By Benoît Meyronin, founding associate of the Academie du Service and professor at Grenoble Ecole de Management
A few years ago, I had occasion to point out the mistaken belief that “service is terrible” in France and excellent elsewhere, especially in the United States. Perceptions being what they are, everyone is free to share my point of view or to adopt a different one. What is not debatable, however, is the transformation underway in France, in both the B2C and B2B domains: the development of service culture and/or customer-centric approaches in the French subsidiaries of big international groups is, indeed, interesting to observe. More generally, this post is an occasion to redefine a (perhaps) particular moment in the development of service culture at a country level: that of a decade which has seen it progress from a budding movement to a full-blown one.
Another French paradox? When the French subsidiaries of international groups take the initiative
Whether it be the French subsidiary of a fast-food giant, of the global BioPharma company Bristol Myers Squibb, of a powerful German middle-market company (Kuka, a leading manufacturer of robotic systems) or of a global leader in medical imagery and diagnostics, we have here four examples of French organizations that have taken the initiative in service and customer experience within their respective global groups. Surprising, for a country whose reputation for service is rather mediocre! Indeed, we are referring to organizations that have inspired—or are inspiring—similar initiatives elsewhere in their respective groups. France, an experimental model of transformation through service and customer experience?
No, France is not at the bottom of the service league table
Cynics, of course, will say, “It’s only normal, since we’re laggards”. That’s why, they would argue, the companies mentioned have to invest in transformation programmes aimed at promoting greater customer focus and satisfaction. To such sceptics I would reply that discussions with the project leaders at these companies leave no doubt whatsoever about the value their respective groups place on the French experience in the development—or reinforcement—of a customer/service culture, considered everywhere to fall short of what it should be.
France, then, far from being “at the bottom of the service league table”, is rather a pioneer in imagining ways to help companies’ progress along the service road. Interesting, indeed…
10 years already… Commercially-run public services at the hospital, another French paradox?
So what? So, it seems to me that France has passed the transitional stage and has fully entered the Service – or “Customer Experience” – era. Indeed, it is now ten years since the first structured service-culture initiatives appeared, notably in the commercially-run public services, especially the French National Railways (SNCF)  and la Poste. For the SNCF, the initiative took the form of a “service university”, sponsored by the Human Resources department and the top management; for la Poste, it was “Esprit de Service”, a programme spearheaded by the Quality team. These two big companies have certainly not succeeded in everything, but only someone with a singular lack of sincerity would deny they have made real progress. Since then, other companies have started their own service university or academy in order to facilitate their cultural transformation, including BNP Paribas, the Paris Transit Authority (RATP) and Paris Airports.
Interestingly, it is the big French commercially-run public service companies that have taken up service culture, often before private-sector firms. The latter have come round to it in greater numbers today, via customer relations and, more recently, the customer experience. This is particularly true of big industrial firms which, like Peugeot-Citröen and Michelin, clearly consider the customer experience and services to be of equal importance to the product as strategic drivers. There are also the examples of SAFRAN, the Aerospace, Defence and Security group, which set up its Fab Lab devoted to innovative concepts relating to services, and Renault, which, via its CARE and CARE 2.0 programmes, is undertaking a long-term transformation drive that began with the Renault Excellence Programme ten years ago—a drive which, among other things, led to the creation in 2013 of a Customer Division bringing together all Renault’s customer relations and sales channels.
Not to be outdone, public hospitals are also on the move, as the recent creation of the association “Expérience Patient France” (at the initiative of the ANAP, a public interest group that assists hospitals in improving their services) demonstrates. Inspired by the US patient-experience movement, this non-profit organisation aims to improve knowledge and mutualise practices among the public health sector. Another illustration: regional medical centres and teaching hospitals across France have launched pilot projects aimed at improving the patient experience – or service culture.
Finally, the founding, last year, of the association “Esprit de Service France” demonstrates this service orientation in another form. This new grouping of business professionals from a wide range of sectors, aimed at promoting the transformation and development of organisations through service excellence, has just partnered with the Association française de la Relation Client (AFRC) and the Association française pour le Management de la Réclamation (AMARC, whose mission is to promote the effective management of customer dissatisfaction).
We can clearly see, then, that a real movement is underway.
For all that, are things any easier? No, but there is reason for hope…
If a movement is indeed underway, if groupings of business professionals support it, if training programmes and dedicated chairs have appeared in various French universities, if consulting firms focused on service have arisen (and if almost all other consultancies now have a specialist division in this area), one cannot but recognize that customer-centric and service-oriented initiatives are still struggling to gain a momentum commensurate with the stakes for France, its companies and its public services.
For all that, I see reason for hope in the four examples alluded to earlier: they show that France knows how to take the initiative on service matters in the context of international groups that, one would have thought, would have launched these initiatives themselves within the parent company (especially the two American examples mentioned).
 Concerning the SNCF, I invite the reader to consult the book I edited with Magali Euverte and Hubert Joseph-Antoine, Management du service & transformation : le cas de la SNCF, Vuibert, 2010. Only available in French.
 I had the pleasure, with Philippe El Saïr (MD of the Brest Teaching Hospital), to coordinate a special report on “The Service Relation in Hospitals” in issue N°519 of the journal Gestion Hospitalière, October 2012.