

WendyB said...

What a story. And I'm still laughing at "mean French lady at the counter."