(asked by Kelly from somewhere)
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.