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Sep 17, 2014

Service With a Sneer: Le Pavin

THE STORY:
 
France, and Paris in particular, are fairly famous for bad customer service -- service with a sneer. 
My friend recently moved to Paris for the year, and he tells me that something I said helps him appreciate that, frankly, this simply isn't true: Customer service is not bad here, but it might seem that way to an American, because it operates under a completely different paradigm.
 

In the United States, we judge customer service by its efficiency. An American doesn't want to wait a long time; that's the kiss of death when it comes to service. We want to get in, get out, and be done. Well, the French find that cold, impersonal, and boring. But what you lose in efficiency, you gain in humanity.

What you need to understand in France is that the person behind the counter will take her sweet time with each customer in line. Including you. So, yes, you will wait and wait and wait while the person in front of you has long drawn out conversations with the seller. But then, when it's your turn, and you're looking for a white wine, for example, you will be asked with great sincerity, not just:

"Do you like it fruity or dry?"

but also:

"What other wines do you like?"
"What are you serving for dinner?"
"How will you be preparing the chicken? Which herbs and spices? What are the side dishes?"

They might trade pleasant stories with you about dinner parties, and even cooking tips for your planned menu. If you enjoy the encounter, they will too, and will give you service with a big smile. You've got a friend for life.

It's how I met Tariq, my favorite honey seller; Jerome & Marina, my favorite produce sellers; Alex, my preferred cheesemonger. But even in stores I only go to once, I find the same dynamic, and it works with tickets sellers and even bureaucrats to a limited degree, though there you have to use your casual banter judiciously.
 
I had warned my friend about this; he's a business executive from the Bay Area, so you can imagine that it was something of a cultural shock to be standing in line behind somebody's loooooooong conversation, while he fidgeted and hoped to get to the front quickly enough to buy a ticket and board a boat about to cast off.

When you go into stores, everybody knows exactly in which order you arrived (both the other customers and the salespeople), and they follow this order with meticulous fairness. If you've ever seen a hoard of French people rudely shoving and trampling each other trying to board a bus or get on a ski lift, you will understand my amazement at the fairness in the shops. But it's consistently true. They all stand there, patiently and calmly, until it's their turn, at which point they are thorough and unrushed.

At one cheese shop in Alsace -- at which I was known to be a tourist, never to return -- the seller enjoys our interaction and enthusiasm so much, she surreptitiously slips in a huge, extra wedge of cheese for free.

 

In Paris, a cheese seller I only occasionally purchase from brings this contraption -- a special cheese shaver -- in to show me the next time I come around.


And yes, I'm am probably unusually spoiled at cheese shops, because once I bring out the list of 300+ French cheeses I've tasted, they're generally won over. But even in non-cheese stores, after several years here, I actually prefer the French -- and even Parisian -- customer service style. I enjoy the conversations, and I also appreciate that I almost invariably am really pleased with my purchase, that it's genuinely what I wanted. However, when I'm in a hurry, my American side comes out, and I'm sure I've been guilty of the occasional arms-crossed, foot-tapping eye-roll. This inevitably sours the whole interaction; patience gets rewarded, and impatience gets what it deserves, too. When it comes to service with a sneer, it's the hurried American customers that are doing the sneering.

THE CHEESE: Le Pavin

 
Le Pavin is made from pasteurized cows' milk in Auvergne and is considered a cousin to Saint-Nectaire. It is named for Lake Pavin, which is located inside a volcano nearby Puy de Dôme, where you'll find many of the cellars that age Saint-Nectaire; hence, the connection to that famous cheese. Many of these cellars are actually natural caves formed in the rock; hence, the French word "caves" which means "cellars" as well as "caves". Le Pavin is aged for a month in a humid cellar, during which time it's regularly washed to encourage the moldy crust.
 
 
Le Pavin is a commercial brand, and it's hard to miss it in the bright orange wrapper. Despite being both pasteurized and commercialized, it's surprisingly creamy and flavorful. Though I expect it to be bland and rubbery, the flavor is earthy, sweet, and mushroomy.
 

THE CONNECTION:

Not only do I taste the Pavin at the same cheese stand where I receive such excellent service (once it's my turn) with the cheesemonger even bringing in the special cutting machine to show me on another day, but also he actually cuts open the Pavin disc so I can taste it, knowing that I'm not even planning on buying any. Of course I do end up buying another cheese, at which point he puts in an extra tiny cheese for free. That's great customer service!

2 comments :

  1. I've had nothing but lovely experiences in France. Two months ago I spent almost a half hour in a Paris pharmacy stocking up on things I can't get in the states. Had a lovely conversation with the pharmacist about all manner of things. She was diplomatic but very honest about the state of my skin. I walked away with new hope for my skin, with a smile, and more freebies than I've ever gotten shopping for similar products in a U.S.!! And, unlike a lot of my shopping experiences in the States, I thoroughly enjoyed this retail therapy.

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    Replies
    1. I'm so happy to have my perspective backed up by your story and experiences. And I'm also quite happy you get into the spirit of things and get such great service! Just today after I posted this, my fruit sellers gave me approximately 40euros of free raspberries (that were all about to turn) and I've now got a fresh raspberry tiramisu setting in my fridge -- all because I take the time each week to really talk to them, no matter how long the line.

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