Friday, October 13, 2006

Taking Care of Le Business: management, à la française

A recent survey conducted by the Financial Times placed business schools in France among la crème de la crème of European educational institutions specializing in management. France’s strong reputation for higher learning, apparently, extends to the arena inhabited by three-piece suits and hard-nosed dealmakers.

For the common man (or woman), French management methodology is amply demonstrated at the retail level. At discount grocery store chain Franprix, and its higher-end counterpart Monoprix, for example, the management seems to believe that daily tasks, such as the re-stocking of inventory – with the aid of large, unwieldy dollies stacked with so much merchandise that it is difficult to navigate through the narrow aisles – is best carried out at lunchtime, when the store is crammed with throngs of rushed office workers buying salads and juice before hurrying back to their desks. Franprix takes this strategy one step further between the busy hours of six and eight o’clock in the evening, when the same clientele returns to procure the ingredients necessary for that evening’s dinner, by opening only one “caisse” – or cash register – through which to process all of these items.

For those who have no desire to tote their heavy purchases through the bustling streets of Paris, the wise (presumably well educated) management behind these establishments offers the luxury of delivery: once you have wandered through the store selecting the products of your preference, you can stand in line with the rest of the shoppers, pay at the “caisse,” and the staff will box up the groceries and scribble your address on a scrap of paper for the deliveryman’s benefit. Between one to three days, conveniently enough, your groceries will arrive at your door.

Similar management ingenuity is applied at the communications level. In today’s fast-paced, interconnected world, everyone wants high-speed Internet, and in France – just like in any modern country – it’s yours for the taking. The clever executives that head the organizations that provide these services are such whizzes at creating consumer demand for their wares that customers wait anywhere between two weeks to eight months for a connection; perhaps they believe that the longer one waits for the ability to communicate normally makes one appreciate their offerings even more, once said offerings are in place. And they’re right!

In North America, business managers – schooled or not – impose upon their employees that the customer is always right. After a quick shopping expedition in France, one can ascertain that this is probably not the same philosophy that is taught in France’s top-notch management schools. Here, in many enterprises, the thinking seems to be that the client is probably quite incorrect, usually deficient in intelligence, and almost always far too demanding. In order to accommodate for this, merchants are perpetually forced to elevate the common man’s poor consumer etiquette – yet another service to provide during an already jammed 35-hour workweek.

Witness the owner of a café/tabac, who, when a young man laid five euros’ worth of cigarette money down on the bar instead of in the plastic tray beside the cash register, thumped his fingers on the unassuming object, barking: “The cash register is here!” Surely, this lad will never be so gauche as to try and hand over his hard-earned money with such disrespect for those serving him again.

For those customers who continue to believe that they are always right, French management culture may seem a little, well…unorthodox. Upon reflection, however, the businesses that employ these practices are not only selling products and services: they are improving human relations. It’s important, after all, that the average Joe be reminded that patience is a virtue, things aren’t always easy, you can’t always get what you want, and that the world does not revolve around you.

How many other management methodologies combine business prowess and social consciousness so elegantly?