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Doing business with the French

What are the differences you should look at when dealing with other French business and customers?

How is doing business with the French different?

It can be tempting to target other expats when setting up a business, but ignoring the French market means missing millions of potential customers. Sam David spoke to three British entrepreneurs targeting French business.

Sécurité Marché
Nick Gay, Brittany
FOR security specialist Nick Gay in Brittany, it made more sense to target the French market, rather than expats, because it was much bigger.

“We could restrict ourselves to the 2% of expats and do everything in English but that would exclude the 98% who speak French. It just seemed smarter for our business.”

Nick sells bespoke security systems and other equipment through his company Sécurité Marché in Callac between Guingamp and Carhaix-Plouguer. He has been in France for seven years and set the company up about two years ago to use his expertise as an engineer.

Learning French was the key and he said he did so by “jumping in at the deep end... just like I did to my kids when I sent them to school without really a word of French between them”.

“If you speak the language and use it then everything else about your business will fall into place.”

Targeting French customers is done through his website, which is all in French, and through using key search terms on Google.

“I use specific key words that get us very good results and we are getting business from all over the French world with orders from Nigeria, New Caledonia, Canada, Belgium and Switzerland.

“However, we also think about our customer service and that is a big plus – French companies do not seem to understand the phrase.”

Where is Brian?
Darren Jones, Paris
Darren Jones has been in France for three years and is the founder of Where Is Brian? a firm selling English-language learning support materials to shops including WH Smith in Paris and independent outlets in France.

He also sells via the company website and Amazon. Setting up, he said, was not that complicated: “as long as you’re patient and persistent with the paperwork it’s do-able. It’s just a matter of ploughing through the forms.”

As for marketing to the French, they have different cultural references. “For example, I named my company after a cult phrase from the 1970s [Where is Brian? was a series of questions used in French schools to teach English – like Janet and John] knowing it would appeal to the French and key into their nostalgia, and make it clear from the outset that I understand these cultural references.”

He sees the business name as really important, anything difficult to remember or pronounce can be a barrier.

“A company name has to be something French people can easily understand, which is spelt easily for them and which clearly sets out what the company does.”

French people have different cultural expectations, and being image-conscious is vital.

“It’s important to have a postal address in the right district, and to drop into the conversation that you live in the right area, went to the right schools and universities, etc. That makes a big difference. It’s all about image, really.”

As for language, Darren says all marketing materials must in French.

“Marketing has to be very clear. Everything has to be in French, your website, advertising, etc. Your web content, too, has to be optimised for French search engines.”

Even online, French differences come through and you must be prepared to take cheques, even when people are buying from your website. French people are extremely risk averse and prudent when it comes to business decisions.

“You have to be very clear, give out lots of information about your company, about who you’re already doing business with for example, to convince them you’re serious. You have to convey your professionalism. Having a presence in Paris has been useful and Paris is where so many decisions are made, you need to be here, rather than lurking about in the countryside.”

The hierarchy in French companies is very fixed, he notes, more so than in large British companies. “So when you ring up, no one wants to have the responsibility of answering a question. People are more likely to refer you to the boss.”

Alps Accommodation
Tom Ward-Lee, Haute-Savoie

Tom Ward-Lee runs alps accommodation, letting furnished holiday flats. He says it didn’t occur to him not to market to the French as well as the British: “We’re here! Why wouldn’t we want French customers?”

Firstly, you have to have a product or service the French want. “Obviously you have to speak French and have your marketing literature in French as well as English. Also, we get our French checked at every stage. We don’t want people thinking we can’t speak French.”

He does note some differences between British and French holidaymakers: “French people think differently. When making online bookings for example, Brits expect to pay with a credit card but lots of French still pay by cheque, so we have to accommodate that.

“I don’t think they’ll ever get rid of their cheques, and then there are the Chèques-Vacances. We’re now looking into how to accept them, because they often want to use those.”

French customers are very specific and open when giving feedback. “They’ll tell you exactly what they liked or didn’t like. If a property has a slight cleaning issue, the French will say so immediately, but the English will tend to flannel around and be polite because they like you and wouldn’t want to upset you. The French aren’t necessarily being rude, just straightforward.”

He says Alps Accommodation offers a high level of customer service, perhaps more than is usual in France, but that the French are happy to pay a little more to get a little more.
“Around 30% of our business is French, and it’s all about quality. They really want value for money rather than just a cheap bottom line. We have someone available 24/7 for problems like frozen pipes, blown fuses, etc, which is a better level of service than you traditionally get.

“If a client calls, we can be there almost immediately, and get it sorted. The French expect good service from you as a British- run company, and if they’re not happy they say so. and we like that, because it helps improve our service. I’d say to encourage French customers to give feedback.”

Appealing to both markets means having more potential customers, but “where British people will take a chance on an unknown company, word of mouth counts here and they are careful and won’t take a website at face value. They like a personal recommendation. So if their mother likes you, they’ll come and stay. It’s important to satisfy people and get them to recommend you.”

Tom's Advice:
- Have all marketing, advertising, websites professionally translated
- Be prepared to accept cheques
- Ask for feedback and use it to improve
- Learn French and speak it
- Cultivate a professional image

Top tips

- Be polite and remember to say “Bonjour, Monsieur/Madame” – it is expected and appreciated.
- Change your handshake to one more like the loose, French style and introduce yourself using your name and surname.
- Dress to impress.
- Write one side of your business card in French. If France is your market then make sure French people can understand who you are.
- Do not go into a meeting expecting a quick decision. First you will face some hard questions and then point-by-point discussions. Do not be afraid to interrupt occasionally to make your point.
- Keep your hands on the table at lunch – never on your lap. If wine is being served, the more you empty your glass, the more it will be topped up. If you've had enough wine, leave some resting in your glass. Business conversation generally starts after the dessert is served and it is up to the host to initiate it.
- Avoid high-pressure sales tactics: aggressive selling techniques will not work. If you are in a business meeting, be patient and expect a lot of discussion and exchange of information. Decisions are generally not made on the first meeting. Be patient.

Business etiquette tips from Kara Ronin, Executive Impressions, Lyon.

Photo: Darren Jones of Where is Brian? ©Studiosushi

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