Two weeks, and the timer goes for me to clean my act up.
Certainly any part of a good internship is being forced to push one’s comfort zones and to grow through the presented challenges. This is easier said than done. It’s still fairly early in this game, but my main challenge seem to be taking its form.
I am not stranger to trying to please difficult people; theatre has presented many an emotional and impatient player into my professional experience. There, however, I had the multiple advantages of previous experience, a native language, and an amount of authority.
Here, I am a clear foreigner who is new to this game and subject to the whims of the customer. I have not worked in customer service before now, so I am building an entirely new skill set in a different culture, through a different language.
I am not, however, writing this blog post in an attempt to complain about working with customers. The truth is that the vast majority of people who come into our bookstore are both enthusiastic to be there and delighted by our vast array of artwork. People come to just look and marvel, which is delightful.
Instead, I think that my troubles with customer service provide a rather interesting insight into the cultural differences, similarities, and nuances that I experience here.
I will start first by saying what is not true. No, most Parisian customers do not come in fuming. No, most Americans do not come in loudly demanding that we speak English. But do these things happen generally across our customer base, regardless of origin? Yes.
As I discuss in my previous post, Galerie Maeght’s image is that of a luxury good. This is really what seems to form the attitudes of our customers more than anything. Even if they are buying a 20€ book, they have come into a prestigious shop to do so, and thus expect (and deserve!) the quality of customer service that a luxury organization should provide.
For the French, regardless of their level of (im)patience, this all starts with a “Bonjour!” and a smile, followed by lots of space. To hover is to press, and to press is to be rude. Should they begin to spend lots of time in the gallery, a simple “If you have any questions…” suffices, if they are near the desk. For the most part, however, they will ask a question when they have it. This can range from “I am looking for issue #176 of Derrière le Miroir” to “What artist is this?” The latter type is where I begin to have trouble. As the questions become more general, it is harder for me to interpret what the customer is truly asking. In the aforementioned question, that customer may want to know a run-down of the artist’s life and style, or perhaps what other pieces we have. It’s a start to a small conversation, and I am not yet fluent enough to fully understand how to effectively manage these interactions. Today, there was even a woman who wanted an opinion on a Miró poster for the bedroom of her baby-to-come. It took my French coworker a good bit of convincing to persuade her that the Miró was an excellent choice, and I knew that I would not have done such a smooth and effective job. Room to grow.
This continues at the wrap-up, where lithographs and posters are presented, so the customer may assess and hopefully approve of the presented copy. They are then carefully packaged, and sometimes gift-wrapped, before being handed to the customer. Gift wrap, not so bad. I can cut ribbons in two languages.
Overall, it’s really the sales process that I have trouble with . It requires both a cultural and linguistic proficiency which I am not yet capable of. The patient customers are, well, patient. They restate their questions and I am then usually able to help them. The impatient customers? Not so much. I have turned the path of a sale already, and not for the better, largely due to my weaknesses. We have plenty of impatient American customers. Like I said, it’s more of a function of our product than a question of which culture produces more impatient people. However, I am able to quickly explain and assure American customers, whereas I am much slower in French. This doesn’t help.
You would think that a product with impatient customers would create equally impatient workers, but not at all. My coworkers are lovely. They explain things to me, allow me to re-state and clarify, and are supportive of my mistakes. Without a doubt, much of this is due to the fact that I try to make myself useful elsewhere. I deal with the English-speaking customers because I am the most fluent. I help with translating materials, and I try to never miss an opportunity to observe and learn. So, even in the wake of a lost sale, they give me feedback on what to change so I may do better next time.
And really, I am getting better. Today, a customer came in to buy some cards and a small book–nothing to break the bank. However, she was entirely enraptured by the the gallery’s Duo Collections, which are pictured above. These one-of-a-kind books pair an artist with a poet, who then create a small book together. Each title has only 100 editions, all of which are signed by both creators. This unique process costs a pretty penny of 200€. I offered to pull one out for her, should she so desire to look. At first she was hesitant, insisting that she wasn’t looking to buy, but with assurance from myself and my coworker that she was fully welcome to just look, she agreed. We pulled out one copy which she decided to purchase.
For now, I am still a member of a team. I am happy to be learning, and I am excited for what is to come.