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Saturday
Apr032010

THE CUSTOMER-SERVICE PROBLEM IN FRANCE

  Okay, to be completely honest, the only kind of shopping I really enjoy is food and wine shopping. The rest I do under duress and out of necessity, which is why I found myself at Printemps Hommes, the men's wear branch of the Printemps department store the other day in a bad mood. I had planned to nip in and out to get a birthday present, and they'd discontinued the brand of British made knitwear I was looking for, so I ended up rather desperately meandering around in search of a suitable gift, and I hated it.

  Vexed that this errand was taking more time than I had for it, I decided to make myself more comfortable by visiting the men's room on the third floor of the store. When I arrived, however, I found myself in front of something called a Point WC, or a sort of bizarre boutique selling sanitary equipment and accessories. With slow horror, I realized that the store had franchised out its toilets and that it would now cost a Euro to use the facilities. When I politely asked the woman who was staffing the stand how long this had been going on, she exploded. "If you don't like it, you can go somewhere else! Go to Galeries Lafayette! Go buy a big Mac, I could care less, suit yourself. We're hard working people! This is a store! Why should it be free to use to the toilets?! We're here to make money! Tant pis pour toi!," she spat with an Antillais accent.

  Evidently, this is the new policy at Groupe Pinault stores, since the nearby FNAC store--both FNAC and Printemps belong to Pinault, has completely shut down its toilets. I don't know what you think, but I find it really offensive that this once ubiquitous courtesy service to shoppers is either being phased out or made available on a pay-only basis. It's also stupid. As any good retailer knows, once you've managed to get someone through the door, you want them to stay as long as possible in the even they'll be tempted by merchandise other than that they originally came in for. FNAC has also made it nearly impossible to recycle batteries and sharply cut back on its English-language book department, so henceforth I'll be shopping at one of the excellent small independent bookstores in Paris like the Village Voice or the Red Wheelbarrow, or order from amazon.fr

  For me, though, the proliferation of pay toilets is just another bete noire in the great failing that is customer-service in France. I mean you actually have to pay to call customer-service lines in France, and as David Lebovitz amusingly points out in his charming "Living the Sweet Life in Paris," the worst place to look for assistance in any French retail setting is the desk marked "Service Clientele." Then there's the black-hole of Air France and it's impenetrable fare systems. Returning to Paris from Nice the other day, I arrived at the airport early and noticed that I could make an earlier flight that was leaving in a half hour. I asked, and was told the plane was more or less empty. Could I change my ticket then? No, out of the question, because I had a tarif X7539^HNB, bought during a full-moon in a leap year, which meant it was impossible. What was the difference in fares between my tarif and the necessary tarif, I asked. "Twenty euros." Could I pay the extra money, then, and make the earlier flight. "Impossible." Even though I have a gold frequent flyer card and my leaving early would free up a seat they might still be able to sell later? "Impossible." So I'd suggest a new moto for Air France: "Air France, ou toute est impossible."

 In the end, I'm rather glad that Printemps' appalling inconsideration and the tirade of the employee at Point WC has give me a good reason to cross them off my shopping list, since the fewer stores I have to stalk in search of gifts or housewares, the better. 

  Have you had a customer-service horror story while living in or visiting France? Please get it off your chest here. I can assure you that you'll feel much better once you let it rip.  

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Reader Comments (29)

As the proud owner and administrator of the soon-to-be www.paspossible.com, I hereby request that you join me as partner in building and managing our live interactive web-map of France listing customer service 'pas-possible' moments, categorizing them under such useful titles as 'EDF/GDF', 'Resto', 'Dans La Rue', and a special one given over for exclusive use by Orange France Telecom. In the process, we'll ruthless collect the email addresses of every angry ex-pat living in France, for nefarious marketing purposes.

April 8, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterjack

You do realize that this will bring down your server, don't you?

Where do I start …

La Poste
Remember when the staff of La Poste fought against being privatised? My husband and I kept wanting to picket in front of our post-office waving signs like "Privatizer la fucking poste enfin!"

In the first 1,5 years we've lived here we hardly got any parcel delivered. In the beginning we forgot to tell everybody to include the Digicode, true. But we got savvier and soon had people write whole novels in the address field. Street, Digicode, étage, which one's our door (there are just 2 doors on our floor and we are the only ones with our names on it, but never mind).

You'd think they couldn't have any excuses left? Ha! We both work from home, but we were more often than not "absent" - as we learned the next day from the note in our mailbox. Then there was the time when they supposedly couldn't park nearby!! I mean, have you ever seen a French mailman who parked his car LEGALLY?!

Of course every time we went to the post office to collect our parcels the mail man tried to deliver another one in the meantime.

It all changed shortly before Christmas. Either they assigned our district to someone who had at last an IQ higher than minus 10, or that privatising scare paid off - I don't know. But now we have the sweetest facteur who finds us miraculously every time, even tries a second time the next day and is nice, friendly, funny … sorry, my eyes fill up every time I think of him. We even discussed if I should go bigamist just to keep him. My husband (who doesn't want to schlepp his wine deliveries home from La Poste anymore) says I should.

SNCF
Is there a more fucked up website? Every time we try to buy tickets online we want to murder someone. Preferably the guy who programmed the whole thing.

UPS
We don't order anymore with companies who use UPS. Once we ordered an elliptical trainer (39 kgs). UPS told me via its website for one whole week that it would be delivered "the next day". On day 3 I called the hotline for the first time. Digicode was wrong/missing. Never mind. They kept announcing it for the next day which eventually turned me into a very quick piddler since I sure as hell didn't want to miss them.

Day 4, day 5 - nothing. Called the hotline for the second and third time just to have some idiot read me what I kept reading myself: "Est en train de livraison". One of those cretins even dared to say: "I can tell you one more time in English, if you want." Oh, how I hated my French for not being able to pay back appropriately.

I think it was finally delivered on day 6 or 7. By one little guy who balanced it into the (small) elevator all by himself. I'm certain that all his collegues passed by our house the days before, looked up, read "4e étage", thought "Ah, let Guilleaume handle this shit on his shift tomorrow" and stepped on it.

This was the time when we learned to include "ascenseur!" when giving our address.

Contrary to David Lebovitz I can't complain about Numericable (knock on wood, no, knock on A FOREST), but would strongly advise not to buy an Epson printer. This could be my next galere with the service clientele.

Apart from that we've been waiting for the electrician to fix our kitchen lights for at least 6 weeks now. But the days keep getting longer so who needs light in his kitchen?

I'm sure I forgot half of the things that had happened to us. But I guess that's the same thing with women after giving birth: Every day makes you forget a little more how horrible it was.

April 8, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterSigrid

Gawd, I would have loved to have seen the look on your face when she told you to "go buy a big mac."

It's so awful it's fantastic.

April 8, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMeg

Sigrid, Thanks so much for the SNCF website, which must have been designed by brain-damaged trolls. It is utterly totally impossible, with the crap feature I love best being the fact that it won't work unless you enter the precise station in a given city. Best, Alec

April 8, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAlec Lobrano

Well, I still hold on to my Numericable experience as the gold-standard for The World's Worst Customer Service Experience. Not having internet or any phone service for 3-5 months was bad, but when their own technician (who finally came, after months of waiting in lines and pleading with them) told me "I'd stop paying my bill, if I was you" was pretty crazy. They are probably the worst company in the world if you have a problem and even the French have set up websites documenting how horrible they are.

I think the customer service issue is responsible for much of the current economic problems here. In the past, customers had no choice but to buy from shops, whether or not the service was good. But unlike before, with the internet, it's much easier (and cheaper) to go online and get something quickly. France has always held a superior position in the world, rightfully, as much of what they had was, indeed, the best. But that's changed and many people are finding it easier to do business elsewhere unfortunately. Charging €1-€1.5 to use the restroom is crazy. Imagine if a restaurant did that?

Speaking of La Poste, it's amazing the improvement.

April 8, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterDavid

I've lived in France for 2 years and have had predominantly great service wherever I go... of course I didn't shop much with corporations in the U.S., nor do I here. I frequent and support local independent providers. Also, What I have noticed does NOT exist is the (silly, in my opinion) ubiquitous American phrase/mentality, "the customer is always right". I'm glad this isn't the case here as 'why should it be'. I think Americans and English have this fantastic sense of entitlement as consumers and thankfully, that isn't supported here in France.

and as you've stated... all customers always have the option of shopping elsewhere if they don't like the service they are provided... but really, I believe it is nearly always about attitudes...

as far as using the toilet...big deal. is it worth having conniptions over a euro? in my opinion, no.

April 8, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterKimberlee

I have to laugh, 'cause we expats seem to always say, "ONLY IN FRANCE..." -- There's no point in complaining, making suggestions, or even escalating a problem. Rigidity and not being able to think outside of the box is my description of Customer Service... Customer service is, "how quickly can I get rid of this person so I can have peace and quiet, and maybe get back on my coffee break...." I prefer the small boutique stores...

April 8, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterRandy Diaz

Kimberlee,

Sounds like you're the perfect customer for French businesses.

And as I've stated, I thoroughly disgree with you about charging to use toilets in a retail setting--it's hostile and cheese-paring to a degree.

Alec

April 8, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAlec Lobrano

I used to feel like Kimberlee - loved France warts and all. But after nearly 17 years there and numerous run-ins with Numéricable/Noos, I ended up on the other end of the spectrum. Yes, the customer is not always right. But it's nice to be in a country where the possibility that he MIGHT be right is taken on board. I feel I am almost unfit for civilization now, as I go ballistic with the slightest hiccup because, in my experience, it was the only way to get satisfaction in Paris.

Actually the worst Noos story I know happened to a friend. She sent her registered letter three months before leaving France, stopped her wire at the bank, closed her banking account, left the country...and was called by her bank some months later to say that she was "overdrawn" because Noos was still debiting her non-existant account!

April 8, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMeg

I had the same experience with several Air France flights, including with business class tickets on flights to NY or Washington, and the explanations seems to be that their IT system is rgid.
could one of the reader who has access to someone well posiotoned at Air France tell them to do something. My next flight to the US will be on American airlines !

April 8, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterSTA

i travelled thru paris recently with 2 young kids, and was very worried about the pee-problem, so i stocked up on small change to pay at the toilets in case my kids (and you know what kids are like) needed to go

we made sure that the kids went to the toilets provided by the tourist attraction or restuarant that we were in at the time - they only once told me that they needed to go to the toilet when we weren't in one - i got really worried, we had just left the arc de triomphe (they had just used the toilets there!?!), and we were walking on the champs d'elysees - i saw 2 people sitting on a bench eating mcdonalds food, and sure enough, just a few metres away, i spotted the mcdonalds - we went in, it was full of people, and yes, we got our job done (no payment required!)

we also found free (and clean) toilets near (but not within) some tourist attractions - but everything i'd read about paris told me that this would not be the case.

this is why i find it extremely odd that a high profile business would charge for toilet use, since there are free clean places in and around the town - don't they realise that this is an anomaly???

April 8, 2010 | Unregistered Commentermaria

Thank you for this post, Alexander. I am now back in Minneapolis after fifteen mostly wonderful years in Paris, but a day doesn't go by when I'm not astonished by how user friendly the United States is in comparison to France.

My grand finale experience of French customer service was actually with an American company, however. I rented an AVIS car in Paris and planned to return it at the train station in Chartres and take the train back into the city. When I arrived at the station, there was no AVIS office, no where to park and drop the keys, and the warm and fuzzy staff of the SNCF told me that my car would be towed away immediately if I attempted to park out front. What followed was that I had to drive to a remote AVIS office in suburban Chartres, nearly impossible to find, and then take a cab back into town at my own expense.

I called AVIS to complain, was assured they'd do an inquiry and keep me alert by email. Needless to say, I never heard a word from them and now wouldn't dream of ever renting an AVIS car again.

April 8, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterBarbara Pedderson

The SNCF site wouldn't be half so maddening if they didn't keep sending e-mails with all their great deals -- 19 euros to Nice! 25 euros to Strasbourg! But then go to their site, click on the fabulous offer, and you must put in the time and date of your journey. Are we supposed to put in every imaginable combination until we come up with the advertised fare? It's like the advertising department is seeking business and the reservations department is doing everything to thwart it.

April 8, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAnne

Kimberlee: I don't believe the customer is always right either. I believe that when you go into a private establishment, like a restaurant or shop, you should treat the owner with respect and be treated the same. However France, like the rest of the world, is struggling economically, and can't afford to have its reputation sullied. So while paying a euro to use the restroom isn't the end of the world, it's a sign that the store isn't providing a welcoming space to customers. And although I believe that when you travel to a foreign country you should try to adapt to the local customs, I think even a French person would be stunned to find a Point WC in a department store.

As you mentioned, customers have the option to shop elsewhere, and unfortunately, that's what they're doing. Many, many stores in Paris have closed, and most times they're replaced by banks or chain stores. I find that sad, and hope that trend doesn't continue.

April 8, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterDavid

Alex, re the retail situation in France, I have to tell you about a recent experience with a customs official at Charles-de-Gaulle airport. I was returning to France from Philadelphia and my bags were bulging as they always are when I come back to France, since I buy almost as much as I can carry in America. Why? Better prices, better service, better selection, better everything. I can't imagine why anyone would actually come to France to shop unless it were for one-of-a-kind antiques or haute couture clothing.

Anyway, I was stopped in customs and the two nice young men who threshed through my luggage not only never slapped a fine on me, but were astonished by the sales receipts I presented for my merchandise. "We see hundreds and hundreds of Parisians who go to America to shop everyday," one of them told me. "They say the prices are better, the people are nice, and you have more choice."

April 8, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterHarriet Stein

A very close friend emailed me this post - I have thoroughly enjoyed reading this blog after a long arduous day teaching.....French. Raised in part by a French Grandmother, who disliked my British born, French educated mother - worked for French and Swiss companies forever and teach French - lived there - all of these stories are so familiar! My extraordinary experiences typically occur with American companies in Paris - like United - Not only can on not find United at CDG, they work at a snail's pace to the point that their customers almost miss the plane. I don't even try to send packages nor letters through the post - and neither do my French friends and family. We load up on goodies when we see each other in person. Large department stores are a huge waste of time in Paris and should be avoided at all costs. Put your nose in the air and saunter through smaller establishments. Much more fun and interesting. France is a funny and enchanting place. Never make plans, have a Metro ticket in your pocket - travel light and prepare your children for the unexpected...... including my favorite loo, a turkish toilet - a la hole - in the floor of an ancient brasserie - no TP - wearing a skirt........I wonder if it is still there! Last time I was there, I bought a horrible expensive coffee - I think 16 euros - and enjoyed the posh accommodations! GBB

April 8, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterGeorgina

When I first moved to Paris, I was using the U.S. customer service model where the proprietor is responsible for setting the tone and providing customer service. In Paris, the accountability lies with the customer. The customer is responsible for setting and maintaining the tone. We all say that it has to change in order for businesses in Paris to survive. The reality is, this model has existed for a long time, and the businesses continue to thrive. Because the French don’t discriminate, they treat all customers equally bad, and people may complain, but they have to accept it if they are going to remain sane! Or in very simplistic terms get the goods and services they need. Especially since we don’t have the choices in Paris we have in the U.S.

I stay sane by primarily not taking anything personally, and basically kissing the ass of the proprietor or sales person. And, even if the sales person made a mistake, e.g., they accidentally gave me the wrong size and I have to exchange it, I will just suck it up and say to the sales person, “…it was my mistake (grovel) etc., etc.”, because as a general rule, the French don’t like to admit fault, and as a result they will bend over backwards to help when you right or wrong admit fault.

I use Paris versus France because thus far, I’ve excellent service outside of Paris.

April 9, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterrandy

This post was sent to my by an ex-pat friend. It made me double over with laughter and brought back all my *favorite* moments from my time living in Paris. I don't know what is more amusing, the banks, the post, or the phone and internet companies. Really, how do they stay in business at all? The French economy must truly be magical. I appreciate that it isn't quite so humorous when you are living there, but thanks for capturing this so eloquently, Alec. -Lani

April 9, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterLani

At the moment I'm fighting with the SNCF-website once again. If you happen to hear a loud scream coming from the huitième then you know it's me.

April 12, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterSigrid

Oh, this is too good! The site won't even give me the hours of a train leaving in MAY. Then there's a little note saying that because of the strike, pardon, "mouvement social", they can't list all trains. (The mouvement social is supposed to have ended last Friday morning.)

But they give you a link to check if your train is on the list of trains affected. And when you click on the link you get:

"En raison de l'affluence, ce site est actuellement indisponible"

Ça, c'est la France!

April 12, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterSigrid

When I moved to Paris I went to BHV for several items and was stunned to have not only pleasant, but go-out-of your-way-helpful customer service. Thinking this was an anomaly I returned a few more times over the first few months and discovered that either they're putting happy pills in the coffee in the employee lounge or someone in management has finally gotten the message: "customers pay your salary." I now love BHV. (I am, however writing with my fingers crossed, not an easy task.)

April 15, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterShelli

Shelli: I agree with you that the BHV is usually the exception to the poor customer-service that prevails in France. On the other hand, someone there once sold me an expensive custom-made piece of plumbing equipment (don't ask) without bothering to tell me that it was unlikely to work well in any apartment beyond the standard second floor in most Paris apartment houses. What followed was a nine-month battle to get my money--a large sum, or I wouldn't have bothered--back, and I think the only reason I finally prevailed is that I finally screamed at the top of my lungs at the "case agent" (yup) who was handling my claim and scared her to her senses.

April 16, 2010 | Unregistered Commenteralec Lobrano

I'm with Kimberlee re. paying for toilet use, with one stipulation; the toilet are must be spotless.

As a user of public toilets in the States, especially restaurant toliets, I'd be more than happy to pay a buck to guarantee a clean disposal environment.
Would I rather not pay? Oh, yeah.
Would I like to sit in a place where there's relative cleanliness? Oh, yeah and I'll pay for it.

From what i've read so far, sounds to me as if folks have not used the faciilties in public places in the States for a while. Folks! They're pretty shitty and I mean that literally.

April 23, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterDarkoV

Darko,

Not to argue a fine point, but the pay-per-use toilets in Europe are hardly immaculate, and for me, the gold standard remains the FREE public toilets in Grand Central Station in New York City, which are vastly cleaner than anyone might sanely expect.

Best, Alec

April 23, 2010 | Registered CommenterAlexander Lobrano

Would you like a fresh serving of "service", southern France style?

The latest thing to send me into a hot snit is that my bank Credit Agricole (CA) no longer provides a non-charge telephone number--for the local branch--i.e. mine. Anywhere you look, from online to the Pages Jaunes, the only number you can dial costs 35 cents PER MINUTE. The punchline? You can't get a live person--just recorded possibilities for checking your account. Having lost my credit card and been told by the national CA card-loss line that I have to separately call my CA branch bank to request a new card, I spent ten minutes on the "service" line confirming that this request was not in fact among the possibilities on offer.

(And here I thought I was quite the clever one: upon opening an account there, I made sure I got my banker's business card with her direct line. Ha. Her number's no longer in service.)

I had to come in person to request the card (half an hour drive) and was informed it will take "about two weeks"? Any bets on how long it'll take? The first credit card took...three months.

Of course, that's much better than the wait time for the transfer of my driver's license (from the Netherlands so within the EU, mind you). I'll spare you the convoluted story (which involves random, inexplicable medical examS, multiple officially approved translations etc, etc.). Bottom line: it's been two years...and I'm still waiting for my license. Hat's off to the unbelievably inefficient fonctionnaires at the Prefecture du Gard (Nimes). Hallucinant.

Over-the-top bad customer service as near-national policy isn't limited to France alone. I've got my evr-growing list of French anecdotes, living in the south of France (aka manana-land), but I've more than my fair share from a decade spent in Amsterdam. [insert Gallic shrug here.]

Thank god for good wine.

May 9, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterTammy

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