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Before moving to Paris, I heard horror stories about how rude the French were and readied my family for the difficulties we would experience. But during my four years there, I came to see the French as the purveyors of the best and worst customer service I ever experienced.

France is a country where customer service is an economic imperative as they claim title to being the most visited country in the world with more than 85 million annual visitors and with tourism representing 10 percent of GDP. The French government has tried several campaigns to promote great customer service to increase tourism.

That's only half the battle. Being the right customer and adjusting expectations is what transformed my customer experience in France, and created new levels of loyalty for me with companies large and small alike.

My customer service awakening required me to adjust my role as a customer. After I did this, I received fabulous, "wow" customer service moments. The butcher surprised me with a Thanksgiving bird that he specially ordered for my family honoring an American tradition in France. The dry cleaner went to extreme lengths to remove red wine from a rug. And just recently, after three years since I last visited my favorite wine shop, the owner sent me a special bottle of my favorite wine -- not just because I had a customer service awakening, but also because he knows that I will be back and I will continue to refer customers.

My customer experience awakening required me to adjust my role as customer in three ways:

Customer Effort

There was a moment when it clicked for me. I needed to prepare to be a good customer instead of expecting great service just because I turned up with wallet in hand. Once I did that preparation, which included a salutation and acknowledgement of the professional I was dealing with on the other side of the counter or phone, my value went leaps and bounds above someone doing a mere transaction -- to someone who was respectful and genuinely appreciative of the value of both the person, good and service that I was buying.

Respect Traditions

France is a country that overflows with pride and a respect for its history and traditions. That means a certain harmony and rhythm to life that a customer has to learn to appreciate and respect. Hours of operation still exist. Shops close on weekends. People take vacations. As a customer, I needed to live in that harmony that is the culture and recognize that just because I was a customer from a different cultural background, it did not entitle me to great customer service. It came with my understanding and appreciation of the culture, putting the culture in context to my expectations and routines.

Pride Of Profession

Most of the French I encountered in customer service roles were there as part of a time-honored tradition, not as a part-time job between college degrees or a career shift. Showing that you honor the profession and treat the individual providing you customer service with respect and dignity is part of the unwritten rules of receiving great customer service in any culture. Getting to know the dry cleaner, wine shop owner and butcher with an appreciation for both the profession and the person took my customer interactions from moments of anxiety (when I was afraid of mispronouncing a word) to moments of “wow” that I could not wait to share with family and friends.

When I returned from France, I found that these customer practices were not unique to great customer service in France, but rather that they work everywhere. They work because when you exercise some customer effort, acknowledge and appreciate both the person and the job he or she is performing -- you transform yourself from the customer nobody wants to the customer every customer service representative and company would love to have. In short, in order to get great customer service, you have to put some effort in as well. That is the real lesson I learned from the French.

Title image by srv007 (Flickr) via a CC BY-NC 2.0 license