How to turn a Gallic shrug into a charm offensive

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:

Wikimedia Commons

Vive l’entente cordiale. 🙂

This post is linked to #AllAboutFrance where you can find an abundance of interesting posts which are indeed All About France.



34 thoughts on “How to turn a Gallic shrug into a charm offensive

  1. Thank goodness for your fluent French! What a business all that was! I had a shop lady push me out of the door once, just as I came to the counter to buy something! Closing for lunch sorry! And a very rude shop girl at Le Printemps in Poitiers who was most reluctant to serve me because she was busy talking to her friends. She asked me what I wanted, eventually, – shoes – and then went back to her friends and ignored me!! I never shopped there again. Lol. But on the whole, in my short time in France I found most people to be pretty good. Good writing again. 🙂

      • I wasn’t at all surprised to see that it had closed down. If you don’t want to sell shoes to a keen purchaser, well, you probably don’t get round to selling anything! 🙂

  2. Susie – I am so with you on this one!
    Let me cite you two other incidences experienced by friends.
    One friend insisted the heater he had bought was defective – the supermarket were having nothing of it. My friend suggested they plug it in to prove the point – they did, and put out all the lights and power in the supermarket!
    Second friend: He wanted a line that was recently installed to be upgraded to “carry” internet – he is technically very savvy and knew this was possible, and is a fluent French speaker.
    After hurled abuse (at him) from Orange, he was obliged to pay for a new line to be installed , and cancel the other one at his own personal expense.
    I think so many people do not know where to turn, and end up pocketing their losses. Like the British Bulldogs, we must hang in there!

    • Don’t mention Orange, Helen! We had huge Internet problems for four years. We were without Internet for 14 weeks once, with various engineers coming and going and doing nothing at all. One arrived at the gate, said he just had to go back to check something at the exchange, and was never seen again! They kept telling us there was nothing wrong, it must be our equipment, we should buy a new modem. All our neighbours had a Livebox, but every time we asked for it we were told we “didn’t qualify”. Nobody could explain how or why, we just didn’t.

      It was only after a visit from a dog-loving engineer that we got to the bottom of the problem. The line connecting our house to the post has to pass over a high roof. The engineer clambered up there and found that the wires inside the line, about 30 years old, were broken in numerous places, so that occasionally all the broken bits coincided and we got a signal, but as they seldom didn’t, neither did we. He said that the reason the problem had never been fixed was because it was too much work to replace the broken cable due to the height of the roof. Instead he would run a new cable from the post down the lane a little way to another post, from where it could be attached to our house. He then provided us with a length of cable, and said that if we ran the cable around the corner of the house ourselves, to where the new line would join, it was save us 300 euros, which Orange would otherwise charge us. All that thanks to a man who was charmed by our dogs! He also gave us a form showing that we were just as entitled to a Livebox as everybody else and there was no such thing as “not qualifying”. Still Orange dug in their heels, but eventually we wore them down. 🙂

      We had another very bad experience with Orange when we discovered that they had been taking an extra 5 euros a week from us, for six months, for some “add-on” that enabled us to download ring tones or music from various sites without having to give our bank details. We had no idea this thing existed, nor that it had been installed on our account by default, without any notification, and that it was up to customers to check a box if they didn’t want it. To recover the amount they had stolen took several weeks of exasperated phone calls, followed by a threat of prosecuting them for theft and reporting them to AFOC. Magic! Although we didn’t have a refund, we were credited the amount against our account. Many, many French people were also taken in by this same scam.

      • To soothe your Orange rankled nerves, I will counter the above with.
        1. OH is an IT consultant working from home – in the early days, we paid 419 euros a MONTH for a half gig service!!!!
        2. We were struck by lightening, and it fried everything electric in the house. Orange said , as part of our insurance claim we would have to get the insurance to cough up 1200 euros, Insurance dude said “non!”, citing the fact we were paying dearly for our monthy service, which in his opinion, was part of the service agreement. Well, god bless him as he stuck to his guns and Orange had to back down. Hurrah!

  3. Things were beginning to change when we were leaving France…but about time too!

    We didn’t have a branch of AFOC near us, but Que Choisir were pretty hot when the fridge sent for repair under guarantee was scrapped because the firm didn’t know how to deal with motherboards…Just as in your case a lot of shouting down the phone went on….

    And Alison’s point made me smile…how many times have I had staff sprinting to close the doors at ten minutes to twelve…..

    And the man in Leclerc who admonished me for picking up a melon to see if it was ripe. I dropped it and it was, but as it had been by then on the floor in pieces I decided against buying it.

    In a local town there was a loyalty card system called ‘Le client est roi’…..and I often wondered if the roi they had had in mind was Louis XVI….

    • I’ve heard that Que Choisir are pretty hot, too. It’s a pity more expats are not aware that there is help at hand, as I’ve heard so many tales of people browbeaten and scorned into defeat, particularly when they don’t have a good command of the language.

  4. My OH got into such a venomous row with our local Leclerc about returning a computer he’d bought the day before on promo because it was faulty (they were refusing to exchange it because it was missing the packaging around the mouse) that they called security. They were then a bit stymied because even for an outfit like them forcibly ejecting someone who was walking with a stick doesn’t look good.
    In the end we got a new computer because I started saying in a loud voice to anybody who was looking at the heaped promo pile, ‘Don’t buy those, they don’t work.’ The assistant opened the box and removed the mouse packaging.
    I can’t say I’ve seen any improvement in Leclerc’s cusstomer service – last summer I returned a kettle the day I bought it because it came out of the box rusty and was told it was my fault for misusing it! Most other places have improved though and some have a brilliant attitude towards their customers, when Darty forgot to include a cable with a television we bought we got given a bottle of champagne as an apology.

    • What a scene that must have been! Good for you and your husband. Leclerc seem particularly bad. It was they who told my friend she was in France, not Europe.

      We bought a DVD player/recorder from them, and it never worked. After a week TOH took it back and asked for a refund. No, not possible, not company policy. It would be sent for repair. TOH does not share my patience, and in broken Franglais said he would not be leaving the store until he had a refund. A manager was called. An argument ensued, culminating in the manager shoving a refund at TOH and telling him he was henceforth BANNED FOR LIFE FROM LECLERC!

      TOH took the money, walked into the store, spoke to a very pleasant salesman who confided that the whole batch of players had been faulty, and sold him a different brand that worked perfectly.

  5. Goodness, Susie, your experience of customer service has been extensive! Good thing you’ve got a handy AFOC man near you.

    I’ve had some pretty appalling experiences too. Who hasn’t?! But mostly good I’m happy to say. 🙂

  6. @Helen Aurelius-Haddock – 419 euros a month! Clearly taking advantage of those who relied on an Internet connection for their business. Horrendous! Orange don’t come out looking very good, do they?

  7. I bought a Visionic satellite recepteur at Leroy Merlin just before Xmas. After about 5hrs use, it started smouldering, stinking and duly went pop. I took it back the next day, expecting the “customer is always wrong” treatment, but amazingly, they were wonderful. The lady at Leroy Merlin chucked mine in a dustbin and gave me a voucher for a new one with hardly a fuss. The replacement gadget is great and has worked for 2 months (fingers crossed). I have however heard plenty of other people with a different story, rather more like your own, especially regarding Leclerc.

    • Ah, glad to see you have managed to break through the invisible barrier, Andrew. 🙂

      Glad you had such a good experience with Leroy Merlin. It’s all a bit of a gamble these days, wondering how you’ll be treated if you have a complaint, and seems to depend upon who you speak to at the time. Often you can tell just by looking at them who will be helpful, and who won’t. There is a simply beastly, horrible woman in one of the post offices we use. I don’t know how she’s kept her job, she is so obnoxious. When we go there now, we queue obediently, and if she happens to be the next empty counter, we always wave the person behind us through with a big smile, and wait for a different counter. If there is nobody behind us, we go and fiddle with some brochures. 😀

      • She’s kept her job because they can’t sack her. She passed the concours and she has a job for life.
        I imagine the powers that be in the Post Office would rather have her being foul with the customers than being foul with her colleagues if she were transferred to a back office job.

  8. @Alison – If they couldn’t recognise a shopaholic when they saw one, little wonder they’ve closed! It probably became too much trouble to bother with customers. 🙂

  9. @Helen – why would she want to be so unpleasant anyway? It takes so much energy! She really does look as if she lives on a diet of sour lemons, horrible little downturned puckered mouth like a chicken’s bumhole. 😀

  10. Oh dear, what a series of nightmares! I have heard similar tales from other ex-pats. Mind you, computer buying can be equally difficult over here – as a computer geek I am frequently called to help out with new laptops which are stuffed full of crap-ware and don’t work properly

    • Very pleased if the article is useful to you, Emily. I hope AFOC can help you. There is a similar organisation called Que Choisir who fight for consumer rights. Bonne chance!

  11. AFOC sounds great, although to date we have not had any problems at all – our local Darty has been superb whenever we have had a query or problem & I really can’t fault their customer service, but it’s good to know who to contact should we need it.

    • Although it may sound as if we have been beset by problems, in fact considering we’ve lived here for over 20 years, they have been few. Generally we find that customer service has improved immeasurably, but it is nice to have something up your sleeve in case you fall into the hands of Mr Gallic Shrug. 🙂

  12. Wow! I’ve never heard of the AFOC, but there certainly have been a few times I could have used them. They are going on my “important info” list. Thanks so much for sharing this.

  13. I’m another who’s been in France for eons and hadn’t heard about AFOC. I’m definitely noting it down though I guess they don’t help with customer service with fonctionnaires. I’ve mainly had problems in that area rather than consumer goods and boy can I tell a good story (like pretty much everyone in France I reckon!) Thanks for entertaining us with your horror stories Susie and thanks for linking up to #AllAboutFrance

  14. I don’t know who would deal with complaints about fonctionnaires, and I don’t recall having any so far. But I have found that when somebody is being difficult I ask for their name, and write it down, which seems to prompt them to reconsider their attitude. 😉

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