A Lesson in Customer Service at the Sorbonne

Back to school time!
Classes start for me at the Sorbonne this week, but not as a student. No, this year I begin teaching in the framework of my PhD. They are entrusting me to teach French students. In French. This should be good.

I went to school a few days before classes to check in on the AV equipment. University facilities are notorious for making PowerPoint presenting feel like passing kidney stones, so I wanted to get the skinny before I showed up in front of a group of students who would judge me on my ability to project a slide.

I entered the new building at Paris 3 (spiffy, to say the least) and found the main desk, guarded by a woman eating a half-empty container of lentils. It was around 1PM. Sacred time for the French for any customer service representative. Even though she was helping a girl already, she looked at me with raised eyebrows.

“Hi, I have a class to teach this week and I wanted to know if I could use the projector,” I asked cheerfully, assuming she was angry to have been doubly interrupted during her lentil feast. “Do I talk to you or should I…” Her finger raised at me.

“One second,” she hastily replied as the girl in front of me scrambled through her papers. She was looking for the name of her professor but couldn't find it. She finally found the paper and read the name, letter by letter.

“There’s no one with that name here,” the lady at the desk said dryly and with a hint of exasperation.

“But that’s the professor. He must be here,” the young French student said,. The lady threw her hands up as if to surrender, but really to say sorry chica. I was already intimidated by her. This French girl was warming me up for disaster with an already-flustered office worker. I was tempted to jet at that moment to avoid being scolded non-verbally by her.

Then the girl spelled the name again. “K-A-N…Oh wait, it’s a ‘Q’ not a ‘K’,” she shrieked, “I’m so embarrassed.”

“You should be,” the lady quipped as she found the professor’s name and room number. She was right, but I was half mortified that this lady would lash me for my French, yet half enthused that a French girl had made such an awful mistake in her own language. It made me feel that much more confident about my language skills, at least.

Finally it was my turn and I immediately apologized for interrupting her lunch – my standard tactic for dealing with any government worker in an office. Diffuse any situation there might be before asking for something. If you want good customer service, it helps to be a good customer (plus it takes virtually no effort).

“Oh no, I tell the administrators that I can’t take a lunch break, that students and professors need to come see me at this hour, so I don’t mind,” she confided in me. I suddenly felt as if we were old friends. I stopped sweating through my shirt and relaxed a bit. I introduced myself as Bryan. She was Nathalie. Before I knew it we were in my classroom with a computer, going over the ABC’s of how to use the projector. She was patiently explaining everything and answering my questions, unconcerned with having abandoned her post for 15 minutes. No one would die, I suppose.

It made me rethink customer service in France. For every time I have to wait on a representative or a store clerk or a waiter and am tempted to get peeved, could they actually just be giving someone else a little extra intention? It would become my new optimistic assumption, at least.

We had everything figured out and I felt good about my class thanks to Nathalie's help. When we went back down to the desk, a few students were waiting around, seemingly peeved and grumbling, not one ready to check to see if Nathalie finished her lentils first. Amateurs, I thought. I cracked some joke with Nat, since we’re friends like that, and told her I’d see her Thursday, leaving her to get back to work.