Last summer, I had the most traumatic experience of my shopping life in France. In fact, one of the most traumatic experiences of my life, full stop.
As I arrived at the self-checkout of my local Monoprix in Greater Paris, the security guard came up to me – right up to me, and this in the days of pandemic social distancing – and started handling my purchases. He was accusing me of weighing them on the wrong scales, which was not right.
Alarmed and confused, I told him he had now scanned one of my purchases at least twice. And since when was it a security guard’s role to intervene in the checkout process anyway?
I turned to the supervisor for help and to explain the problem. She immediately took the upper hand with me. Then other staff weighed in, all insisting the additional articles had been removed.
I knew better – but trying to tell them that got me nowhere in what had fast turned into, through no fault of my own, an awful and antagonistic situation.
Rather than trying to help the customer, the supervisor seemed set on intimidating me.
“Do you see that camera? It is filming you.”
“Yes, it is filming you too,” I snapped back.
To cut a long story short, they refused to let me leave until the police had been called. I got home, trembling and traumatised, to find that I had been charged three times for the same product.
The next morning, I rang the store and spoke to the manager.
“It is not, believe me, the attitude we promote in our staff,” I was told.
It clearly was. I had seen hints of the same thing many times in France – the rude, dismissive staff-are-always-right approach.
Many newcomers feel the same.
“Customer service is so bad here, it is laughable,” said Beth Dawson, a British educational consultant in Paris, while another woman, who lives near Marseille, suggested it is “one of my biggest struggles of life in France”.
Certainly, I could not imagine this scenario being played out in many other countries, especially not the US, which has always been my paragon of friendly the-customer-is-king service.
However, during a Christmas holiday in Australia soon after the Monoprix incident, I had to rethink my estimation of French customer relations on a number of fronts – from banks to internet providers.
The NBN, Australia’s publicly owned National Broadband Network which instals and maintains equipment, proved a particularly difficult-to-access fortress.
When I had problems with my fibre-optic network, I found myself in a mind-boggling bureaucratic tangle between the service provider and NBN technicians, resulting in hours of wasted time and nine days without internet.
Australian internet providers are renowned for outages, poor speeds and high costs.
France, by contrast, is good at high-tech. My superfast broadband is the internet equivalent of the TGV, at least for city dwellers.
Other than the occasional glitch, I have never gone without the internet or had cause to make multiple calls of complaint. It is relatively easy to get assistance.
Even French state services are modernising rapidly.
I have noticed a palpable change with the health insurance platform Ameli, for example, and was pleasantly surprised by my recent contact with EDF’s customer service department. The courtesy and helpfulness of the operator made me much more amiable too – it works both ways.
As for banks, French service is extraordinary in comparison to the nightmare that is Australia.
There you can no longer reach your branch directly by phone – cue more time-wasting, more inaccessible service.
In France, I have a personal conseiller I can contact by phone or via the app to sort out my problems quick smart and oh, so politely.
The service often comes with a smile (or at least with French formal politesse. Do not expect big cheesy grins). But there are two sides to that coin. Gallic disdain often masquerades as terse politeness. Perhaps I have been unusually lucky with my bank, as others find the ‘combative’ French way upsetting in most arenas of life.
One woman I spoke to complained: “Government employees are known for being unpleasant, but it is shocking to me that the argumentativeness carries over to customer service.
“I am sick of dealing with people who are always quick to blame (or berate) the customer.
“I really hate feeling that I have to walk into any simple interaction ready for a confrontation.”
This attitude is made more glaringly obvious for those who split their time between France and the United States, such as Panos Kakaviatos, a Greek-American wine writer.
“At supermarkets in the US, when you get to the checkout there are sometimes two cashiers – one taking care of the payment, the other packing your stuff into bags, often with a smile,” he says.
“The service at most grocery stores in the US is very good, compared to French equivalents.”
In France, you are likely to encounter rude, posturing staff everywhere from La Poste to big supermarket chains. The French, it seems, are the masters of customer humiliation.
I have all but boycotted Monoprix for this reason.
Certainly I avoid my local branch and have had better (though far from perfect) experiences at its stores in inner Paris.
Perhaps staff rudeness reflects a wider organisational problem, rather than being personal.
Employees are probably underpaid and clearly unhappy and under stress.
To this day, I have received no reply from Monoprix to my long letter of complaint, nor a simple apology. Now, what message does that send?
Have you had a memorable customer services experience in France? Good or bad, tell us at email@example.com