Why is a top-flight European business school devoting its considerable resources to teaching French railway staff how to improve customer service?

Thierry Grange, dean of Grenoble Ecole de Management, answers the question with passion. “It is about cultural change,” he says. “It’s about changing from being a public service to serving the public.”

Prof Grange and his colleagues are not just trying to give rail passengers a nice ride: they see their role as helping transform France from a producer-led economy to one that is customer-led.

Grenoble Ecole de Management
Engine of change: Grenoble Ecole de Management is running a training programme for customer-facing managers at France's SNCF © Financial Times

It is a project that many French citizens would argue has defeated their governments for decades. Yet, as Prof Grange points out, the evidence of successful cultural reform of state institutions is all around.

France Télécom, for example, another former state monopoly and Grenoble client, is now a privatised and competitive international phone operator.

For 20 years, Grenoble EM has been building an executive education practice specialising in helping the staff of state institutions embrace change – to the benefit of those they serve.

The five-year, €1m ($1.3m, £880,000) contract with SNCF, France’s biggest train operator, to run the Majélan training programme to equip customer-facing managers with the right skills is just the latest among many. For, in spite of the appearance of immobility, European Union directives and French state legislation have transformed the structure of French railways, along with those of other state institutions.

French rail tracks are now owned by a separate state company, Réseau Ferré de France; many SNCF trains are operated by private sub-contractors; and next year, SNCF will face competition from other European train operators.

As Prof Grange remarks, SNCF has become a travel brand. With increasing numbers of tickets bought online, the ticket inspector may be the only staff member customers meet. Dealing successfully with travellers’ problems and service delays is a tough job. Yet good service has become critical to SNCF’s success.

Teaching methods

The first one-year programme for SNCF “service management agents” of every kind, now running on the Grenoble campus and at SNCF’s in-house Université du Service in Paris, has therefore prompted much thinking about teaching methods as well as messages and education.

Among the first challenges, Prof Grange says, is the need to convince SNCF staff that change will benefit them and the institution they work for.

Some of the solutions have been developed in the school’s Académie du Service (a joint project with the hotels group Accor).

SNCF is boosting management skills
© Financial Times

One approach to build confidence and demolish barriers is the use of theatre. “Everyone can tell a story,” Prof Grange says. “Soon other participants will laugh in sympathy at your mistakes. It is a way of reducing stress and pressure.”

Once a learning atmosphere has been created, participants are taught skills ranging from practical tools, such as English and law, to marketing and strategic management. Candidates for the courses, which open the door to management grades for participants, were chosen through a competitive process within SNCF.

The 26 participants alternate between classes and the workplace, where they must complete a service-related project for assessment.

Valerie Cléry-Bernard, of the SNCF Académie du Service, says management schools were invited to tender to run a course designed as a management fast-track that would also equip participants for a more commercial business climate.

Innovative teaching methods, strength in service management and experience in developing comparable programmes were the criteria that led to the selection of Grenoble EM, she says.

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