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Customer Service “À la Française”

I absolutely love the word “egregious”. It’s one of those words that I learned at school as a way of remembering Latin vocabulary.

One rainy afternoon in an otherwise boring second form Latin class, the teacher explained to an eager bunch of 12-year-olds that the word ‘grex’ means ‘herd’, as in ‘egregious’. We looked blankly at her. “Literally, it’s e-, ‘outside of’ grex ‘the herd’. Egregious is something that stands apart. Something outstanding or exceptional.”

The explanation stayed with me but in that last [number withheld!] years I have racked my brains but never found an opportunity to use the word.

Until today.

Congratulations French national railway company SNCF on one of the most egregious examples of ‘je m’en fichisme’ (that’s French for ‘couldn’t give a flying F***’) I have ever been unfortunate enough to witness.

I’m in France this month, working with a number of IT consultancies to help improve their sales and strategy. Today I went down from Paris to Lyon to meet with one of the clients, and at the end of the day I got to the train station[i] over 2 hours before my train back to Paris was due to depart. There was another train leaving in 10 minutes so I went to the ticket office to change my ticket.

There were three options. Which would you choose?

Option 1) ‘departures on other days’

Option 2) ‘same day departures’

Option 3) ‘Express Pro. Immediate departures’ (with a little sign at the entrance saying ‘equally available to Express Pro card holders and immediate departures’

I foolishly believed that ‘immediate departures’ meant… err… immediate departures, and with 8 minutes to go before my train (which in my mind is pretty immediate) I arrived at desk #6. The customer service rep (let’s just call her ‘little miss something just died under my nose’) looked at my ticket and said ‘you’re at the wrong desk. This is for Express Pro card holders.”

“It says ‘Immediate Departures’” I replied.


I pointed to the sign above her head.

“Immediate departures is over there.” She pointed to the desks marked “Same day departures”.

“What’s this then?”

“This is for Express Pro card holders”

“Then why does it say ‘immediate departures’?” (By now I was starting to wonder if Kafka was an SNCF season ticket holder.)

“I’m sorry, you have to queue over there”.

I looked across. There were 8 counters, but only 3 of them were manned, even though it was the peak of the rush hour. The queue was at least 30 people. “But I’ll miss my train. It leaves in 8 minutes.”

“That’s not my problem. Rules are rules.”

Sadly, I’m very British about these situations, and rather than asking to speak to her boss, like anyone from almost any other culture would have done, I opted not to make a fuss.

So I joined the queue.

Ten minutes later I reach the front of the queue and get called to…

The SAME #£$&@#!!!@$@ DESK! I’m back where I was 10 minutes before, but have just missed my train by 2 minutes.

Barely able to contain my anger I asked her “I thought this was the Express Pro counter?”

“Yes sir, but when we’re not busy we serve the other queue too.”

So I changed my ticket.

“Anything else?”

I looked at my watch. ‘What the heck,’ I thought. ‘I’ve got 28 minutes to kill’. “Yes, could you fetch the station master? I’d like to complain about a member of staff.”


Now, “what does this have to do with me?” I hear you ask.

Plenty. As a business owner you need to know how to manage capacity, in other words how to get the most use out of your resources. If you run a service business you want to have your staff employed all the time you’re paying them. When they’re not working, they are a cost. If you run a factory you want to run the production lines as close to full time as possible. Why? Because when they’re sitting idle they’re a cost. Of course in both cases you build in down-time so that people can rest and machines can be maintained, but on the whole you want to keep things fully utilised in the busy periods.

In order to do that you need loyal customers. You want people who will buy from you, keep buying from you, and tell their friends about you.

It means providing more than basic service, and it definitely means not deliberately irritating your customers over details and rules. Successful companies have staff who look for opportunities to delight their customers. Failing companies have staff who invoke “the rules” so they don’t have to bother.

I remember reading (I think it was in Bill Gates’ book “Business At The Speed of Thought”) about a hotel chain where every member of staff gets a daily budget they can use to put things right or delight guests. They don’t have to go and ask a manager for permission. They don’t need to get board approval. If something is wrong, they can act immediately. That’s customer service. That’s what gets people to buy, keep buying, and tell their friends.

The train I eventually boarded was a peak-time commuter express train running between two of the largest commercial centres in France. In the UK a 6pm train from Leeds to London would have been standing room only. In the US a 6pm train from DC to New York would be a mile long and standing room only.

This train had plenty of empty seats. And when you’re running a train service, every empty seat is… a cost.

Its the first time I have ridden a French train in 26 years. And hopefully the last.

Sadly, SNCF is a wonderful – some might even say egregious (especially if they wanted to capitalise on the opportunity to use the word!) – example of what my old MBA Organisational Behaviour lecturer called a sociopathic organisation. One which values internal rules and structure over logic, compassion or even plain old common sense. Normally such organisations have some redeeming feature, such as “they made the trains run on time”. Looking at the glowing red departures board as I waited for the station master, SNCF can’t even make that claim.

All I can say is…

This wouldn’t have happened at Waterloo!



[i] In case you’re wondering, it was the Gare de Lyon, so called because it’s in in Lyon. Not to be confused with the Gare de Lyon in Paris, so called because trains from that station go to Lyon. Which begs the question, ‘why isn’t the station in Lyon called the Gare de Paris?’

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