Tuesday, February 10, 2009

“Time Is More Important than Money”

Add to Google Reader or HomepageInsight: for the French who work in the local stores and in most situations where there is a face-to-face contact, time is more important than money. When you finally get to the front of the line, the sales representative, postal worker, bank teller focuses his/her attention on you and your request – 100%. You may have been in line for a half hour, but now it is your turn and for the fleeting moments of exchange, you are the ONLY client the salesperson has to serve.

It was our English friend Margaret M. who first used the expression, but it fits so well, I told her that I planned to copy it. It is such a perfect description of the undercurrent of customer service. The customer is #1. For instance, yesterday, I went to pick up a gift to take to the people who had invited us for “apero” (aperitifs). We had decided to get chocolate from the chocolatier in town. When I entered the store, I saw an elderly man and his wife and they were buying beautiful chocolate creations BUT they were confirming the ingredients in each creation, discussing the designs, etc. The sales clerk had looked in my direction and had smiled but never left her post in front of the couple nor missed a beat while answering their questions. Finally the gentleman looked at me and asked if I knew what I wanted to buy – because he knew that he and his wife were going to be choosing chocolates for another 30 minutes. I thanked him for permitting me to get the gift (the sales clerk thanked him as well) and we were on our way…

It is probably the reason that the French will stand in line so patiently – because they know the rewards of their patience – they will have the undivided attention of the person there to serve them. There have been times when I have thought: “alright, already. The clerk is certainly not interested in the carrots that you got at the market last week” but, in fact, the clerks seem to be interested.

Closed for the lunch hour(s)

The idea of time being more important than money explains French lunches and why most of the shops and services close for two hours around noon. The shop closures give people the time to eat leisurely and properly – not having to rush back to work as we do in the states with a sandwich from the drive-through… It also explains why there are few “fast food” franchises – though the numbers are increasing every year.

It is not only the adults who have a long lunch hour. Kids in school here have an hour – but kids also have meals that include entrĂ©e, main course, salad, cheese and/or dessert. It is not the cafeteria food that we had as kids nor is it the 20 minutes we had to eat whatever they served. In a small way, it could be a very rational approach to helping children learn how important eating well can be in life. (The local elementary school publishes and posts their menus on the bulletin board outside of the school so that all parents can be assured that their children are eating well…) The school day is also longer – school starts at 9:00 and ends at 4:30 PM.

One of the things that drove me crazy when we first arrived here was that once you were served your food/espresso/pichet of wine, it was impossible to get the attention of the waiter/waitress. After finishing whatever, I would be ready to leave/wanting to leave but the waiter would not have brought the bill. It was because, in France, I could stay and sip my espresso or sit and watch the world passing by after having finished my espresso as long as I wanted because my time was more important than my money… It reminds me of the very early days of the child care task force and how we were asked by one downtown coffee shop to go somewhere else for our meetings – as we would sit there for a long time and not order anything more than one coffee… Had we had our meetings in France, who knows how much more we might have accomplished?