VIVE LE FRENCH CUSTOMER SERVICE

The French don’t really believe in the concept of customer service in the way that do most Anglophone countries.

The US generally has developed a culture where the customer is treated as a welcome business opportunity, even when tips are not involved, and as such will welcome people into their establishments generally with delight, whether a restaurant or boutique.

In France, the customer tends to be seen more as an interruption to important tasks such as artistically arranging the underwear display or slicing the baguettes, and is therefore seen as a nuisance rather than a way of paying the bills and making a living.

It is not unusual in a department store to see 4 staff members discussing a piece of apparel amongst themselves while a line of customers bank up at the cash registers, or to see the same group working on the needs of one customer who has asked an interesting question that obviously needs a committee to answer.

It is also part of the local culture that a phone call will always take precedence over any in-store customers, so not only will shop staff take a call in the middle of servicing your needs, but will even go and check the storeroom out back for the caller leaving you standing there waiting for the call to end, and hoping that no one else calls immediately after.

So when you strike a situation where a company does understand that the customer really is number one, it is so much more inspiring and refreshing.

I recently had such an experience.

One of the joys of living in the coutryside is that every 2 years or so you need to have your septic tank serviced and emptied.

Not long ago I rang a local septic tank service company, a representative of Veolia, which is one of the largest global waste and water management (now called environmental services) companies (over 300,000 employees and €35B in revenues in 2009), to come and service our property.

The job took about 30 minutes and cost me €232. When it came to pay, rather than head back to the house for my cheque book, I opted to pay in cash. I handed over €240 but he had no change (they never do) so let him have the €8 difference (considered a generous tip in France) and collected the service form.

One month later I received a rather agressive and threatening letter from the Veolia collections department wanting to know why they hadn’t yet received my cheque.
On checking the paperwork I realised that the waste technician had not written « paid in full in cash », on the requisite form and so to the clerical staff at Veolia I was still in debt.

From bitter experience I knew that I had no option but to pay again, this time by cheque to ensure proof of payment.

I couldn’t however let it go without having my say, so enclosed a letter with the cheque explaining what had happened and finishing with the statement that « … in the future in any dealings with Veolia I will always ensure that I have solid proof rather than just relying on business ethics and honesty …. «.

I felt that it was a total waste of time but at least felt better that I had had my say in print.

A week later I received my cheque back in the mail, with a letter from Veolia advising me that as they believed that business ethics and customer service were key elements of their whole company culture, they felt that the right course of action was to take my word about the circumstances being exactly as I had described them, despite the lack of paperwork, and as such could not accept my cheque.

This was such a rare occurrence that I am now a devotee of Veolia and will spread their virtues whenever and wherever I can, hence the reason for this blog post.

When you get good customer service you generally tell at least 10 people that you were pleased. When you have bad customer service you will try and tell about 100 people about how displeased you were with that particular company.

When a company treats a business situation with integrity, and treats you as a valued customer, I feel obliged to tell the world.

The Veolia values, taken from their web site, states:

“Our ability to listen carefully and professionally and anticipate and adapt to client needs reflects our commitment to building solid, lasting relationships.”

I believe them.

COOKING TIPS FOR MEN

In 2009 my wife gave me a one week cooking course as a Xmas gift.
I did feel at the time that this was in many ways similar to a man giving his wife a certificate for breast enhancement, as the main benefits belong to the giver rather than the receiver.

Nevertheless it meant that in April 2010 I spent a week at Leiths School of Food and Wine in London. I didn’t get to see any of the wine side of the school which was disappointing, but I had a great time and learned many things, and have been cooking a lot more since then (my wife’s plan worked).

Over the last 6 months I have realized that in the same way that « Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus», (John Gray book published 1992), there are also serious differences in the way men and women approach the whole art of creating fine cuisine, and I felt that it was important that I shared some of these lessons learned with my male readers.

Herewith my top 10 tips for men who want to cook :

1. Have lots of wine available as this is a critical ingredient for any chef and some of it may actually end up in the food.

I have found that a chilled bottle of Rose goes down well when cooking in summer, and a nice Bordeaux (obviously) works well the rest of the year. You will also find that as you get down to the lower half of the bottle not only does it taste better, but all those annoying little knife nicks and stove burns won’t bother you as much. However, be sure to flambe only while consuming the first half of the bottle.

2. Useful cooking terms for men.

Clarify, fold, drizzle, clothe.

If you see any of these in a recipe, discard it and move on to another one. These are not actions that real men should have to cope with. Good words to look for are beat, mash, tear, chop and bar-b-que.

3. Always  go to the bathroom at least twice and rub your eyes for 10 minutes before handling fresh chillies in any way.

There is no way that you will want to do either of these after you have cut, chopped, sliced or de-seeded  some fresh chillies, and there is a burning desire (pun intended) to do both immediately afterwards. I believe that all recipe books globally should be automatically updated to « Finely slice 4 fresh chillies then rub, eyes and all other sensitive body parts. », just to be more accurate with what actually happens in real life.

4. Only women need to read the whole recipe before they start cooking.

Real men should just assemble the ingredients and start from the first instruction. This keeps an air of surprise and mystery in the whole cooking experience, and is much more of an exciting and manly way to proceed, particularly when you come across a line like «Now remove the joint from the fridge where it has been marinating for 24 hours». When interesting and challenging little surprises like this occur, remember Rule 1 and proceed as normal.

5. Play very loud music the entire time whilst cooking.

This is very helpful particularly if you have small children as it will mask any cooking screams and profanities that are an integral part of the cooking experience. I have found that heavy metal is very suitable, and since my Leiths experience have acquired all the CDs of «Apocalyptica», the Finnish Cello Rockers.

6. Do not fry whilst naked.

No matter how hot it gets in the kitchen, avoid the temptation to fry something in any way, shape or form whilst naked or whilst wearing speedos (budgie smugglers to Australians). Not only is this dangerous in obvious ways but unless you are a serious athlete most nakedness can curdle cream and other key ingredients.

7. Measure everything carefully.

When the recipe calls for a 6 inch (15 cms) baking dish, you need to measure the 6 inches properly rather than just relying on the body part that you have spent your entire life claiming as being 6 inches as the benchmark, as doing this could result in the baking dish being too small and therefore waste valuable ingredients.

8. Always fry some onions.

Even if not called for in the recipe, always have some onions frying gently on the stove. This creates an inviting cooking smell and will convince your partner, should they dare to stick their nose into your domain, that there is something of great art really happening.

9. Do not produce dishes which include girlie names.

Dishes including words such as mousseline, chiffonade, veloutée, gelée, puff or sabayon are not manly enough in the telling. Describing how you made smoky 3 lettuce leaf chiffonnade may not be well accepted by your mates at the gun club.

10. Make sure you understand all terms before starting.

A joint (as mentioned in Rule 4) is a large piece of meat, usually containing a bone, which is cooked in one piece, and is not something that is used in making brownies, and a Dutch Oven is a cast iron cooking pot, and does not involve heading to the bedroom and climbing under the covers, as this is not considered as being a true culinary skill.

And always remember in the the words of Steven Wright « If at first you don’t succeed, destroy all evidence that you tried ».

DO WOMEN MAKE BETTER MANAGERS ?

I was recently asked during a press interview to describe the best boss that I had ever worked for.

It wasn’t hard to do, as during my time at Sun Microsystems, when asked to drive a global project for 6 months in the US, I had the opportunity to work for one of the most impressive executives that I have met in the last 45 years.

The fact that she was a woman, and her having moved on to greater roles over the last 20 years despite a serious bout with illness, made me wonder whether women actually make better managers than do men.

Christine Lagarde, French Finance Minister and someone tipped as a potential future Prime Minister, and one of the few really impressive politicians that I have met (see « Vive l’European Parliament » posted 20/09/2010), believes that women make better policians than men « … because they are not slaves to their libidos », which she believes made them « … more able to make more cool-headed judgements ». She told the US Network ABC « This Week » programme on October 11, 2010 that « … men’s sex drive, testosterone and egos impaired their decision making ability ».

Christine Lagarde at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, January 25, 2007. Copyright by World Economic Forum swiss-image.ch/Photo by Remy Steinegger

If this is true, and I have a lot of admiration for Lagarde and not much for most politicians I have met, who did tend to be male, does the same hold true for management roles ? And if it is true, why are there not more women in senior management positions ?

In the Top 300 European companies women make up only about 12% of board members (up from 10% in 2008), although Norway at 38% does skew the results somewhat. The latest Catalyst figures show that women only make up 11% of Fortune 1000 company board members, and that 25% of the Fortune 1000 still have no female board members at all.

3 women managers of successful wine chateaux (close friends of mine)

Professor Khalid Aziz, CEO of Aziz Corporation, a leadership development « maven » believes that women managers have a « … less short term outlook and are more holistic, big picture and reasonable ».

He lists his top-10 reasons why women make better bosses than men :

1.      In a still sexist world, women have to be better than men to succeed.

2.      Women tend to be less « bullet-headed » than men and prefer to understand the big picture before proceeding.

3.      More adaptable to the needs to change

4.      More willing to see other people’s point of view

5.      Less bloody minded in conflict.

6.      More holistic people managers, understanding the different influences on staff.

7.      More willing to admit mistakes.

8.      Better at collaboration.

9.      More open to seeing their own failings.

10.  Better team players.

I once asked a male CEO why there were no women on his board, and he told me that he would love to have some women on the board, but hadn’t been able to find any that were suitable. I therefore asked him what were the backgrounds and qualities that he was looking for in a female board member, and he listed a long string of qualities that most of his current male board members didn’t actually have.

I guess that he just wasn’t really looking hard enough.

BEING SERIOUS IS OVERRATED

I have found that many people, particularly as they become more senior in their corporate life (or just get older), start to take life and themselves much too seriously, supposedly in line with their elevated status. They therefore tend to create an environment that only has focus on the seriousness of the tasks involved, and the important role that they actually play in achieving them. I once had a software developer describe his supervisor as “… someone who could suck the joy out of the room just by saying good morning”.

I have always believed that while it is critical that you are serious about the role you perform in life, whether as an individual contributor, an executive or in the community, you should never take yourself too seriously.

In business, it is important to regularly remind yourself that the only difference between a manager and the people being managed is the job description. I understand that there are differences in salaries and other elements like office space, remuneration, status and visibility, but one should never grow to believe that these differences include self importance.

Portrait of a Group of Serious Businessmen

For me a sales manager has no more importance in a company than the 10 salesmen in his team who collectively generate $ 20-30 million in revenues each year. In reality the role of the sales manager is mainly to support and serve the sales force by ensuring that he makes their role as easy to execute as possible, and to facilitate their success. This means that the manager has to spend his time as a coach and mentor to his people, but also has to spend time and effort removing barriers to their success and protecting them from internal politics and bureaucracy so that they can focus on selling.

I have therefore always believed that the critical measure of a great sales manager is that the vast majority of his sales team individually earn more than he does.

Ultimately, the only role of any manager, at any level, is to create an environment where people can be unbelievably successful (see “I live to work or I work to live” posted 5 July, 2010). Amongst other things, this means that work needs to be enjoyable. I don’t mean “entertaining” which is an objective of the manager (Michael Scott in the US version) in the TV series “The Office” , who at one point says “I guess the atmosphere that I’ve tried to create here is that I’m a friend first and a boss second, and probably an entertainer third”.

I don’t believe that the objective of any manager is to be a friend to his people, and one should not confuse “friendly” with “friendship”. Neither should a manager see his role as being one of “entertaining the troops”, but I do believe that it should be an objective to make it fun, and that to ensure that the lighter sides of life (and there are many) are regularly celebrated.

I understand that people will define fun in many different ways but, in a work context, I see fun as being able to work in an environment where people can succeed and be suitably rewarded, where their skills can be utilised and developed, where they can be challenged, where they can work with people they can trust and from whom they can learn, where they feel safe and valued, and very importantly where they can laugh often and loudly. People need to want to be at work as an integral and worthwhile part of their life, not just as a place that they have to go to so that they can make enough money to pay their bills.

Back in the early 1980s DEC Australia had a very basic company car policy, particularly when compared to other IT companies. Irrespective of your role, if it justified a company car, you could have either a Toyota Corona or a Mitsubishi Sigma, neither being cars that would have excited the boys of “Top Gear”.

One year I ran a sales competition that involved mounting a Rolls Royce hubcap on a plaque and calling it the “DEC luxury car scheme award, phase 1”. It was a great success and sales reps worked hard to earn the right to have it sit on their desk for a month, as not only did it signify their personal success, but at the same time it had a minor dig at the company. Despite its success I was asked to drop my plans for phase 2 the following year, which was planned to be a Rolls Royce steering wheel … I guess that we were just having too much fun.

Creating an environment that is always serious, that does not see the humour in life’s situations, that believes that laughter should be reserved for private rather than work time and that does not understand that all of life is meant to be fun, can never achieve the balance that makes the work environment a serious way to work and a fun place in which to do it, and therefore will not create an opportunity where people can succeed.

As Oscar Wilde said “Seriousness is the only refuge of the shallow”.

VIVE LE FRENCH DRIVER

« Ah … so many pedestrians, so little time. » Robin Williams

The French may not be the craziest drivers in Europe, as I would put the Portuguese and Bulgarians well ahead, but I would definitely put the French drivers in medal contention.

view of traffic on the street of the arc de triomphe in Paris

France still has one of the highest road fatality rates in Europe, and the Gironde region of France (Department 33) where we live, has one of the highest road fatality rates in France, making it one of the most dangerous places to take to the roads.

It appears to be mainly the result of a mixture of speed, small winding country roads, alcohol consumption and the fact that amongst young drivers in particular the levels of testosterone are seriously greater than the driving skill.

For visitors to this region there are some things that are important to remember.

1. The Girondines do not keep to their side of the road on bends.

Road Sign

It is as though cutting a left turning bend is their way of laughing in the face of death. I have become so committed to hugging the verge on a right turning bend that I am more of a hedge trimmer than the local Council. It is not unusual to suddenly be faced with a crazed housewife taking up the entire available road as she wrestles with her steering wheel on the way to collect her children from school.

2. In the main they drive cars with engines that were designed to run a Husqvarna sewing machine.

Despite this lack of available power to get them out of trouble if needed, they will overtake you on a blind bend, with the rubber bands driving their engine stretched to breaking point. The fastest moving car on the French freeways is generally the 1.2 litre Renault Clio which is basically an aerodynamically enhanced cardboard box on wheels. Their top speed is meant to be about 150 kph with a strong tailwind, but this doesn’t seem to stop their owners believing that there is a secret Ferrari engine under every Clio hood, despite the fact that at high speed they sound more like a nest of angry bees.

3. They love to tailgate.

Tailgating is their way of letting you know that they have run out of cigarettes and have to get to a Tabac before they close, or that they have to get to lunch before the restaurants start turning everyone away (See Vive Le cheap and cheerful posted Sept 9, 2010 ). The only way to get rid of them on a winding road is to throw a full packet of Gauloises out your window.

4. They will throw themselves in to roundabouts despite oncoming traffic.

On roundabouts the law states that you have to give way to the traffic already in the roundabout. There are some exceptions such as Place de l’Etoile at the Arc de Triomphe in Paris where you have to give way to trafic entering the roundabout, as well as anyone who has a mattress strapped to the roof of their car or anyone on a motor scooter who is carrying more than 4 baguettes. Despite these specific rules there is also a belief that you always have the right of way on any roundabout as long as you have not actually made eye contact with any other oncoming driver.

5. Many French drivers are SAGs (Self Appointed Gendarmes).

I was once chased by a taxi driver on a freeway after I had passed him at about 140 kph in a 130 kph zone. He immediately sped up to over 160 kph so that he could catch up to me, and so that as he went past me, he could make « slow down » gestures at me out of his window, after which he dropped back to normal speed content in the knowledge that he had done his SAG duty for the day. Oncoming cars will quite often flash their lights at you not because in a moment of camaraderie they are warning you of a speed trap, but because they have decided that they have been given a mandate to slow down all other traffic on that day.

6. Pedestrians don’t automatically get right of way on zebra crossings.

Pedestrians are not necessarily safe on a zebra crossing. This will depend on whether the driver is running late and/or how attractive is the pedestrian. It can also depend on whether the pedestrian happens to be carrying a hunting rifle with telescopic sights.

On top of this it is worthwhile knowing that one of the most dangerous times on the roads is 11.30-12.00 when everyone is rushing towards lunch. The French are not big breakfast eaters, a normal breakfast being a coffee and a cigarette (for a big breakfast add a croissant and a second cigarette), so by about midday their blood sugar levels are dangerously low, and the headlong rush to the one main meal of the day can make for some agressive driving.

It is also prudent to keep off the roads during school drop-off (8.45-9.00)and pick-up (16.30-16-45) times, as the ability to give birth gives mothers of young school children the right to do whatever they want in an automobile at these times.

When we first moved to France we thought that we would never get used to the local driving conditions, but after nearly a decade here, we have become just like everyone else.

If you visit the Gironde keep an eye out for me. I will be flashing my lights on the bends at middday.

FIFTH SECRET OF TIME MANAGEMENT

You have to kill interruptions as much as possible.

The first step is to take control of emails.

It’s interesting that we have established rules and procedures for physical interruptions, for example if someone’s office door is closed, if they are obviously on a phone call or If they are in conversation with someone else, we are conditioned not to interrupt unless it is a serious emergency.

Email doesn’t work this way, and for many people is an immediate interruption, as too many people look at email as it hits their inbox and bleeps, whether on their desktop, laptop or hand-held.

The other problem with an email is that until you open it, you have no real understanding (beyond the alert and who was the sender) as to what priority level it may be, and therefore whether it actually warrants the interruption that it has created. We tend to give emails elevated levels of priority that go well beyond what they deserve. I believe that very few emails are sent with the belief that they will be handled instantaneously, but most people accord them that privilege.

Try this for test.

Send an email to a group of 6-8 subordinates or peers saying “Call me when you read this”. You will be surprised at how quickly you will get the return calls, despite the fact that no competent manager could ever assume that email is a way to get an instantaneous response. If it was time critical they would at the least have left a message on your voicemail.

The problem is that handling emails one by one is a terrible time waster.
What happens is that when something interesting happens you can receive at least 20 emails on the same topic, for example “Leo Apotheker being appointed CEO of HP”. At least if you group your emails, and only actually work your inbox just a few times a day rather than every time you are beeped, you can save yourself a lot of individual responses describing your surprise.

Secondly when you know that you have 100 emails to handle in just the 1 hour that you have scheduled, you tend to be much more succinct and bloody-minded about how you handle them than doing them one at a time. The key is to turn off the email bleepers, and schedule email time when it suits you to handle email rather than as though each email was a gift from above.

The second step in managing interruptions is to try and club physical interruptions together as well by letting people know when you will be readily interruptible. You can do this by regularly scheduling “open door” (green) time. In the same way that I suggested that you need to schedule private time (red time) for appointments with yourself (see “Second Secret of Time management” posted 30/9/2010), you should also schedule regular times when anyone can come in to interrupt you.

Whenever I was in home base, I would always try and schedule 2 regular 30 minute sessions per day when anyone could come in to my office for a chat or to ask or tell me something. The rules were that no-one could actually make an appointment during that time or close the door, and anyone could come in at any time no matter who was already in the room. It was not allowed to become an unscheduled meeting, just an ad-hoc chat session. I considered this to be a true open door policy, rather than just writing that you have one. Once people got to know that these times were available they started to schedule their time around my availability, seriously minimising my interruptions, but still leaving me easily approachable on any quick-fix topic.

Some executives I have worked with have even taken the additional step of not having chairs available in their office during these sessions, making those who drop in much more succinct and much keener to have their say and then depart.
As you may actually also have some free time during these open-door sessions, it’s also a good time to do some of those tasks that are graded as “C”s on your do-list, as these do need to get done some time and they can normally handle interruptions.

By the way, it doesn’t hurt to turn the mobile phone off occasionally as well.

Focus can have a great bearing on success, and the more you can control interruptions, whether physical or electronic, the more you can achieve it when needed.

LAUGHTER IS DEFINITELY THE BEST MEDICINE

I think that laughter is one of the great gifts that we have been given, whether it is just a chuckle, a great guffaw, or the sort of laughter with others that has tears rolling down your cheeks.

It is a true universal language that crosses all barriers, with people from all cultures and races laughing in basically the same way. Small babies can even laugh audibly long before they can speak.

Laughter stimulates the pituitary gland and the hypothalamus to produce endorphins which generate feelings of well being, and is a significantly easier way to achieve this than through other endorphin generating activities such as vigorous exercise or orgasm, and has the advantage of not needing a gym and being acceptable in public.

It has also been shown that even just curling your lips into a smile is enough to send a message to the brain to generate some endorphins, so is a great thing to do when you are feeling angry, stressed or depressed, though doing this suddenly in a crowd of people may cause panic when they are confronted by someone who suddenly looks like “The Joker” from the Batman series.

So, if laughter is such a great way to make us feel better, why is it in such short supply, particularly when times are so tough? You would expect that we should be laughing a whole lot more as we watch the whole world stagger from one financial crisis to another, and yet there hasn’t even been much of a surge of economic crisis humour. The only reasonably funny one I’ve seen in the last 2 years is:

A CEO decided to award a prize of €50 for the best idea for saving the company money during the recession. It was won by a young executive who suggested reducing the prize money to €10.

The Great Depression which started in 1929, and lasted for a decade leading up to the second world war, gave birth to an explosion of humour from greats such as Jack Benny, George Burns and Gracie Allen, The Three Stooges, The Marx Brothers and Charlie Chaplin.

This time around we don’t seem to be laughing hard enough, and as such is it any wonder that everything is so depressing! Mort Walker, the longest drawing cartoonist in history and creator of the comic strip Beetle Bailey summed it up with “Seven days without laughter makes one weak”, and we are therefore getting weaker.

We are globally faced with ageing populations, which should be a great source of humour in itself, but there has been very little new material that has evolved. Very little has topped George Burns saying “When I was a boy the Dead Sea was only sick” or “I’m at the age now where just putting my cigar in its holder is a thrill”.

We are destroying the planet through pollution, carbon emissions and global warming, and driving many species of flora and fauna into extinction, but it has become politically incorrect to laugh at even our own stupidities.

It is political correctness that has made us too scared to laugh at ourselves anymore.

Jokes about Jews have you labeled as anti-semitic (even if you are Jewish) and jokes about Muslims bring on Fatwahs. You can’t make jokes anymore about the obese (the ample proportioned), the handicapped (differently-abled) or the aged (chronologically challenged).

Humour about certain nationalities has also become less acceptable, particularly in light of the changing world order. One can’t laugh at those nations on the decline as it is considered schadenfreude, nor at those on the ascendant in case they take revenge once they are in power.

You can’t laugh at the political left as they will take to the streets of Paris in response, and you can’t laugh at the political right, unless it is about Sarah Palin running for the US Presidency, which would be a great joke if it wasn’t so serious.

A sense of humour has become a non-laughing matter.

Someone wise once said

“As a general rule, the freedom of any people can be judged by the volume of their laughter”.

If so, we have exchanged our freedom, and the joy of laughter, for the sake of political correctness, and we will suffer for it.