Aug 202009

(asked by Kelly from somewhere)

Could you tell us more about the unwritten rules of customer service (or would writing it break the ‘unwritten’ part of the rule?)
That would be very helpful for someone planning on visiting/living in France…

Don’t worry Kelly, writing down the rules won’t break anything apart from some misconceptions maybe.

So what’s going on with customer service in France? Why is it so bad? Or is it that bad?
Most Americans (and mostly Americans) will say that yes, it is that bad.
Yes, one can consider that it is, if you judge it with American rules (once again I’ll be quite American-centric, but I can compare only with what I know and understand).
The thing is that relationship between customers and salespeople/clerks simply don’t work the same way in France and in the US, the expectation are different, and not knowing the local rules and expectations will lead to misunderstanding and bad experiences (nothing new here).

Let’s start with the French administration. You will have bad experiences when dealing with the French administration. There’s nothing you can do about it. Complaining about it won’t change anything. There are very few things that are certain in life: for example, New Year’s Day is on January 1st, Céline Dion sucks and you will have a bad experience with the French administration if you live in France, it’s just a question of time. Instead of complaining about it and trying to change something that cannot be changed, I say, enjoy it. There aren’t many things that are certain in this world full of uncertainties, so embrace and cherish the few certain things that you’ll have.
Why is that?
Because it is not the problem of the person that is in front of you. See the Gallic Shrug post for more details.

Now a few tips to have a better experience with the French administration (Disclaimer: it’s not 100% and do it only at your own risk. In case of trouble with the French administration, I’ll deny any sort of involvement and I didn’t write those lines and this blog, they both come from your wild imagination).

If you see that the person is nice but not very helpful, play the nice card, be friendly with them, or try to generate pity in their eyes. You want them to feel something for you, that something being sympathy (or pity) so that they suddenly feel involved in the thing and they’ll do their best to help you. Be aware that this is not very efficient as usually nice people working for the administration are not exactly taken seriously by their peers. So if the person only can solve your problem it can work. Is they need help from somebody else, your chances of success will suddenly plummet…

If you see the person is not too happy with their job, you can play the “bitch about the Man” card, the clerk may sense a likeminded person in front of them, feel more sympathetic with you as even if you’re on both sides of the barrier, you’re both victims of the system, so they can decide to help you to stick it to the Man.
Be careful to not be too virulent against the system though, because it’s still the Man that pays and feeds the clerk, so they’re quite ambivalent about it. One criticism too many and you’re doomed.

If you see that the person obviously doesn’t care about you and just waits for you to be sad that nothing can be done about your situation and decides to leave, then you need to make them understand that if you’re not their problem, you’ll become their problem.
No later than earlier this week, I had to go to an administration office because my wife (who’s not French) is missing an important document because somebody somewhere didn’t do their job and/or some documents were lost. It’s been dragging on for months now, so Monday morning I decided to go to the office and talk to somebody as phone calls and letters don’t seem to fix the situation. When I got to sit at the booth, I got to deal with a lady who, even if she was not especially mean, was not exactly kind and was obviously bothered to have to deal with this complicated case while her colleague got the easy and basic one to deal with. So she played almost instantly the “it’s not my problem” card, not afraid to interrupt me (and this misunderstanding my explanations) in order to dismiss me as soon as possible.
My strategy was then to politely but firmly make her understand that I wouldn’t stand up from that seat before the problem gets tackled and dealt with. In other words, I became her problem. And it sort of worked, she went to look for my wife’s file, we looked at the details together, she even eased up a little bit, and even though not everything was fixed (because of course she’s not the one in charge of those types of files, she can’t do what needs to be done, and of course I can’t talk directly to the person that is in charge of the file; but those things are impossible to change, they’re part of the deal) my wife’s file ended up in the “urgent pile” which is more than I expected.
Once again, be careful, in that case it’s all a question of dosage. You want to slightly become a pain in their ass so that you become your problem, but do it just a little bit too much and you’ll totally antagonize them, and then you’re totally screwed and things can really go haywire (like your file can be “lost” and those sort of things).

But I didn’t really talk about customer service yet, as when you’re dealing with the administration, you’re not exactly a customer.

So what is the deal with real customers in France?

Here is the deal…

Rule number one: it’s not about the money!!!
Repeat after me: it’s not about the money!!!
One more time: it’s not about the money!!!

What I mean by that is that if in the US the relationship between a customer and a store will be based on the money:
Customer has money, store wants money, store will do whatever customer wants to get that money, customer will behave the way they feel like because they have the money, thus the power.

In France things work differently. It’s almost the opposite:
It’s about the fact that the store provides something that the customer wants.
So the store has the power in France, not the customer.
Money is just a mean to get what one wants; it’s not the base of the thing.

There’s also a more human side to the relationship too. Something that I feel has almost disappeared in the US, mostly because privately owned small shops almost don’t exist anymore and have been replaced by large chains. Because of that, your relationship with the salesperson will be impersonal.

In France, most stores and restaurants and pretty much all cafés are still privately owned, and that means that when you’re entering the premises of one of those, you’re entering someone’s place, which means that you must conform to their rules. They don’t owe you anything, you owe them several things, first of all respect and courtesy.

And if you enter like you own the place, without saying hello and those kinds of things, you will be considered a rude person (because you’ll be a rude person) and be treated accordingly (i.e. not very nicely).

So here are a few tips to have the best experience possible when you’re a customer in France.

-In stores: always say hello and goodbye when you enter and leave a shop, no exceptions.
Don’t expect people to be your servant. Be extremely polite. Remember that the way you unconsciously behave in shops at home is most likely considered impolite in France, so be consciously polite and cautious of what you say and do. That of course includes lowering your voice because if you’re American, you’re loud. Even if you’re not loud in the US, you are in France.
And when you interact with the salesperson, always always keep in mind that they’re the one with the power in the relationship, not you. (still, the law is often on the side of customers, that doesn’t mean the shopkeeper has the right to rip you off, but that’s another topic)
If you’re unhappy with the way things are unfolding in that shop, you still have the power to leave. But don’t see that as a slap in their face as they lost a customer. They won’t care, there are plenty of fish in the sea.

-In restaurants: Same things apply with another one on top of them. When you go eat at a restaurant, keep in mind that it means that not only you’re going to someone’s place, but also they’re going to cook for you. In other words they’re doing you a big favor. The best way to insult the chef is the following one: order something and then ask for the dish to be changed the way you’d like it (with no onions, replace the carrots with potatoes, and whatnot).
This can be possible to a certain extent is you’re a regular of the place, in any other case, it’s a big no no.
You don’t like the way the dish is prepared? Order another one. You don’t like any of them? Why are you in that restaurant again?
Always be kind with waiters. Remember, they don’t need your tip to survive as they receive a real salary, so the only way to make a waiter be nice with you is to be nice with them. Of course, there are always waiters that are naturally nice and others naturally mean. Also don’t mistake a waiter that teases you with a waiter that’s rude, as waiter like to tease their customers -especially foreign ones- at times, a thing US waiters will never dare to do for fear of losing their tip and as a consequence foreigners (especially Americans) can’t imagine a waiter behaving in such a way and they’ll very often take it for rudeness or meanness.

-Bars and Cafés: the same rules apply more or less. But with cafés (even more than with restaurants) you must keep in mind one thing. There are two kinds of cafés (or bars, they’re roughly the same thing in France), especially in big cities. Or even three kinds.
You’ll have the touristy cafés (in tourist areas), the fancy cafés (in famous, upper-class areas, which sometimes are the tourist areas), and the other cafés (where the non-upper-class locals go).
Don’t expect waiters to be nice in the first two types.
In touristy cafés, waiters are just not very nice, and often quite rude. Why? Well, not sure. They’re really busy, they don’t get to interact and to know their customers like waiters in other cafés do, they’re not “professional” waiters (remember that being a waiter is a carrier in France and a respected one), etc.
In fancy posh places, waiters will be snotty because it’s just the way things are in those sorts of places, but I assume that if you become a regular they’ll become nicer.
In “normal” cafés, same rules apply as in restaurants: be nice, be polite, and remember that you’re in their place so you owe them respect, not the other way around.

Once you’re aware of all of those rules; your experience as a customer in France will be a much better one than if you don’t know or apply them.

More Questions Answered:

  11 Responses to “Can you tell us about French customer service?”

  1. "Something that I feel has almost disappeared in the US, mostly because privately owned small shops almost don’t exist anymore and have been replaced by large chains."

    I think this may be the reason that when I am in France I have no problem with the power dynamic you described in restaurants and small shops but it really frustrates me in big department stores. If I am trying to buy a dress at Galeries Lafayette and some snooty clerk is giving me a hard time I will go find the damn dress somewhere else and probably for a better price from someone who will treat me like a human being.

    (I realize this is not totally logical but it's always how I've felt about it.)

  2. I've had this precise conversation with so many Americans! British people don't seem to find it so difficult to get their heads around it, probably because British customer service/bureaucracy etc is closer to the French model than to the US. (In fact, I saw on the blog of a US expat who lives in France recently a vitriolic complaint about walking in to a London hairdressing salon without an appointment and - to her shock and disbelief - the salon saying it didn't take walk-ins. Her response was 'But I was a well-dressed potential customer who had the money in my pocket! How dare they!' Which is to miss the point you make - that such transactions are more than just financial, as a customer you are on someone else's turf, and the culture of 'anything for a tip' simply doesn't work here.)

    I hate US customer service personally - and I worked in a bookshop and in a hotel as a chambermaid when I lived there, so I've been on both sides. It's like paying for a dancing bear, and thinking it's OK for that bear to be made to dance because of the fact that money had changed hands.

    Despite all that paid-for perkiness, it always seems to me that there's a lot of bad feeling in the US model - the customer masks contempt for the waiter with cash, or feels the tip allows him to be demanding and rude, and the waiter (who is almost never a career waiter, but someone who by definition wants to be doing something else) masks the humiliation of sitting up and begging for money.

    I read the blog of a New York barmaid, who gets absolutely vitriolic about people not getting the tipping culture, and while I understand her annoyance - her actual pay is minimal - I also find it bizarrely entitled that she expects individuals to compensate her for the fact that her industry is exploitative of its workers. After all, a tip is a gratuity for good service, not compulsory. Really, that system brings out the worst in everyone.

    But only after living in the US and experiencing the faux-friendliness of waiters etc. did I understand an American acquaintance who swore he would never go back to Paris 'because everyone was so mean to me'.

  3. "as a customer you are on someone else's turf"

    The idea in America, though, is that the turf only exists because customers pay for it to stay open.

    "the waiter (who is almost never a career waiter, but someone who by definition wants to be doing something else) masks the humiliation of sitting up and begging for money."

    This is the problem with the US system more than the "impersonality" of it, I think. You attract more flies with honey than vinegar, and it makes good business sense to train employees to treat customers well, which is why I would be more inclined to buy that dress in Galeries Lafayette if I were treated better. (As they say, someone will tell two people about a good customer service experience and ten people about a bad one.) However, I understand that while Galeries Lafayette (or Printemps, or BHV, or whatever) gaining me as a customer would be good for the company and its shareholders, it has no real benefit for the store clerk. This is why, when I was a cashier for a big American corporation, I resented being expected to be a "team player" and bring in more money for the company when I would still be getting $8.50 an hour with no benefits no matter how much the company made.

  4. David, well told. It took me a little while to get the hang of "hello" and "good-bye" (en Francaise) in shops, but now it is such a habit I do it to sometimes embarrassment back here in the US.

    Nathalie, BOY! You sure got that right - "dancing bears". Everybody is kissing up, all the way to the top. And the genius of it is, is that most of us don't even recognize that is what we are doing. Instead we march about talking about "the land of the free". Yeah, free to dance sucker, dance.

  5. David,

    This post, and the comments concerning it, provide valuable insights and information that I wish all tourists would read. Unfortunately, those who will read this are probably a fairly small and a self-selected group. But thanks for making these points. (I'm especially drawn to the observations about perceived rudeness of French waiters, compared to the "dancing bear" model of many American waiters.)

    Note: We touch on similar matters in our own little web site — see

    - Jake Dear

  6. This is great advice! Unfortunately, in my small home town in the USA, the only way most people would ever hear about these rules of etiquette would be if the local newspaper were to published them. The USA is tessellated culturally into a million groups all with uniquely taught etiquette rules. My hometown is small and I never grew up learning things like saying "hello" and "please" when shopping for food or other goods to the workers. There are other ways to show that one is being friendly like smiling and simply saying "thank you" after the exchange, but something like not saying "hello" would never be considered particularly rude here. Rude here is more extreme. I've worked at many fast food restaurants and it is quite obvious when a customer is being rude here (not based on missing a greeting or having alternative etiquette). Luckily for me, if I ever visit France or any other country, I will know! Obviously, more people should study before visiting a foreign land, but some of the considered "rudeness" of American's might be similar to the considered "rudeness" of the French. Both cultures make assumptions about the other, or presume that rules of etiquette are taught universally throughout the world. I've been using the "hellos" and "pleases" around my town and everyone almost reacts in a more startled way when I do. Sort of like, "whoa, I wasn't expecting that, what's up with this guy?" I've been getting the shifty eye.

  7. I lived in Chile for two years and noticed the same attitude: that shopkeepers controlled scarce resources and they doled them out to those they considered worthy.

    Have to say, though, that I consider that more of a third-world (where resources often are scarce) attitude than first world.

  8. Well, class-factotum, if you've read the entry, you know it has nothing to do with product scarcity.

    (Is Chile still considered a third world country nowadays?)

  9. I'm a Canadian graduate student living in France, studying in a program with people from many countries from varied levels of development and differing geographical regions.

    Many in the program seems to agree that France does have a real weakness relative to their countries in things that can be objectively measured; wait times, days until a problem is resolved, likelihood of getting a refund, etc.

    On the subjective dimensions of customer service, I think the arguments mentioned above very much apply. The cultural context is very important. I don't think French restaurants should be penalized for not conforming to American service norms; they should be judged on the food and whether they conform to French service standards. This goes for any country.

    I believe the benefits of eating at a restaurant, however, are more subjective (taste of food, quality of service, atmosphere, convenience, etc.) than say a mobile phone contract (who provides a reliable service of the mixture of texting internet, calling time etc. that suits me for the best price? - presumably more objective)

    In such cases, there are real 'administrative' issues in France. And these shouldn't be taken lightly, because although if things go smoothly, these issues may scantily register on one's itinerary, when they don't go smoothly, they can take up a LOT of time.

    Wherever you're from, the reality is it's hard to adjust to a new place and learn 'how things work' there.

    Part of that learning process is finding out that some things just don't work as smoothly as at home, and finding the good things a place has to offer to offset the difficulties.

    So let me conclude by saying, you don't move to France for great customer service. At least not in the objectively measurable sense. If you're, say, from North America, you're likely to be frequently frustrated by it. But there are other wonderful things the country has to offer, if you're lucky enough to have some time to discover them; fine food and wine, lovely architecture, a moderate climate, a fascinating culture, and of course Paris.

  10. Flaky Croissant, thanks for your input.
    Just a few details I want to comment on.

    First, that even "objective" is a subjective concept.

    For example, the relationship that people have with time, or what it means to "be on time" (if you live around people from several cultures, you know all to well what I mean by that).

    On the opposite, I think quality of food is an objective concept when you infer the opposite (once again, "objective" is a subjective thing)

  11. Why can’t people just be respectful to others? Just because everyone deserves repsect. Not because they’re in “someone’s place” or they “owe them” or because it’s “not about the money” or whatever.
    This is one thing that I sort of like about my culture, that the shopkeepers and staff are polite and respectful to their customers. Apparently this doesn’t matter in France. And how do they make sales if they are so demanding of their customers in France? Yes, I understand that “it’s not about the money” and that “the shop owner has something the customer wants”… but does this mean that they are working simply to have the power and not to make money?
    I might have some problems in this area when I go to France. But I will remember to say “hello” when I enter and “good-bye” when I leave.
    Thanks so much for this post, I like your very informative answer! Even though I’m three years late! lol

 Leave a Reply



You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>

Notify me of followup comments via e-mail. You can also subscribe without commenting.