Je m’en fous: French Customer Service

A couple months ago my friend Yann-yves O’Hayon-Crosby had shared a tale of French customer service on Facebook that made me chuckle. I said to myself, this needs to be a post. Besides being a talented filmmaker/photographer/videographer Yann-yves also happens to be Franco-American, so it only seemed appropriate that he could provide a more balanced and insider perspective on the topic. Special thanks too to Ana Clara Soares for the accompanying graphic – a “bonus” French lesson! Je m’en fous = I don’t care! But without further ado, French customer service, explained by Yvan-yves.

Today is my birthday [ed. note: today is no longer his birthday], and to my annoyance as a Dartybox customer (my ISP) I woke up without Internet. Yesterday I ran the Paris Half Marathon and was looking forward to today’s recovery while answering my birthday wishes, sending some emails and watching a Scorsese/DeNiro Marathon. I called Darty – and Cedric, the customer service person, was very nice; when I mentioned that it was my birthday he brightened up even more. I got my Internet back in an hour, turns out it was a technical problem in the neighborhood. It seems French customer service was surprisingly generous to me on my birthday.

Unfortunately, this is more of an exception than a rule; good customer service in this lovely country is something to be desired.

I recently went to the Sorbonne on a second attempt to get my sister’s diploma. She’s currently studying in Beijing and because of the Sorbonne’s renowned clarity and organizational skills, she couldn’t pick it up until a few months after she left. My first attempt was in August, when the website said that it was open. Lo and behold, when I got there it was closed. This isn’t the first time the Sorbonne has played me. I once had to get my sister’s [test] results and ended up on a wild goose chase, going from building to building, from arrondissement to arrondissement (3 in total) to finally get the desired sheet of paper. On the bright side, I got a few nice brother points.

PASSING THE FLAME
One thing I have come face to face with many times in France, whether it was from dealing with administration or customer service, has been what I call the “passing of the flame.” You approach someone who seems appropriate to help you out, and that person – instead of being charming and welcoming – is annoyed or blasé. You tell them your problem, and as you explain it, it feels like the person is being given an immeasurable burden. This is usually accompanied by a strong, distinctly French sigh. In some cases they find the solution, as you can only hope that this uncomfortable encounter finishes quickly for both parties. After all, neither of you want to be there at that moment. In the case where they don’t find the solution, or that they can’t/ don’t want to take care of the problem – but another department/person can – they brighten up because you, the burden, will soon disappear. Suddenly they act as if the sun has come up for the first time, and their spirit rises. The person is ‘vraiment désolé’ [very sorry], with a twinkle of sincerity somewhere in there. Or maybe not.

3 STAGES OF CUSTOMER SERVICE
(DEALING WITH ADMINISTRATION IN FRANCE)

The person is unhelpful/doesn’t treat you right. You think to yourself, did I do something wrong? But no! I was polite.

 You start thinking that this is the way it is in France, that the word “service” in “customer service” is the idea that they are rendering enough of a favor by just dealing with you and not solving your problem. When the person realizes that they can’t help you anymore, their mood suddenly changes and they become understanding and generally much nicer because it is no longer their problem. 

Then every once in a while you get great service in France. It’s rare, and deserves to be cherished – and even blogged about. You tell friends, you feel good, and it makes your day. Until someone reminds you that that’s how it is in the States or other places in the world, that that’s how it should be. Then you get frustrated again.

TIPS + SOLUTIONS

  • When you encounter one of these situations, I suggest you to go in expecting the worst but with a positive attitude. Always be calm and smiling (at least in the beginning).
  • If the person clearly hates their job, or would clearly rather be somewhere else, small talk works well. “It’s been rainy, the weather sucks” – the person will probably agree with you and open up just a bit. One thing I’ve noticed in Paris is that the best way to approach a total stranger, or for people to communicate with a total stranger, is if there is a third party that can be blamed for a shared situation. In 2007, when the great Parisian metro strikes took place, I remember many conversations that started because we were all in the same boat, and we all had to deal with the subway union’s temperament. A form of ephemeral solidarity formed. “The weather sucks,” blame the weather for all the miseries in the world; the metro has been late? Then “screw the metro.” I think it’s no wonder how the slogan ‘I love rien, je suis Parisian’ [I love nothing, I am Parisian] organically became a bumper sticker on the capital’s Vespas. Not loving anything isn’t much to work with, but sharing frustrations can be.
  • When I had to renew my apartment lease, I met with the man who takes care of the rentals. I walked into his dark, badly lit office with grey walls. I had a smile on my face – because this was bureaucracy, I wanted to get in and out, but leave a good impression all at the same time. He was on the phone as I walked in, he gestured me to take a seat. I sat down and took the documents out. He got off the phone and I introduced myself. He remembered who I was and looked annoyed: I was another piece of paperwork for him. He started going through the pile of papers, looking for the places to sign. Meanwhile, I looked around the office… On the walls were pictures of old brownstones from New York, each picture brought out one of the characteristics of these buildings. They were nice pictures, lit at dusk with the golden light, bringing the red out of the bricks. I said that I liked the pictures, and asked if I they were his. He lifted his eyes and was obviously caught off guard, then he lit up like a light bulb. He put the papers down, sat back and started to talk to me about New York in great admiration. The pictures weren’t his, but they clearly represented his fascination for the city’s architecture. The French love New York, and I could see it in him. This short conversation had changed his day, and I realized that I had touched upon something he had great appreciation for. I signed the papers and left the room with another atmosphere.

Some say the French don’t like to work, that they don’t like doing their jobs. The truth of the matter is, in my opinion, that most of the time they just would rather be somewhere else. Frankly, who can blame them?

Text by Yann-yves O’Hayon-Crosby (@yocsb4 on Twitter). Graphic by Ana Clara Soares (@akaTheBananas on Twitter).  Check out a sneak peek of Ceci N’est Pas de L’Eau, a documentary about cachaça that the two have been working on!

p.s. Don’t miss more insights into living in France + French Lessons!

12 comments

  • I never really thought about it like that – that they hate their job and thus you pose a burden. Because, I suppose, of my background (southern, polite in all possible situations) and protestant (and somewhat Jesuit) work ethic – ad majoram dei gloriam and all that.

    But put into this context, it’s really quite an insight into how I can get my paperwork done with as little stress as possible. Assuming that the person you’re dealing with has a hellish job and hates what they’re doing and is only there because they have a mortgage/car/creche/god knows what to pay and are desperately looking forward to their vacances in august, provides an opportunity to help them out and cheer them up. And that’s something this good ‘ol boy can get behind.

    • Glad you found it insightful, Phil! …. for me that last line of Yann-yves piece is a testament to the French love of holiday too!

    • Thanks for the response Phil! I’m happy to see that it helped you get a different insight on the matter. These are observations that I acquired from the last few years dealing with paperwork and other administrative tasks. I was happy to share my experience and tips with others as dealing with bureaucracy is never a delight.

  • love this, so true! especially the bit about commiserating on some shared grievance (weather, metro, etc.) – nothing to get a stranger to open up like mutual inconvenience.

    one edit suggestion: the phrase is “j’aime rien, j’suis parisien” (correct grammar is “je suis,” of course, but the bumper stickers use the abbreviation).

    • Canan, love that you agree… I think he was making reference to the bumper sticker grammar, but good to know that it’s not the correct way ;)

    • Canan, I agree it is incorrect but then again I wanted to be as accurate as possible and the Vespa outside my building had it written exactly like that. So I thought that I should stay true to it, thanks for spotting it!

  • It’s pretty much a good analysis : many people believe to be worth more than they’re given (and not only in France); yes, small talk will get you a long way.
    But there’s one big, very american ( hehe :p ) mistake : administration in France isnt a business traditionnaly, so “customer service” is a completely inapropriate term. It’s a voter – state relationship.
    Things are changing, though

  • I completely get it ! My experiences, too. However, you say customer service in the US is better, I respectfully disagree. Understand, our economy has been on the downturn for many years now, a majority of people were, and are still out of work. The US was/is built on service industries. We are continually moving in this direction very quickly. You have heard of the infamous 1% in our country, we majority are the have nots. More and more people are forced into service industries. Your odds of reaching a dedicated service providers or customer service representatives are few and far between these days. Health care has become one of the worse industries for offering decent customer service !

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