Customer Service (?) in France

I know, I know. I’ve blogged about this before and I will be marked down as a whingeing Brit. But I have to get it off my chest. The concept of customer service is, alas, in its infancy in France.

One of the supermarkets in Villefranche-de-Rouergue that we regularly frequent is having a makeover. I had probably better not name it. It’s doing it because its closest competitor opened a new store on a greenfield site nearly three years ago. The competitor moved from an ageing and tatty site to its present location on the outskirts of town. It’s clearly an advantage to do it like that since you don’t have to p**s off the customers in the process.

Feeling the need to respond, the other supermarket decided to upgrade its existing store and to remain open while it did so. This is causing major aggro to its customers. We went there last week for our weekly shopping. We have alternated between the two stores for some time on the basis that each of them has goods that the other doesn’t. So far, this has worked quite well.

Last week, however, was the last straw. Not only is everything being moved around so you can’t find what you’re looking for but you risk being mown down by building machinery or bashed by blokes carrying gigantic rectangles of plasterboard. Shopping in a building site is not exactly an uplifting experience. Last week, we would have left and gone to the other store except that it was bucketing down with rain and we simply couldn’t summon up the effort. I wish we had, though.

It would be slightly more acceptable if there were a sign at the entrance apologising for the inconvenience during the works. Is there one? No. Has it occurred to the management to offer their customers some discount coupons or a voucher for a consolatory cup of coffee at the café in the shopping mall? No.

Instead, we are expected to stumble about in the dark (they haven’t sorted out the lighting in much of the store so you can’t see what’s on the shelves), negotiate the radically altered geography of the store without a plan, risk being run over by rampant machinery and figure out the new vegetable weighing apparatus without instructions. I recognise that it is probably just as difficult for the staff as it is for the customers. However, this is no excuse for the appalling ‘shopping experience’ that we are subjected to.

We asked the woman at the till how long the work was going on for. “Till the end of May,” she said. Right. No contest. We are not setting foot in that store again until this nonsense has finished. Even then, it will take a long time before we have anything like the confidence in the store that we previously had – if we ever do.

Do the management give a monkey’s? Evidently not. Unfortunately, this is symptomatic of the attitude to customer service in France. Of course, there are exceptions and we have experienced them ourselves. But they are normally associated with small, owner-run shops. The larger nationals really couldn’t care less. Presumably the aggro quotient is factored into their cash-flow calculations.  

I haven’t lived in England for nearly 15 years so I am not qualified to say how a similar situation would pan out there. I suspect, and I know I will be corrected in case of error, that there would be at least some gesture towards mollifying the incommoded customer. Maybe in these times of economic crisis and belt-tightening it’s not felt necessary to acknowledge the customer’s needs. But I would argue that it’s exactly at times like those that a company needs to put itself out.

The difference is that in France the customer is there for the store and not the store for the customer. To those who say, “Well, why don’t you push off back to England if you don’t like it, then?” I say that I love France and I like living here. I recognise that no place on earth is perfect or ideal but I reserve the right to criticise the things I find less than perfect in the place I have chosen as my home.     

What do you think?     

Copyright © 2012 Life on La Lune, all rights reserved


  1. I hate the way the checkout girls natter, regardless of the log queues. Very rude and ignorant. I live in rural France in the Gers and sometimes feel I am on another planet – a very big culture shock with unfriendly people, even though I speak the language. Extremely disappointing and I cannot wait to sell up, but a difficult time to sell at the moment. The beauty does not make up for the isolation so only suitable for seasonal living. I have had my fair share of dishonest tradesmen, overcharging and doing shoddy work which has to be redone.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m sorry your experience of living in France hasn’t been positive. I must admit there are aspects of French life – customer service being one of them – that drive me mad. But we are lucky to live in an area where the people are friendly and we’ve never had a problem with hostility (speaking the language is an advantage). We’ve also had experiences with shoddy work, but fortunately they have not been too extensive. I’d find it very hard to return to the UK after 19 years, but I wish you all the best in selling up.


  2. A note of contrast from Weymouth, in deepest Dorset: Morrisons supermarket has undergone a major expansion in recent months, and stayed open during the whole process. Health & Safety concerns [& legislation] kept shoppers amd machinery separate, and the place was festooned with “Sorry for the inconvenience notices.” All the staff were MOST helpful in locating shelves that moved from one week to the next, and kept smiling throughout. Result: we kept shopping there, although for us it’s twice the distance to travel as the local #1 UK supermarket, and we are very happy with the enlarged store. There’s a moral there somewhere! And after 30+ holiday trips to the Ardeche, we know Leclerc in Aubenas rather well, so we can compare experiences in UK and France – we love Leclerc, but there is some “scope for improvement” in the customer service level!


    • That’s interesting. Funnily enough, we went to a Leclerc in Montauban a few weeks ago where they were also undergoing a major refurbishment and staying open in the process. In contrast to the supermarket I wrote about in the post, they had notices, there were customer service points with leaflets explaining how and when the work would be carried out and all the work was going on behind enormous floor-to-ceiling plastic sheeting. If I recall correctly, they were also offering extra points on their storecard during the work. So, of course, it does vary. It makes a huge difference, though, if they make a few gestures to show they understand the disruption caused to the customers.


  3. Typical! On the whole, French retailers and their staff don’t appear to give a toss about their customers. I think Leaf has summed it up rather well ‘France is a living heaven and a consumer hell. The Uk is a consumer heaven and a living hell.’ As for not complaining, it’s very annoying that we’re expected, as incomers, to think everything here is wonderful and if we don’t, to keep our mouths shut. We pay our taxes, we should be permitted our moans!


    • I love Leaf’s Wildean comment! As for the complaining issue, there’s often controversy on website forums for British expats in France when someone dares to voice a gripe about France. Then they are sometimes told to go back to the UK if they don’t like it here. I suspect that the ones that say that are those that haven’t been here long and for whom everything is still wonderful.


  4. I’m not a “winging pom” either and I live in the far North of France, Pas-de-Calais but I have to agree with you on the customer services bit – there’s a long way to go before we get to US standards that’s for sure. We seem to find that if you call a service provider here, they either take ages to return the call, don’t call back, make an appointment to turn up and then don’t or are late – and everyone we know says the same – even the local French! The supermarket though is superb – ours changed hands from Shopi to a much bigger chain – they closed – for 8 weeks! As its the only one for many miles around you can imagine that most people might have been glad if it stayed open – there was a party in the village when we could all stop travelling an extra 30 mins to get supplies!


    • Everyone has their customer service tales, it seems! Utilities services are notorious, although I have to say that we have been pleasantly surprised on the odd occasion. There was also a Shopi in a local town that changed to a Carrefour – everyone says how much better it is! The previous one had become a joke.


  5. I wonder if it makes a difference whether one lives in the North or the South of France? Things are changing rapidly in Rouen and in only 2 and a half years it is distinctly starting to feel like it is catching up with Britain; I actually find myself saying ‘stop’ you are loosing your charm! In nearly every case, when I can’t find something i am led to the item on the shelf. Sometimes i just wish they could just point! When i have had an ‘off’ food product it is replaced quibble free. The only irritating thing was once buying a faulty camera, and they would only exchange it instore within the first fortnight – and since I was outside the deadline I had to send it to the manufacturer instead. Our post office and bank even have staff who walk down the queue asking if they can help rather than people waiting for ages – And finally – everyone says a chirpy bonjour when they enter every store, staff and customers alike, and a hearty bon après-midi etc on leaving. I couldn’t go back to the UK because of the absence of that alone.
    Orange is a different story – best not to get me started. They are the only setup that insist that when the internet (and therefore phone which is part of the same package) breakdown that you ring them on your mobile (at premium rate) and keep you holding for hours eating up all your credit and positively refuse to call you back. The internet breaking down is a big earner for them on that basis, and ours had a fault that occurred regularly for about a year.


    • Maybe location makes a difference. Some of our local services could take a leaf out of your post and bank’s book. Perhaps France is catching up with the UK on customer service, although one email correspondent suggested that it was rather that the UK was getting worse. Not having lived in England for 15 years I’m not really in as good a position to pronounce as some others.

      We haven’t had any difficulties with electrical/electronic goods but we know plenty of people who have had problems when they wanted to take something back.

      From what I have heard of Orange I am glad we are not customers. When it comes to phone, Internet etc I have always thought it best not to have all your eggs in one basket. So we have Nordnet for email/Internet (satellite since we can’t get broadband), France Telecom for the line rental and SFR for calls. SFR is always trying to get us to move the line rental to them but we always refuse.


  6. Mm, if that’s the one I think U mean I’ve never found it very good. The ultimate for me was the supermarket we used to use at our last house which, due to a bar code mistake, was charging a 6 pack of San Pellgrino at 24 euros instead of 4. First time I pointed this out to the cassier and went to the acceuil for my refund also telling them about it. Same thing happened the next week, I asked the (same) cassier why it hadn’t been rectified, ‘It’s not up to ME to tell them.’


    • I’m with U there. That’s pretty awful that they didn’t rectify the price mistake – especially as not only the person at the checkout but also the acceuil knew about it. I wonder how many people paid their 24 euros in blissful ignorance?


  7. Customer service is quite hit and miss here in supermarkets Amsterdam. If you ask where a certain item is then a mumble and a cursory nod of the head towards which aisle is usually the answer. I’ve never been walked to an item like I would be in the UK. That being said, shop renovation is very fast, the biggest chain here has just upgraded one of their stores in a weekend. It was shut during that period so didn’t have to fight through the building work.


    • Funnily enough, I have been walked to an item in France, although I have to say it hasn’t happened very often. I think our supermarket should have adopted the same strategy and simply closed while the building work was carried out.


  8. That happened near here recently – a supermarket was given a major rehaul but stayed open! It was disastrous – it was noisy and dusty and space was very limited so all the cheap stuff mysteriously disappeared off the shelves, leaving just the pricy brand names for sale. Funny that! I’ve stopped going there now, and I imagine a lot of other people have too.


    • I wouldn’t have minded so much if they had made at least some gesture to show they understood the disruption it was causing to their customers. To some extent, I sympathise with the store because they are having to revamp a brownfield site, which can’t be easy. I do wonder, though, if it wouldn’t have been better to close completely for 10 days and get it all done more quickly that way. I suppose they must have calculated the pros and cons of both scenarios and this is the result.


  9. I agree with you and certainly wouldn’t tell you to hop back over the Channel if you don’t like it! I’d love to know the names of the stores, could you put it in code?! And is shopping ever an experience??? An absolute bind if you ask me. I was going to say, before Amelie said it for me above, that that States, for all their annoying “have a nice day”, bend over backwards to make sure you are happy.

    Take returning something for instance – here if the packaging is even damaged, they look at you as if you are mad. How many times have I bought something, DIY for instance, in a packet so sealed it takes a chainsaw to open it, only to find it’s the wrong size (because you can’t measure properly with all that armour plating), and they won’t take it back because you’ve opened it. In the States, my daughter tells me, you can actually USE something and then take it back and there’s no problem.

    It’s all very well to say “buy French”, but it’s buying in France which is the problem. It is true that small business are somewhat better, but even my fishmonger looked at me askance last week when, having asked for 300gr of langoustines and got 385gr, I asked her to remove a few. She did, sulkily – 310 gr – and nearly threw an apoplectic fit when I asked her to remove another. This sort of forced selling gets on my nerves, OK when it’s carrots, not OK when it’s something rather expensive.

    France is wonderful for lots of things and that’s why we chose to stay in the first place. But boy are there one or two things that could be changed for the better.


    • ‘Shopping experience’ is a ridiculous phrase my UK credit card uses on its statements – hence my putting it in inverted commas! I loathe supermarket shopping and always get cross so last week I was positively incandescent by the time we had finished. North America has it right – if you can overlook the overly-ebullient ‘have a nice day’. At a restaurant in Canada, four of us complained about the slow service because a private party was siphoning off the staff. Without question, the manager offered to pay for all four meals if we footed the drinks bill. Result: four happy customers and a nice memory.

      As for the name of the store, I don’t want to get Hyped up about it, U know.


  10. No that is typically French. In smaller stores, you have a better chance of having a pleasant employee helping you out. In the US, we are obsessed with the mentality “the customer is always right” so we cater to the customer. But in France, you cater to the employee.

    And customer service is no better in Spain. It took my roommates and me 6 weeks to get Internet. We went with Orange and we received the router in the mail but for some reason we were unable to connect online. We called the Orange customer service about 3 times (including our Spanish roommate who could really yell and lay it into them) and each time we got a different answer… “Has a technician been to your apartment yet? We need to send one over.” “Well if the router isn’t working, the technician can’t do anything…” “Are you sure you connected the router properly?” We finally canceled Orange (and apparently could only do this via written letter!! not by email like in the States) and went with Jazztel, a cheaper option. Within a week, a technician came to install something and we got the router a few days later.

    And the funniest part of the story: the Orange technician swung by our apartment AFTER we had canceled their service. My roommate was like “What are you doing here? We don’t need you!” The technician didn’t seem too perturbed by this, he just shrugged his shoulders, went “Vale” (ok in spanish” and left.


    • I don’t think the employees were catered to in this particular supermarket, either. It must be very difficult for them working in those conditions with customers grumbling about it on top. I made a point of being nice to the woman at the checkout since it was hardly her fault and no doubt they will be heartily glad when it all gets back to normal.

      I don’t know anything about life in Spain but was interested to read your comments about getting an Internet service. I must ask a friend who lives there what he thinks.

      And, of course, you can get good and bad customer service whichever country you live in. But my 15 years here make me realise that France has some ground to make up.


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