Service With A Gallic Shrug

Of course you can get bad customer service anywhere. I thought I’d had some bad experiences in England – until I moved to France.

In England we’re pretty much aligned with the American ‘have a nice day’ ‘customer is always right’ ideas. I’ve worked in shops in England and the general training is that you’re always polite, deal with complaints graciously, and try to resolve any issues quickly so your word of mouth reputation and online reviews aren’t tarnished.

One big difference with France is that the internet and online presence doesn’t play nearly as big a part in business over here. Especially up in the mountains, lots of the businesses I deal with don’t have a website, some not even an email address! So the threat of a bad Tweet doesn’t really register. Catering to what their customers might want or need isn’t really part of the average French business model – they make/serve what they want, when they want and you can take it or leave it. Often if you do decide to take it you get the distinct impression they’re doing you a huge favour by giving it to you and taking your money.

The consumer culture in England makes the customer king – there’s so much choice, everywhere’s so easy to reach, people shop so much and so often that keeping customers happy is what makes the country’s wheels turn. In France ‘going shopping’ is not the national sport it is in England – it’s done as a necessity and as little as possible. I used to go round the shops in Manchester as a post-work or weekend leisure activity, picking up ‘a few bits’, keeping up to date with the trends and looking out for something new for whatever weekend night out was coming up. I’ve never done this in France for several reasons. The 2-hour enforced lunch break means you have to rush to squeeze everything in one half of the day, which isn’t so relaxing. Also, the shops are just not that great or plentiful. In the nearest ‘city’ Bergerac they’re mostly selling clothes that would appeal to my gran (in the mountains the choice is even worse). I have to say, I really miss Primark.

France, village square, medieval, architecture, beautiful

Plus shopping is just not as friendly a thing to do over here. French shop assistants – if they’re having a bad day, or if they are fed up of your questions or indecisiveness, they won’t put on a polite front. They’ll let you know! Shrugs, sighs, rolled eyes, tuts, plates slammed down – all pretty common as far as I’ve seen. I’ve only very rarely in England experienced a really rude server. In France it’s been pretty regular – often Fawlty Towers-esque, which is sometimes hilarious and sometimes I just walk out.

Trying to get information from anyone is a frustrating experience. If the person you’ve asked a question to doesn’t know the answer they won’t take it upon themselves, as the shop’s representative, to find out for you. They’ll just give you the Gallic Shrug and say they don’t know. If pressed they will get defensive and start asking you why you don’t know. I’ve got into several arguments that way. If you come in with a complaint, it’s likely they’ll take it as a personal insult and start blaming you for whatever’s gone wrong. You’ll be there arguing in circles hours after you would have left with a new product/refund and effusive apology in England. If you’re expecting a professional relationship with someone just because it’s necessary for your respective jobs, forget it until you’ve met face-to-face and bought them a coffee. Only then might they thaw and actually provide any information you’ve requested.

Of course, many people who serve you are lovely – but in France you can’t take it for granted that just because you’re a potential customer in that person’s shop they’re going to be nice to you. In summer you can drive from the French Alps into Italy in an hour and be completely stunned at the change in attitude. It changes in parallel with the weather – from chilly with gathering storm clouds to warm, sunny and welcoming.

Part of the reason for the French lack of customer service could be to do with how the country’s run. Enterprise and growth of your businesses is not encouraged so it stifles ambition. The people running the companies aren’t interested in developing and expanding (too much red tape and tax), the staff are brought up in a work-to-rule culture where striking is commonplace. Maybe I’m used to England’s ‘live to work’ motto and that’s why this ‘work to live’ attitude comes across as not caring. It’s also been suggested it’s the ingrained French revolutionary notion of equality and pride that doesn’t allow them to act in any way ‘subservient’ to a customer (read this BBC article on the topic).

My fiancee is the type of person that loves a challenge so whenever he encounters a stand-offish employee he makes it his mission to make them smile. He does often manage it (with some effort and many self-deprecating comments) and once he gets beyond that barrier they can be really helpful and personable. I think I need to stop looking at French customer service through the eyes of an English consumer and, rather than taking offence at service that would be considered rude in England, take a deep breath and go off with everyone else for a 2-hour lunch break with wine. That should ensure I come back a lot more mellow.

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5 thoughts on “Service With A Gallic Shrug

  1. Until the last two sentences I had almost written you off 🙂 . I’ve often struggled too with the very different attitudes to customer service in France, but I learnt very early on, as you did, that once people are on your side they will be extremely helpful. It is often a question of how you approach people, but I’ve also learnt to live with the fact that some people are just not suited to dealign with the public 🙂

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    1. Oh I’m glad you didn’t write me off haha! I think you’re point is the main one – that you just can’t assume people will be on your side and helpful, and it’s the effort required to get them on side. If you’re in a rush or your mind’s on something else and you just want them to provide the service they offer, you can’t necessarily get it automatically. Being a customer over here is much more complicated!

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  2. Le Good

    Nice rant Kate lol.
    I was in Madeira recently and needed to hire a car. They closed for a 90 minutes lunch but they closed 10 minutes too early and re-opened 30 minutes late and when I finally got in at 2.30pm they had no cars available for 3 days. A wasted day!

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