American Customer Service
Most of what I’ve discovered living in France has been positive. First of all, the excellent food cannot be praised enough, both in its flavor and, even more impressive, in its artistic presentation. Eating seasonally, eating what is produced locally whenever possible, and eating with health in mind is de rigueur.
A second big plus in France is the presence of affordable and accessible healthcare, even for an immigrant like me. When I’ve needed them, the doctors have been responsive, knowledgeable, articulate, and genuinely concerned about my health.
I also appreciate the priority given to family. Frequent family gatherings with no purpose other than to eat, laugh, and argue are typical. No special occasion is required. Perhaps less judgment of each other is also common. There seems to be little that can’t be forgiven or discreetly overlooked to keep the family intact.
In contrast, in the United States, where families are spread out geographically, weekly Sunday dinners and spontaneous frequent gatherings aren’t physically possible. Moreover, I wonder if distance allows grudges and resentments to fester more, resulting in more broken relationships.
Because I live in an urban area in the south of France, I also have an extraordinary range of choices for anything I might want to buy. The choices I enjoy here were outside my reach for the 30 years I lived in rural northern California.
In Montpellier, I still marvel at going into my favorite fabric store and choosing from hundreds of fabrics. In fact, choosing is really difficult when you have that many options. I even found a whole store dedicated to trims, buttons, patches, and zippers. Can you imagine?
The one area where I get frustrated in my new environment, though, is customer service. Stores seem to be closed whenever I want to shop, including Sundays (because it’s family time), sometimes on Saturdays (I have no idea why), and most Mondays (not sure why unless they have to rest up from Sunday).
On weekdays, stores are typically closed for a long noon hour, 12 to 2 o’clock. And butchers are usually closed in the afternoon until 4 o’clock. To shop, I really have to plan carefully and keep an eye on the time.
I’ve also been frustrated with the service of my French bank. For weeks, my bank card, which functions as a credit card, worked randomly. On any given day, I couldn’t purchase anything or even get cash.
Moreover, the bank’s system put my account on an automated budget. That meant I could not spend my own money above a certain amount on any given day, and they didn’t tell me the amount. This was a real problem because I was moving into a new house and need practically everything!
Since I can’t curse in French, my daughter-in-law handled the conversations with the bank officer—and now the card seems to be working! All it took, it seems, was for her to explain to the bank officer that I was an American and used to spending my money when I wished in whatever amount I wished which, she pointed out, would help the French economy. Posthaste, my daily spending budget limitation was removed, and the card works perfectly.
In contrast, I think the concept of customer service is deeply embedded in the US retail industry. Some of the most successful models may be Amazon, Disney, and Starbucks. But there are many other examples, large and small.
My recent experience with a US company reaffirmed my opinion (or prejudice) about the excellence of American customer service.
I ordered flowers for a special friend who’d traveled from Ohio to California to help me pack and move after my husband died. It was hard work and the circumstances were grim; nonetheless, we managed to laugh and enjoy each other’s company during our week together.
For her birthday, I ordered a super-duper floral arrangement from the House of Flowers in Medina, Ohio, where my friend lives. I wanted her to know how much her help meant to me and how much I valued our friendship.
When she sent me a picture of the flowers she’d received, I was disappointed. I had paid a premium for extra-special ones; however, the flowers delivered, while quite nice, did not strike me as very special.
A day or two later, I received an email from the House of Flowers asking for my opinion of the floral arrangement. I shared my disappointment.
Shortly thereafter, the florist contacted me and told me the shop would not charge for the original order; in addition, it would send a new arrangement of flowers that met my expectations. All I had to do was call and let them know what I wanted.
On the following Monday, I called the House of Flowers and talked with Carolene, the woman who had sent me the email with the generous offer. I thanked her for her wonderful customer service. I also told her I would leave it up to her to create a “special” arrangement but, if possible, to include local flowers.
I’m sure you’d agree that the floral arrangement is lovely by even the most discriminating person’s standards.
This kind of customer service represents a benchmark that is very high. When it’s missing, boy, do I notice it! And when it’s present, what a gift!
I wonder if Carolene would be willing to come to France and talk to my banker!