Category Archives: France

A Simple Trick to Reduce Cross-Cultural Confusion

Have you ever been to a business meeting that felt like this?

I love communications.  Back in the day, I spent hours learning the comprehensibility of different typefaces on the theory that you shouldn’t fumble the ball on the two-yard line by building a great message, only to put in a typeface that people can’t understand.  Yesterday, I just started The Sense of Style, a manual that one-ups Strunk & White by providing research-backed rules driven not just by elegance, but comprehension.

When working with non-native English speakers, it’s easy to blame language as the source of miscommunication.  But language problems are pretty easy to identify — “Huh, what did you say?”  The scary situation is when everyone leaves a meeting thinking they’ve agreed to something, but no one actually agrees on what that is.  And that can easily happen even when everyone speaks fluent English.

That’s where culture comes in.  Most big miscommunications — the kind that derail projects and cost people their jobs — are driven by culture, not language.

If you work with India, trying to communicate without Speaking of India is like trying to trying navigate Mumbai without a map.  Living in France (as I did for five years) is greatly aided by French or Faux, which has nothing to do with language and everything to do with culture.

I’ve always found it interesting that the literal translation of jihad is “struggle.”  I often feel like communicating is a jihad in this sense:  an ongoing struggle to understand each other.

Having been to too many meetings where a false agreement was reached, I have come up with two different tricks that help minimize confusion among teams:

  • Real-time minutes.  Allocate a material chunk of the meeting to present the minutes of the meeting while it is still occurring.  But putting key decisions and action items on the screen somehow grabs peoples’ attention and gets them to focus.  Hey, we didn’t agree to X.  Or, that’s not what I meant by Y.  This trick works well for most groups, particularly those where both language and culture are not a real impediment.
  • First-draft-by-you minutes.  For more difficult situations, where miscommunications are frequent and important, I have found that it is incredibly useful to find out “what you heard” through the minutes as opposed to me simply re-writing “what we said.”  Thus, one great trick is to pick someone on the remote team and ask them to write the minutes and send them only to you, so you can see clearly was heard as opposed, perhaps, to what was said.  Once you identify and close any gaps with that one person you can then rollout the revised minutes along with someone on the ground who can explain them.

That’s it.  Two easy tricks to reduce miscommunication in the workplace.

Slides from My Presentation at the Plug and Play Tech Center Collaboration Event

Yesterday I spoke on a panel of international software companies at the Plug and Play Tech Center’s Acceleration and Collaboration Track event in Sunnyvale, California.

I was invited not to discuss Mark Logic’s success (we are a US-based company), but to discuss my experience prior to Mark Logic as a key member of the executive team that grew Paris-based Business Objects from around $30M to more than $850M during my nine years there.

Other panelists included:

  • Marten Mickos, CEO of MySQL (now SVP of the database group at Sun Microsystems), a company originally founded in Sweden and Finland
  • Eyal Hertzog, co-founder of video site Metacafe, a company founded in Israel
  • Kurt Hemecker, SVP of business development at Echovox, a company founded in Switzerland

Here are the slides from my presentation on the panel.

Global Service Branding: Let the Seller Beware

It’s only fitting that my first post since heading off to Europe 3 weeks ago should discuss international branding. Bear in mind I’m a career marketing and business professional who has lived in Paris for 5 years so these aren’t just the idle rantings of a frustrated American tourist. Well, actually they are. But at least they’re the idle rantings of a moderately well informed and business-savvy American tourist.

Today’s question is why do American service-industry firms use the same branding in Europe as they do in the US when the consumer experience they deliver is not at all the same? Do they think they’re leveraging their global brand? Do they think they merit kudos for global consistency? I think all they’re doing is under-cutting their brands, irritating most customers, and potentially badly alienating their best customers.

For product companies, I think things are bit different. A BMW’s a BMW no matter where you put it. So is a QuickSilver t-shirt, or a Nike soccer ball.

But when the product is service, well, if you’re going to call it McDonald’s, the coffee better be lawsuit hot, the quarter pounder (or metric equivalent) better taste like a quarter pounder, and there better be a moderately clean bathroom in the vicinity.

Similarly, if you’re going to call it Starbucks, then I better be able to order my half-caff, extra-hot, no foam, no whip, peppermint, skim mocha.

Now, I’d say that McDonald’s and Starbucks actually deliver quite well on the global experience consistency promise. (Except that I’d rather not pay the same nominal amount in pounds-sterling as I do in dollars when I order my latte, but that’s a different problem.)

My wrath today is aimed at two global brands who don’t deliver consistency: Hertz and Hyatt.

Two summers ago when we visited France, Hertz kept us three hours at the airport waiting for a minivan that I’d reserved months in advance. “We don’t have any cars. Sorry. It’s not my fault. It’s not possible to do anything. I don’t care if you ever rent from Hertz again for the rest of your life. It’s not my fault. You and your kids can just wait 3 hours for a minivan in 90 degree heat after getting off a twelve-hour flight.”

It was legendary French indifference, non-empowerment, and incompetence. Is that endemic in France? Sadly, in most service industries, I’d say yes. But that’s not the question. I knew that already. The question is why would Hertz want their brand slapped on that customer service experience? The answer is they shouldn’t.

This year’s nightmare was a repeat of one two years ago at the Hyatt Charles de Gaulle. We typically stay there the night before returning to the US, because the flights leave early and you can (theoretically) reduce stress by staying overnight at the airport. We typically arrive around 7pm, after a long day’s drive, want a quick dinner, and then want to retire early before heading off the next day. Nothing special or surprising, I’d imagine, for an airport hotel.

This year, as was almost exactly the case two years ago, the dinner part of the equation was a disaster. (So much for giving service providers second chances.) Skipping the myriad details, it took over 2.5 hours and numerous requests in various languages with various intensity to be served green salads (whose dressing was seemingly forgotten) and some plates of penne pesto.

“It’s not my fault. We only have two cooks. There are several big tables here. It’s not my fault.” Overall it was a total mess — many other American customers cancelled their orders and left — and a mess on which Hyatt absolutely should not want its brand.

Some people at the Hyatt Charles de Gaulle were nice; some people were competent. Some were both nice and competent. But that’s the trick in service industries: you’re not a good as your best person; you’re as bad as your worst.

In branding, so much is about expectations. If the sign on the door said Sofitel or Mercure, I’d have thought “heck, we’re in France, it’s normal that things take forever.” But the sign didn’t say Mercure. It said Hyatt. And when I’m in a Hyatt, I expect a Hyatt experience. And if you can’t deliver that, well, then don’t call it a Hyatt.

Delivering consistent global servce can be done — it just takes a work. A good ex-pat friend in France once quipped that he loved Disneyland Paris because it was the one place you could see French employees smile.

The moral: either do the work to ensure service consistency (e.g., Starbucks, McDonald’s, Disney) or put another brand on the experience. But don’t, don’t, don’t promise one brand experience and then deliver another.

France without Johnny?

On the plane to France last summer, I channel-surfed into a hilarious movie, entitled Jean-Philippe. In the film, Fabrice Luchini portrays Johnny Hallyday’s biggest fan who, after receiving a knockout blow in a drunken fight, awakes to find himself in an alternate universe where Johnny Hallyday was never discovered, and ergo never became the cult, rock star legend that he is today.

Johnny Who, you might ask? Johnny Hallyday, the aging French rock star treated with idolic reverence throughout the country; the French Elvis who lived. What’s so hilarious about the film, in fact, is its uniquely French premise; the incomprehensibilty and injustice of a world without Johnny.

How does all this relate to my blog?

Well, ironically, the French government is doing its best to create this nightmare France without Johnny. As The Economist reports in this story (subscription required), Johnny recently stirred up controversy by becoming the latest in a long line of tax refugees who have fled France (in his case, moving to Switzerland) to escape its onerous wealth tax.

Since this concept is foreign to most Americans, I’ll say it again — “wealth tax” — i.e., a tax on net worth. France charges a tax of between 0.5% and 1.8% of net worth above about $1M. So if you’re a captain of industry or a rock star worth $50M, in addition to your regular income taxes you will have to pay a tax of about $1M (~2%) every year, all for the privilege of living in France more than 182 days per year.

Peter Mayle even wrote a novel, Anything Considered, about a magnate who hires the main character to “be him” outside of France so he will generate documentation (e.g., parking tickets) “proving” he was not residing in France and thus avoiding the wealth tax.

So how does this relate to the business of technology? Simple. The wealth tax is one key reason that Silicon Valley will never reproduce itself in France. Great companies like Dassault Systemes and Business Objects are spawning on pavement because a key element of the Silicon Valley model is talent recycling.

As mentioned in this post, in Silicon Valley, when people experience great success, they either do it again (a la Steve Jobs), “retire” to sit on boards, or best of all, become venture capitalists, eat at Bucks, and sit on boards. In all three cases they are recycling their talent back into the system by helping young companies leverage their knowledge and expertise.

The wealth tax destroys this because, when faced with a tax on net worth, most high net worth individuals simply leave the country. Ergo, there is no talent recycling, and no self-reinforcing system.

Whether it’s France without Johnny or France without its most successful entrepreneurs, it’s the same driving issue: the wealth tax. Until the government fixes it, the French will have trouble with technology entrepreneurship because its most successful entreprenuers won’t live there anymore. They’ll be neighbors with Johnny in Switzerland.