Paris: Customer Service as Modern Art

Sometimes automated customer service is so bad that it becomes a kind of modern art.  Today, arriving at Paris’s Gare de l’Est to pick up my pre-booked electronic TGV ticket, I discovered that the machines for this purpose didn’t like my credit card, so I was told there was no choice but to wait in the general ticketing queue of the SNCF (the French national railway), which took about an hour.

The queue gave me plenty of time to study the row of ticket windows, mostly unstaffed, and the convenient electronic signs above each one.  As often happens at airports, these signs were mostly saying irrelevant things.  One sign, for example, specified international sales, and another domestic sales, even though we were clearly all in one queue and they were just taking whoever was next.  The faux-order conveyed by these signs is harmless enough, as long as nobody takes them seriously.

But the SNCF has added a new twist.  Periodically, certain signs display something like this:


Translation:  ‘This ticket window will close in 5 minutes.’

So if I’m one of 200 people who would like to give you my money but are instead being kept waiting for an hour, with lots of time to think about this sign … what am I supposed to think?  Why are you telling me this?  How does this announcement improve either my situation or yours?

Do the ticket agents’ labor contracts require these signs, as some kind of verifiable proof that the agents will get their required break time even if the queue stretches to the moon?

If so, what does it mean when the agent sitting under that sign has already closed her window (by raising a glass barrier) and is now busy with her files?


Be assured that I encounter poor customer service all the time, and most of it isn’t newsworthy.  But this one seemed so wrong as to have a kind of beauty.  Or perhaps I had just been waiting too long.

5 Responses to Paris: Customer Service as Modern Art

  1. Ian Perry July 11, 2010 at 5:41 am #

    At Brussels Midi station, it is not possible to purchase tickets to the Netherlands at a machine. People queue into the ticket office, through a revolving door, which is not convenient when you have more than one piece of luggage, and greatly annoying when people cannot leave the ticket office for people queueing through the revolving door, trying to fit into a limited space.
    On the bright-side, there is no charge for purchasing a ticket from a human and you are able to pay with credit cards from other countries, unlike in the Netherlands where there is a charge of 3.50 Euros if you do not use a ticket machine and only Dutch bank issued debit and credit cards are accepted.

  2. Angus Grieve-Smith July 11, 2010 at 6:20 am #

    Ah, the famous French “puce” credit cards! I encountered that problem the last time I was in France. The photocopy machines at the BNF were particularly frustrating. They also make it hard for non-Europeans to use Vélib’.
    For future reference, one workaround I’ve found is that JCB cards are available in America and have the chip in them. Apparently in Australia and New Zealand you can get a card from ANZ or Westpac with one.

  3. Alon Levy July 11, 2010 at 1:51 pm #

    When I changed my ticket at Gare de Lyon, I had to go through a similar experience, as the machines wouldn’t read my American debit card. The line wasn’t that long – it was about 20 minutes – but it was hot and stuffy, and made me think Penn Station is underrated. The signs weren’t as daft, but there was a sign on one booth window saying “I speak English,” with no visible attempt to direct foreigners to that booth and French speakers to other booths.

  4. Daniel Howard July 11, 2010 at 8:03 pm #

    At Lyon Part Dieu, there is not one long line but a choice of several lines you can stand in, each serviced by up to 6 agents, if I recall. And some agents speak specific languages. So, if you’re trying to figure out which line you want to stand in, and you see that agent is about to take their lunch break, you know there’s actually fewer agents servicing that line.
    Probably, though, there were too many arguments between passengers walking up to an agent trying to go off-duty. Customers rarely wait to be called so hustling right up to an agent who is trying to close their position is a sure recipe for confrontation. If the sign says they’re closing in five minutes then that removes the surprise and you shouldn’t take it personally.

  5. J July 12, 2010 at 1:00 am #

    Ah yes, the europeans and their credit cards with special chips in them. Fortunately, it seems like most transit machines take cash.