Shopping in France # 2: Customer service

Could do better © Photoxpress

Speak to any British (and probably any American) expat in France and they will unanimously tell you that customer service in France often leaves a lot to be desired.

This post focuses on customer service in shops. Don’t get me started about France Telecom, with whom I had a four-week battle last winter to get them to mend a faulty phone line. I won in the end, but I still bear the psychological scars.

I can think of occasions when we have received good service in France. However, as a rule, the French seem to follow the principle that the customer is there for the shop and not the shop for the customer. The customer is certainly not always right. Here are some examples.

Entrée libre

Nowhere is this attitude more in evidence than in that strange phrase that you still see proudly displayed in shop windows – entrée libre (lit. free entry). I have never met anyone who has been able to explain satisfactorily what this means.

Of course it’s free entry; you don’t pay to go in. Or does it mean you’re not obliged to buy anything? Of course you’re not – they might not have what you’re looking for. Or is it that they don’t follow you around asking if they can help you and trying to foist unsuitable garments on you that you wouldn’t be seen dead in? I still don’t know.

Can anyone enlighten me?

Any colour so long as it’s black

Sometimes, it’s as if they don’t actually want to sell you anything. For example, French shops can rarely supply a brochure that you can take home and peruse at your leisure. Similarly, if you want something slightly out of the ordinary, you might have trouble getting hold of it.

My husband bought a smart towelling bathrobe from a shop in Montauban. I wanted one, too, but they didn’t have my size. The assistant said it was possible to order one, which I did, but I never heard from them again. I didn’t have the energy to follow it up.

If you order an item, don’t expect them to phone and tell you when it’s arrived. We ordered some new wheels for our sun loungers from the shop where we had originally bought them. The assistant said they would ring when they arrived, but we never heard anything. We went in a couple of months later to be told that they had arrived six weeks previously. Plainly, it was up to us to check if they had arrived, not up to the shop to inform us that they had.

Are you being served?

I know that checkout staff in British supermarkets are not noted for their sunny demeanour, but some of the French shop assistants give a new meaning to the word ‘surly’. Age has nothing to do with it, so there’s no generation-gap explanation here.

We recently bought a new tractor mower – a hefty investment. The shop manager, who sold it to us, was very helpful. However, the assistant who registered the transaction was obviously not happy since it was 1145 and they shut at noon. Despite the fact that it took only five minutes to pay and sort out the documentation, she grumbled, grouched and clearly felt the whole thing was de trop. But she wasn’t even late for lunch. So where does your salary come from, then, Madame?

Service après vente 

After sales service – what service? Stories about this are legion, so here’s just one. Some friends recently bought a new flat-screen TV but couldn’t get it to work, even with the assistance of an expert. They took it back to the shop, 45km away, to get a replacement, to be told that they had to bring back all of the accessories as well, and the box, despite the fact that it was only the TV that didn’t work properly.

Naturally, there are exceptions to all this. We have been pleasantly surprised when shops have really put themselves out for us. And some of the more service-minded ones try to speak English as well. So it’s changing, but there’s still some way to go.

Copyright © 2010 A writer’s lot in France, all rights reserved

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