Angry Birds: Le Untold Story

PARIS – Mon Dieu, the perfection! Just minutes before commencing this morality tale of the Relationship Era, your roving correspondent was turned away from Air France SkyPriority service center. Evidently, despite my supposedly elite-passenger status, my priorities did not match those of the gatekeeper.

It seems my questions about my frequent-flier number and baggage transfer were meant for a colleague somewhere else at Charles De Gaulle airport. Perhaps in the duty-free corridor. Or Le Bureau de l’insignifiance dans le Ministère de L'insolence.

Customer Relations Management, meet France. Bonne chance. You will need it.

Mind you, they theoretically do have CRM here. It is called service clients (a fabulous oxymoron along the lines of “military intelligence” or “Internet privacy.”) But they don’t seem to fully understand the terms -- not “client” and certainly not “service.”



To observe that the French are haughty and uncooperative is a cliché and scurrilous stereotype, justified only in the narrowest sense that it is constantly proving itself to be true. The vaunted French culture includes not only Matisse, Monet, Renoir, Bonnard, Zola, Proust, Balzac, Baudelaire, Offenbach, Debussy, Berlioz, Bizet and Faure, but also the snub, the shrug and the elevation of xenophobic contempt to high art. (What’s the French word for “chauvinism?”) Waiters, taxi drivers, hotel clerks and functionaries of every stripe are a sorry lot -- as in “I am sorry, monsieur. There is nothing I can do.”

Vive la France! Liberté, fraternité, impossibilité!

The Air France episode is mere prologue. Having traveled many times to this land of sauces and summertime labor strikes, I could have plucked any number of anecdotes to make my point: the taxi driver who would not drive until I uncrossed my leg, the doorkeeper who would not let a speaker’s 12-year-old daughter enter the speaker’s lounge with her because the child was not a speaker, the concierge who would not acknowledge a missed wake-up call.  

A common complaint, that one. The Italians famously regarding traffic signals as a suggestion. The French regard a wake-up call as a challenge to their sovereignty. If they had fought the Nazis the way they fight the will of their guests not to sleep through meetings, the world would be a different place. But this is a proud and stubborn people. To phone somebody who has asked to be phoned -- it is so…subservient. Thus do complaints fall on a nation’s deaf ear, especially at the front desk.

“I left a wake-up call last night for 8 a.m. It is now 10 a.m. and I have missed an important appointment.”

“Monsieur, I am very sorry [translation: “I am not sorry at all”] but it is not my responsibility. You will have to speak to my colleague.”

“Where is your colleague?”

“He is home asleep.”

One could phone that night manager and wake him, but what would that accomplish? The only satisfaction would be to wait until he needed to rise for work and then somehow uncall to unwake him.

Politics, they say, is the art of the possible. Service clients is the art of the impossible, the apotheosis of passive-aggressiveness in a country where hostility and resentment are birthrights. But never mind the catalogue of past grievances; there is a fresh example, from the Cannes Lions Festival, that would be like something from Kafka were it not exactly something from Hitchcock.

Your correspondent as on the patio of Le Grand Hotel, watching the sea before dinner at the hotel’s chi-chi Le Park 45. “Une bière, s'il vous plaît.” The waiter returned promptly with a bottle of 1664, along with a bowl of peanuts. Moments later, your hero was subjected to a frantic outbreak of nature. A flock of seagulls had made from the blue Mediterranean straight for the table and instantly engulfed me, their wings flapping like tent canvas, their beaks and talons pecking furiously.

I was like Tippi Hedren, only with facial hair. This went on for close to a minute and it was unnerving. Not only was I being swarmed upon by nine huge angry birds, my 1664 was in jeopardy. At Cannes prices, you can have a beer or you can have a liver transplant. Nobody can afford both.

Finally, from behind me there was a loud crack. The waiter had smacked two chair cushions together. A second and third wallop finally frightened the gulls away.

So I finished my beer. When I was ready to leave, I summoned the waiter and asked if perhaps, under the circumstances, I could consider my refreshment on the house.

“Monsieur, what are you asking? The beer is 9 euro.”

“I was attacked by birds.”

“But these are birds, monsieur. There is nothing I can do.”

“Does this happen often?”

“Oui, it happens.”

“Are they after the peanuts?”

“Oui, they like the peanuts.”

“Did I order peanuts?”

“Monsieur, you ordered a beer. The peanuts are, of course, complimentary.”

“Did I order the peanuts?”

“I do not understand what you are asking me.”

“It seems you have a marauding seagull problem -- giant birds fighting with one another for peanuts. It seems to me you placed seagull bait on my table, where all I wanted to do was enjoy a beer. But a flock of hungry birds, enticed by the peanuts you placed there for them, began thrashing about my head and upper body. They did not, in the end, peck my eyes out -- and I am grateful, for I am sure there would have been a charge for that service. But nonetheless I repeat: Would you care to buy me a beer? As a courtesy for my inconvenience.”

”The beer is 9 euro, monsieur.”

I gave the man a 10 and told him to keep the change -- a small token of respect for the pride of a nation. But I'm pessimistic for that nation's ability to adapt to a CRM world. To bastardize Bogart's closing prediction to Claude Rains, Casablanca's French prefect of police: “This is the beginning of a terrible relationship.”



19 comments about "Angry Birds: Le Untold Story ".
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  1. Audrey Genko from Not disclosed, July 8, 2013 at 8:12 a.m.

    Mister Garfield,

    Reading you often with pleasure, I am quite gutted at today's article.

    What was the point in your article today? Venting your frustration on the French culture, implying that all French are unreasonable, unprofessional and not customer oriented ... because you didn't get a free beer ? I understand you only used one example, perhaps out of many, to illustrate your frustration, but I don't see how you can draw such a line as to say that we don't know a thing about CRM.

    Are you an expert with French Marketing ? With French culture ? Do you work on a daily basis with French companies, CEO, Marketing directors or E-marketing Managers, to be so sure that we don't know anything about customer service ?

    Do you realize that many of your readers may not have the opportunity to go abroad, experience AND understand different cultures, and by your article, you simply disregard and disrespect an entire culture? And many will follow? Do you get that based on this, many people will just believe we, French are a bunch of incompetent people ?

    Of course all French are not as you describe and thank god for that. I understand that in the US, the customer service is treated differently, but it doesn't mean us French as total moron with no experience in CRM.

    I will continue reading you, anyway, as I value your feedback and experience. I just hope that my message came across : What was the point of your article ? Can you be so sure that what your ascertain is so true?

  2. Bob Garfield from MediaPost, July 8, 2013 at 8:43 a.m.

    I think the answers to all your questions reside in the text. But the answer is simply this: based on decades of unfortunate personal experiences I have drawn some conclusions about the French service culture -- such that it is -- that happen to coincide with the ugliest stereotypes of French haughtiness. But as we increasingly enter the world where customer relations -- not advertising -- assumes primacy in marketing, I fear the French are in a deep hole that will be difficult to escape.
    That was my point. The world is in a Relationship Era and (anecdotally speaking) the French service sector is saying, sorry, there is nothing it can do.
    Thank you for being a reader, and thank you for your thoughtful comments. I am sorry that I can't deliver better news.

  3. Audrey Genko from Not disclosed, July 8, 2013 at 9:06 a.m.

    I understand where you come from, truly, but the assumption is perhaps a tad to far for my taste.

    As a French Emarketing Manager, I've learned throughout my entire experience how customer experience is key. How can we learn from our customers ? How can we deliver them the best service and experience ? How can we target them better, offer them more ?

    Maybe learning from the British and Americans helped through my career, but surely, I'm not the only one ?!? I am sorry to hear that you had such poor experience in France, but please, don't put everyone in the same basket.

    It's like if I was writing a piece (albeit, not as well as you) on how Americans are full of themselves (marketing wise), applying their American-only learnings and experience massively to the world, their entire strategy, without thinking an inch about how it would blend on the local market! (Yes, really, we don't have Thanksgiving in Europe, and yes, you can wish your customer a Merry Xmas... and yes, we have electricity in France, and no, everyone do not speak English in Europe)

    Oh yes, it happens, yet I do not believe that each American are as ill advised or narrow minded. I worked in multi-national and multi-cultural company, and rather than implying that one country/culture is this or this, I rather experienced that it was the people's background, education, interests and behavior that shaped the way they worked, as well as the company it was not entirely down to cultural background. I've met some incredibly open minded Americans, extremely customer oriented French and I am sure, perhaps naively, they were not the only specimen leaving in their respective country.

  4. Robert Lauterborn from University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, July 8, 2013 at 9:07 a.m.

    One beer is NINE EUROS? That is to complain! They should have cooked the gulls and served them en croute for that price. Garnished avec les balls of the night manager. Bob L

  5. John Grono from GAP Research, July 8, 2013 at 9:47 a.m.

    Bob, I get where Audrey is coming from. Now putting the shoe on the other foot, I am sure there is a plethora of traveller's tales about dining in New York and not adding the obligatory 20% tip and being chased into the street by the waiter (who often only works for tips - how did THAT ever happen). Moral of the story? We're all different and we need to view our experiences through different lenses at times.

  6. Carolyn Hansen from Hacker Group, July 8, 2013 at 11:15 a.m.

    Unlike Audrey, I saw several examples of your frustration in your essay. Almost every one of them made me laugh. Sometimes out loud. This was very, very funny. Thanks.

  7. Chandra Chaterji from Strategy By Chaterji, July 8, 2013 at 11:23 a.m.

    Is there a point in here, somewhere? Such narrow-mindedness and pandering to stereotypes is not funny. If you don't like France or the French, don't go there!! Problem solved.

  8. Patrick Di Chiro from THUNDER FACTORY / Di Chiro, July 8, 2013 at 11:28 a.m.

    Bob, I used to live in NYC and, as I am sure you know, the service there frequently makes France look like one big Nordstrom's. Have you ever shopped in a Duane Reed or, heaven forbid, a Gristede grocery store? Some of the most surly, unfriendly checkout people on the planet. I now live in the supposedly sunny California (the Bay Area) and it's not much better, with a few exceptions. Ever tried getting any service (friendly or otherwise) in a Macy's store? At my local Target store, the checkout people aggressively push you to "save 5%" by signing up for their house credit card; of course, they are getting a spiff on each new card signed up. I am a huge proponent of your "Relationship Era" marketing concept. However, the truth is that Les Americains are not exactly paragons of service culture, either. And regarding the attack of the killer gulls in Cannes, you should be happy. That gave you a great story to tell!

  9. Yves-Marie Lemaître from None for the moment, July 8, 2013 at 11:39 a.m.

    Ha! The typical story of an American in France, at least told in that good old anti-French Fox News way... You said you had visited France before. Hum. Ever tried to understand its culture once? I personally would not describe this story as "funny", since the underlying comment is all about the unability of French people to be kind to foreigners. A harsh criticism also of our supposed unability to proceed with CRM. Well, well, well, I have tried to find a witty answer, unfortunately none of that level. Or perhaps, tell the story of that 20-year old American trainer, who had complained to her boss about sexual harassment, because of my hand landing a few seconds on her shoulder, while looking at some example on a screen? Nothing to do with that sectarian puritanism of the US society. No, no. At least not for her. Has anyone said the key word for this post? Not yet? Let me do it. "Cliché".
    And to be honest, Mr Garfield, for once, you are at narrow.

  10. Roger Dooley from Brainfluence, July 8, 2013 at 11:41 a.m.

    Likely, the best examples of the "free bowl of peanuts" gag show up on "France's Funniest Tourist Videos."

  11. Katie Paine from Paine Publishing, July 8, 2013 at 12:15 p.m.

    Great story! Your post makes the investment in this campaign seem like one of the most pointless exercises in marketing history They should have just hired you!

  12. Dorothea Marcus from Weichert Realtors, July 8, 2013 at 12:27 p.m.

    Ah, Bob. I see your wit has not lost its sharpness, mon ami. A fun read.

  13. Andrew Boer from MovableMedia, July 8, 2013 at 2:52 p.m.

    In regard to your central point I would argue that the French "problem" you are observing is really a by-product of hedonic adaptation in the US service culture. With near uniformity of products, US firms differentiate and compete intensely around service.
    In France, competition hasn't evolved along the same direction--unlike the US, however, the French seem to deliver a higher level of artisanship and differentiation in the products they create, especially their cheese, food, wine, and clothes. Until Americans can make a Brie that competes with an AOC Brie, I think France will be fine at attracting tourists.

  14. Bob Garfield from MediaPost, July 8, 2013 at 4:57 p.m.

    That is absurd. Service and conduct are global concepts and will increasingly be the core of marketing. There is no Brie-ification that will change that.

  15. John Grono from GAP Research, July 8, 2013 at 7:28 p.m.

    I was thinking overnight of what constitutes 'good service' and of what positive experiences I have had that to my mind were 'great' service. The time that springs to mind is in a market in the Middle East. That small rug I saw would be perfect at the door, so I enquired about the price. Fortunately his English was much better than my virtually non-existent Arabic. His opening gambit was (of course) astronomic as I clearly was a tourist. I countered with a fifth of that amount. He indicated that at that price it was akin to me slitting his throat as he wouldn't be able to provide for his family (who of course were in his shop), followed by some plaintive dark looks, then a big laugh. We haggled a bit, couldn't agree so I left the shop and checked out the other stores in the market. After 'doing a lap' I went back to his shop and asked his 'best price'. It was around two-thirds of his opening price. I returned his gesture that at that price he would be slitting my throat. The gales of laughter eventually stopped and the serious haggling could now begin. Well almost. First, the family had to bring hot black tea and we had to sit cross-legged and do the deal. I eventually did the deal at just under at around 30% of his opening price. After the sale was complete we sat and smoked the shisha pipe (not that I smoke but I made an exception on this occasion), along with a few breaks for afternoon prayers in the shop (out of politeness he delayed his prayers until after we'd left his shop). I got a great rug, and he made a profit - but probably not enough to buy the pyramid or temple he clearly had his eye on with his opening price! Cheers.

  16. David Cearley from self employed, July 9, 2013 at 12:50 a.m.

    I spent several days in France a few years ago. The only place I detected the arrogance and condescension detailed in your essay was in Paris. Rudeness, calculated haughtiness, deliberate snobbery, even unsolicited comments or insults from passers by on the street were common. On the same trip I was in Budapest, Vienna, Zurich, Milan, Rome, Avignon and London. The only other outrageous incident experienced was at the train station in Zurich at 8am on a Sunday morning. While I was seeking out information about a connecting train, a young punk approached my wife (while she was alone) and proceeded to scream obscenities in her face while standing inches away. If I had witnessed it I'd probably have ended up in jail. He then did the same thing to another female traveling alone, apparently as a form of amusement.
    Europeans appear to exceptionally eager to lighten our wallets with $9 beers and $5 six ounce sodas with no refills, but many hold Americans in utter contempt and gleefully share their disdain with you. My wife, a frequent international traveler, has found an interesting solution to the problem. She carries her Canadian passport and plasters her luggage with miniature Canadian flags.

  17. Roger Dooley from Brainfluence, July 9, 2013 at 10:42 a.m.

    Social sharing, reviews, and the other ways people interact with businesses may be the one force that can change bad service, whether in France or anywhere else.

    Service businesses like restaurants won't be able to survive with just a name and illustrious history. Upstarts who deliver great service along with a great product will be able to displace the old guard far more easily than in the past.

  18. David Cearley from self employed, July 9, 2013 at 11:01 a.m.

    I hsvr to agree. If I made the same trip today I'd look for recommendations on my phone for whatever locality I was in. It woukdn't stop the hostility on the street, but if tourist traps are immediately punished on line, behavior might change. Frsnce? Where no one can be fired, compsnies are forced to stay open even ehen bleeding red ink, sales are regulated by the bureaucrats and loss leaders are illegal will NEVER actually be consumer friendly.

  19. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, July 9, 2013 at 8:19 p.m.

    I have been in Paris a couple of times for a total of about 3 weeks. Before I went I was expecting ignorance as I had been told. Never had it. But boy, have I seen rude, arrogant and ugly Americans. One couple from the Boston area who looked and spoke in conversation like typical middle aged, middle class folk were indignant that all Parisians did not speak English and did not accept dollars anywhere they went. It was bizarre.

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