Paris, Management and "American-Style" Customer Service.

If ever you have the opportunity to go to Paris, I highly recommend you do so.

But when you do, don't go to the restaurant Breakfast in America (aka BIA).  You'll be sorry you did.

Normally, I don't use this blog to write about my personal complaints.  However, there are certain circumstances that simply necessitate that I change that policy.  In this case, it's because the problem at the place was all about its manager.  Not the food nor the price.  Nor the servers - at first. 

The problem was exclusively management.  Because of that, the signs and portents are all there for a downward trajectory which can be avoided but, unless addressed, will deservedly lead to increased customer dissatisfaction and losses.  And that would be a shame - because this is such an easy one to identify and fix that no business should ever go broke because its management doesn't know what it's doing.

So, take a moment with me and I'll tell you my tale of dining in Paris, American-style, with the worst of American customer service exquisitely on display.  Then we'll talk how to address, avoid and correct such inexcusable behavior.

There are two truths we need to start with.  First, I travel a lot.  Second, I love breakfast.  Any breakfast. Eggs.  Croissants.  Cumberland sausage.  Miso.  You name it, if it's breakfast, I'm a happy camper.

But sometimes, the combination of traveling a lot and missing an American breakfast gets to me.  That's what led me to visit BIA.

I had been out of the US for a while and decided that it would be soothing to have an American breakfast. Moreover, this place advertised that it refills your coffee.  (Outside the US, that's as good as unheard of.)  I had high hopes.

Initially, those hopes were met.  BIA sells itself as a 1950's-style American diner.  Visually, it pretty well fits the bill (at least based on all the other facsimiles that show up in the US and every other country).  Red naugahyde seating in booths, bar stools and tables with chairs.  Old stuff up on the walls - looking very 50's like.  Music from the period playing over the PA system.

Nice staff, too.  A young American woman who switched seamlessly between French and English greeted and seated me, took my order and got to work.  Coffee was delivered quickly.  Like before the food.  (Again, another American-ism that goes missing outside the country.)

I got there on a weekday in early August - a time when it's mostly visitors in Paris and things are slow.  It was late morning, the place was pretty empty but the service held up as if there were more of us that needed attention.  Nicely done.

Most particularly it was nice to see the waitresses (who were wearing jeans and black sleeveless t-shirts with TEAM in big white letters on the back) take their time with the other customers to provide guidance, help with maps, explain the layout of Paris....They were friendly, attentive and still on top of their jobs.

Then the manager arrived.

This had been heralded in advance when a young man came in asking about employment.  He was told to return around 11:30 when the manager would be there.  She would be able to help him out as they were hiring - but she was the only one with whom he could talk employment.  (Yes, as usual, I was eavesdropping - but, in my favor, it's a small place and it was quiet.)

What was interesting, though, was that once the manager arrived (American and slightly older), she immediately and consistently misdirected the servers' attention away from the customers and directly toward her.  From reviewing the expiration dates on a box of yogurt cartons (and negotiating who would get which flavor) to straight-out, social conversation, the manager made herself the center of interest.

For the first time, I had to ask for a refill on my coffee.

Not long after, I decided to leave.  By this time, the manager was calling out conversation to a couple of guys on the street (I never figured out who they were) and had as good as destroyed the experience.

Then it got worse - because there neither was nor is any excuse for her behavior.

One of the conventions of restaurants and brasseries in Paris is that you are given a business card for the establishment when you are presented with your check.  Take it or leave it, that's up to you, but it's a nice, usually graphically engaging way of reminding you of where you were and that you'd probably like to come back.

When my waitress presented me with my check (or bill or l'addition, if you prefer), the BIA card was on the little tray.  It has a drawing of a six-windowed diner on one side with a map of their two locations on the other.

Now, to be fair, I'm pretty maniacal about loyalty cards from any establishment where they make sense.  Whether it's Peet's Coffee in California or Cafe Nero in London (do you see a pattern here?), I like getting loyalty cards and getting them stamped.  It isn't even important that I get my free coffee or meal or whatever when they're done.  It's the satisfaction of the stamp that does it for me.

So, in looking at the little drawing, I was trying to figure out if this was BIA's loyalty card.  I made the mistake of asking.  The manager.

While it shouldn't have mattered, I also didn't introduce myself.  She didn't know who I was or what I do for a living.  For that matter, one doesn't expect international executive advisors to take a moment to ask or give advice about how to build the business of an enterprise not paying them.  What can I say?  I was still in a pretty good mood.

That ended quickly.  In fact, it ended the second she started answering my question.

Not only did she call me "dear" in a wholly patronizing tone of voice more than once (an absolutely inexcusable breach of etiquette and, interestingly, one which a man would not make), she explained, in simple, sing-song inflected terms (as if to a mentally deficient person) that that was the card I take to remind me of the place.  It wasn't a loyalty card.  They had a "fidelity card" that was separate.

Of note is that the fidelity card wasn't on display or, to the best of my knowledge, in any way promoted in the place.  But that's their problem.

When I asked for one, she handed it to me and then abruptly turned away.  That left me having to ask one of the waitresses to stamp the card for my meal that day.  She wouldn't.  It turned out that the policy was that when you get the card they date it.  Then, the next eleven meals you buy are stamped.  On the twelfth, you get it free.

Which, if you're counting, you actually aren't.  Because you've already paid for twelve meals - including the one that you have to have just to get a card.

It's a gyp.  They're cheating.  And the manager is rude.

What's worst of all is that the server, decades my junior and previously perfectly polite, had taken on the same patronizing tone and behavior of her manager when she told me the news.  Disgusting - but perfectly predictable.  After all, she was only following her manager's lead.

I left and have no intention of going back.  In fact, that manager's behavior and the fidelity card that would lead any thinking person to infidelity, motivated me not only to write this post but also to write reviews on the internet of the restaurant.  Unflattering reviews.

All because of one manager.

Front line employees are supposed to be taught who the customer is.  In simple terms, it's the person who is putting out money or calling or coming in for the service promised by the organization.  It's the person who, ultimately, pays the company's bills.  Including the front line person's salary.

But when management has it wrong, what they teach employees by example is that they - the managers - are the customer.  That it is they who should have the attention.  Then they develop the policies and procedures - and reward systems - to support that misconception.

As a result, you get me.  A disaffected, disappointed customer who not only is not willing to go back to the establishment, but is willing to tell as many people as possible exactly how bad an experience they had.

That woman in that management position does a disservice to the title and the position.  Based on her behaviors - not only with me, but in directing the servers' attention away from the paying customers - she doesn't deserve a job in any service industry at all.  Because, ultimately, customers will not return.  Not when she makes it all about her - and not about the people who are paying the bill.  And her salary.

Hopefully, for the owner's sake, he'll recognize this in good enough time to keep the bulk of the me's from making the same necessary decision.  Probably more quietly, but no less potently.

As for you, take a look at how your staff are trained to understand who the customer is - and then look at how their local, immediate managers behave.  If you've got a disconnect, take it on with the manager - because that's where the problem is.

Make sure your employees are focusing on where the money is coming from.  The more they do, the more your organization will have - and the more you'll be able to grow your enterprise into all you envision it to be.