There are many joys to living in France, but until recently dealing with customer service has not been one of them. ‘French customer service’ was in fact something of an oxymoron. Our first unpleasant experience, 16 years ago, came courtesy of a major supermarket chain from which we bought a computer one Friday evening. After plugging in our new acquisition, a message popped up on the monitor: ‘No hard drive.’ We unplugged, replugged, rebooted, switched on and off several times. ‘No hard drive’ insisted the monitor.
On Saturday we returned the computer to the supermarket, and told Service Après Vente there was no hard drive. Impossible, they said, all computers have a hard drive. Not this one, we said. After switching it on and twiddling, they reluctantly agreed there was no hard drive, looking at us suspiciously as if suspecting we might have whipped it out for fun. Begrudgingly, they gave us a replacement.
We plugged it in and it whirred into life! Four hours later, it was stubbornly refusing to connect to the Internet, and it was too late to make another 50 mile round-trip to the supermarket, so I phoned the helpline, which was premium rate. Put on hold for an hour, I finally gave up. Same result on the Sunday.
On Monday I took the machine back and said it would not connect to the Internet. After leaving it with Service Après Vente for an hour, they assured me the problem was fixed. They had connected to the Internet and tested the machine fully. It was in perfect working order. Back home, another 50 miles and 4 hours later, it was still not connecting to the Internet. An engineer was despatched to fix it. After taking it to bits and scratching his head, he announced that there was no modem in the machine. But surely there must be, I said, if Service Après Vente had connected to the Internet? They could not possibly have done so, he replied. There is no modem in this machine.
Disheartened with the machine and with Service Après Vente, on Wednesday I took the machine back and asked for a refund. That was not company policy. I could only have another replacement machine. I didn’t want one of these machines, I wanted a different make, one that worked. That was not possible. It wasn’t company policy. I drove home with a third machine.
14 frustrating months later the computer still didn’t work properly. If the modem worked, the monitor didn’t. It constantly crashed, froze, switched itself off. I can’t recall how many trips I made to the supermarket, where I was asked if I had owned a computer before, knew that there was an on/off switch at the back, had plugged it into a power source and was generally treated as a trouble-maker and object of ridicule. I am fairly patient and never resort to rudeness, but my patience and politeness were making no inroads into the intransigence of the supermarket.
A French friend gave me a telephone number for our local AFOC – Association Force Ouvrière Consommateurs – a consumer rights organisation. I phoned for an appointment, and the next day, armed with three A4 sheets detailing the whole saga, sat in a small office facing a man with a bristly beard and brusque manner.
‘Tell me what has happened’ he said, ignoring the papers. After two sentences he raised a hand, snatched up the phone, dialled the supermarket and proceeded to shout and roar. Three minutes later he replaced the phone, tore up the papers, and told me to go immediately to the supermarket and collect my money.
With trepidation born of months of abuse and disdain, I announced myself at the reception desk. The previously scornful salesman appeared at a sprint, wiping sweat from his brow and waving a fistful of bank notes and apologising excessively. Quelle satisfying volte-face!
A couple of years later we had ordered a supply of crushed limestone. The man who delivered it tipped three cubic metres of sharp stone chippings onto our drive. We had a mighty argument when I said it was not what we had ordered and that he would have to take it away and replace it. He shook his fist and called me an English whore, furiously shovelled the stuff back into his truck, failed to deliver our order, and sent an invoice laced with threats. After two months of invoices and threats, I telephoned the shouting man at AFOC, who shouted at the rude man while I listened on the other line, and that was the end of the invoices and threats.
Two years ago we bought a coffee machine from another supermarket. It failed after two months, so we took it back and asked for a refund or replacement. It was not company policy, explained the man at the counter. It would have to be sent for repair. How long would that take, I asked. No idea, he replied with a Gallic shrug. It was August, the factory would be closed, there was a backlog ……
Four months later, he was still shrugging, so I mentioned that I would pass the file to AFOC as the machine had been in repair twice as long as we had owned it. Within an hour, we’d received a full cash refund, warm handshakes and profuse apologies.
A friend who bought a new professional coffee machine for her café asked for a refund or replacement when the expensive machine failed after two days. She was told she would have to be patient until it was repaired, which could take several weeks. The fact that the machine was crucial to her business was of no concern to the supplier. When she pointed out that under European Law the supplier was obliged to give her a new machine, or a refund, she was told: “Madame, you are not in Europe. You are in France.”
When discussing customer service, lack of, with a French friend, they explained it thus: After the Revolution, all French people became equal, so being a customer does not make you superior to a waiter or salesman. Therefore, do not expect deference, and be thankful if you are treated courteously. The customer was not always right in France. In fact, he very seldom was.
Happily we have seen a radical change in this attitude over the last few years, both in the private sector and among the ‘fonctionnaires‘ who are generally unfailingly polite and helpful. We are all still equal, of course, but customers are treated with respect.
However, if you are unfortunate to find yourself with defective goods and faced by indifference and insolence, it’s comforting to know that help is available. Keep Calm and Mention AFOC. You can find your nearest branch on the Internet from their site: http://www.afoc.net/rubrique.php?id_rubrique=10
Vive l’entente cordiale.