PARIS. One of the last great French traditions, one that has withstood an onslaught of American pop culture, global high-tech communications and the invasion of the English-language phrases, is now under threat. Gallic disdain, long considered, especially by Anglo-Saxons, to be the rule here rather than the exception, is giving way to courtesy. These days, you can even find salespeople who smile.
Service training, once unheard of in this country, is the latest business trend in France. battered by the recession, many French companies have realized that to survive and gain a competitive edge they have to provide service - American style.
It doesn't come naturally. "Being nice is not ingrained in the French culture," said Michael Lilderman, co-chairman of a photo and optical group called GPS. American children are taught by their parents, teachers, and others to be friendly. In the United States, being nice is considered a virtue. In France, it is associated with stupidity. "The French equate service with servility," said Simone Barbaras, a consultant who advises companies on customer relations. "They think it's degrading. If you apologize to customers who complain, you're admitting that you're wrong."
In her book, "Our Enemy, the Client," Barbaras lists hundreds of tales of customer abuse. In one, a woman calls a restaurant and asks to book a table for lunch at 1 p.m. She is told that the restaurant takes reservations only for 12:30. "But I'd like to come at one," she said. "Too bad then," was the response. The restaurant is no longer in business. Neither is a hairdresser who used to push customers out the door with wet hair if they complained about the cut.
"If we lived on a desert island and were the only shop in town, we could treat customers anyway we like," said Jean-Pierre Couriaut, director of human resources at Saint-Algue, a chain of hair salons in France, Switzerland, South Korea, and Russia. "But there's a lot of competition out there." To keep the profits rolling in, Saint-Algue puts new employees through a two-day training session that stresses being helpful to customers. Its hairdressers wear name tags with their first names. They serve customers coffee and strike up conversation, taking care to avoid politics or religion.
Employees at the GPS photo and optical chain undergo similar training. They have to abide by a "Customer Bill of Rights." The first: "The right to be loved." The second: "The right to personal attention." Salespeople are taught to address customers by last names after looking at their credit cards or checkbooks.
Niceness is even being promoted by official France. For the past two summers, the Paris Tourist Board has put up "Bonjour" posters around the city, encouraging businesses to welcome tourists. It also distributes a manual, advising Parisians to be kind to foreigners.
Not everyone has heeded them. A survey of overseas visitors conducted by the Tourist Board this year concluded that "the French are arrogant, argumentative and rude to foreigners." They are also rude to one another, as many Parisians point out. After years of keeping strangers at a distance, some people find it impossible to be friendly. Likierman says that abut one-fifth of new recruits drop out during the GPS training sessions each year. Saint-Algue loses a fraction of its new employees as well. "Some people find it a culture shock," Couriaut says.
The niceness trend can also jar customers. "I don't like it when they address me by my name," said one customer at a GPS photo store. "It's too familiar and superficial. And I'm tired of being asked to have a nice day when I'm not."