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I couldn’t believe it. My wife, stepdaughter, and I were actually taking a full two-week vacation. I am like most Americans; any time away from work more than seven and half days and I get antsy. “Who is going to handle things while I am away?” “The longer I am gone, the more there will be to do when I return.” “What if I come back and they have moved my desk next to the guy who showers once a month and eats fermented fish in the cubicle?” In truth, I like what I do so much that I never feel the need to get away. But my wife, who is a director of surgery in a hospital, she needs a break. And we wanted to take our fourteen-year-old where we didn’t speak the native language. I think it is important to visit places where yours is not the dominant culture or language. Having to rely on the kindness of the host population changes your perspective when working with newcomers to America.
So, off to Europe we went; with stops in Venice, London, and Paris. If you think London didn’t count as visiting a foreign culture, remember what George Bernard Shaw once said, “Britain and America are two countries divided by a common language.” Some valuable lessons were learned on that trip. One lesson; when you ask for directions and you don’t speak the native tongue, pay close attention to where the person is pointing; head in that direction, and ask someone else two blocks down.
The most surprising lesson was gained in Paris. My wife (aka, The Planner), had arranged for a visit to the summit of the Eifel Tower on our first day in France. During the ride from the airport to the Airbnb, the news reported something we thought we would never hear, “The Eiffel Tower is closed!” The workers were on strike. Of course, they were. And, of course they chose to strike during the only four days we were going to be in town.
What shocked me was not that the workers were on strike, but the reason they walked off the job was that they felt the customer wasn’t being treated right. You see, the Eiffel Tower is like any major attraction. You can buy tickets to see the summit, wait in line for two hours to take the elevator to the top, or you can buy Skip the Line tickets, which allow you access to a special elevator. As you speed to the top, you get to look down at all the losers standing in the regular ticket line. (Oh, admit it. You silently call them losers.)
What irked the Eiffel employees was that the Skip the Line elevator was often ascending only half full. Regular ticket holders were standing in the hot sun waiting for their elevator, when there was room in an elevator right across the square. They told management about the problem and suggested that the Skip the Line elevator could be filled with the special ticket holders, and any room leftover could be given to regular ticket holders. This would fulfill the promise of premium treatment for those who paid more, while giving better service to every guest.
No one knows why management turned this idea down. I can only guess that they were comfortable with the status quo. Things had been running smoothly for years; why go through the hassle of changing procedure? The problem was, things were running smoothly for management, not for the guest. Just like the restaurant owner who doesn’t sit in his own booths, or the retailer who doesn’t try making a purchase through her own website, Eiffel Tower management only looked at quarterly P&L statements. They never stood in their own line.
My company was part of an event in a 2,100-seat theatre recently. During the pre-production phase, my co-director had me walk the stage while she sat in each of the farthest seats in the house, just to make sure the people with potentially problematic sight-lines would be given the same experience as the front row. Theatre owners are often coached to sit in every seat of their venue during productions, so they are always reminded that what is on stage isn’t as important as the experience of the person watching it.
The Eiffel Tower strike only lasted two days. Management realized that a simple change in the placement of the queue ropes would accomplish what the employees first suggested. Guests are happier, employees are happier, and the tower can now accommodate more guests per hour than ever before. I imagine that shows up on the quarterly P&L as well.
This isn’t to say that French employees are better than American workers, but it is rare that a US company goes on strike because the customer isn’t being treated properly. It would certainly be nice to have a work environment where the employees feel so strongly about doing well that they are willing to hold management’s feet to the fire until things are done right. It makes me wonder, do the people who work for me care enough about the outcome that they would protest outside my office on behalf of my customers? And, would it take a protest for me to listen?
Stevie Ray is a keynote speaker and trainer, bringing his program, “The Roadmap to Influence” to organizations nationwide.