The Customer Is King

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In France, the saying goes that “le client est roi”. But in fact, the customer is anything but a king: at worse he is an idiot, at best he is a minor annoyance in your day. As this funny article on “How to play the French service game … and win” explains: “The customer is king. But we all know what they did to their royal family. The guillotined head of Louis XVI bounced across the Place de la Concorde as a few thousand Parisians laughed at it”.

I wish I could tell you foreigners have the wrong impression and that French customer service is actually top-notch – but I’d be lying. The only thing I can tell you to make you feel better as a foreigner in France is that not just tourists experience bad customer service. French don’t discriminate. Everyone is treated like shit.

To eat or just have a drink, you will have to play the passive-aggressive game. Never wait to be seated, even if a sign reads just that. And since you are at it, grab the menus yourself, you will save at least 30 minutes. Never ask for food or drink suggestions: look like you know what you are doing, even if you have no clue what these complicated dishes are. It’s not like the part-time underpaid waiter will know more than you anyway. Don’t expect waiters to be cheery, happy or just friendly. Their job is to bring you food and the bill – consider yourself lucky if you can get just that done. Oh and never go out to eat if you are in hurry (for instance, hoping to catch a movie afterwards). I can’t tell you how many movies I have missed just because I wanted to grab something to eat beforehand… And note that fast-food joints aren’t that fast — that would include “Quick”, don’t let yourself be fooled by the name.

Okay, maybe it’s not that bad. Maybe I’ve been brainwashed by North-American style customer service. I admit it: when I first came to Canada, I hated it. I found people sounded “fake”. In my mind, there was no way Starbucks employee could be that perky serving coffee to an endless queue of grumpy customers from 5 am to 12 pm. And why would McDonalds’ employees apologize for the occasional 10 minutes wait? Didn’t they all hate their employer, like in France? To me, service in restaurants was way too personal: I didn’t like the way the waiter or the waitress would show up unexpectedly at the table after bringing the food to ask if everything was alright. I found the bill came way too fast too: it was almost as if they wanted us to free a table as soon as possible (which they probably did).

But of course, now I’m used to it. Only when I go back to Europe I get super-annoyed at the inefficient and unfriendly customer service.

Another annoying side of the French customer service is that you must pay to complain or have a problem solved, because of premium-rate phone numbers. Let’s say your Internet connection suddenly stops working: you must pay about 0.15 €/minute to hopefully have it fixed. Even the unemployment office uses a premium-rate phone number! Reaching someone isn’t easy either: customers are often put on hold for a long time before being connected (and of course, you are paying for this wait time). It’s often hard to get through because post-sales support, general customer service and public administration have very restricted business hours, typically from 8 am to 5 pm. And of course, they may be closed on WE.

In North America, almost all businesses offer a 1-800 number, which is a toll-free phone number. Business hours are much longer to accommodate everyone (and several time-zones). And most surprising to me, employees seem to really want to solve whatever problem you may have and keep your business.

For instance, a few weeks ago, I sent Skechers, the shoes company, an email. I had bought a pair of pumps for work, barely wore them and yet the sole was already damaged. I was pretty annoyed because shoes are relatively expensive. Plus, between us, I hate shopping for shoes.

The company replied pretty fast and was willing to solve the problem. A couple of emails later, I was offered to choose a new pair of shoes on their website. They took care of everything and the shoes were delivered right to me door. Ah, American-style customer service!

Sometimes it is worth complaining politely to get something done — another thing I learned to do in North America.

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About Author

French woman in English Canada. World citizen, new mom, traveler, translator, writer and photographer. Looking for comrades to start a new revolution.

24 Comments

  1. Last time we spent a night in Paris was a couple
    of years ago en route to Africa. The next day we found out that Air France was on strike the whole time we were there. Neither of us actually noticed the strike, they were all their usual unfriendly, non-service oriented selves so we assumed everything was status quo.
    But! I will say that the service on board was unbelievably good — of course we were flying first class so that’s a given.
    .-= Agnes´s last blog ..Hit me with your best shot, fire away =-.

  2. I guess that’s why I’ve stopped shopping for shoes in Paris, I was tired to stand in the middle of the shop with a shoe in my hand! Service is pretty bad everywhere but I’ve learned to be politely pushy with the I-don-t-want-to-work-style employees.

    Oddly enough, the best service I’ve ever had in Paris is from les garçons de café from le café de Flore! Professional garçons are the best even if they somehow managed to get a bad reputation.
    .-= Cynthia´s last blog ..Vous ne vous êtes pas trompé de page =-.

  3. Customer service in France is a whole different experience (and the préfecture has the same mentality). You are not a customer to be served and helped, you are just an annoyance that needs to be ignored and mistreated until you get the point and go away. I often save up a few tasks to do at the bank because they are always so grumpy.

    I’ve had loads of things to do lately with moving into a new apartment and the service I’ve had surpised me – EDF, SFR, and Matmut were all very helpful, friendly and efficient. Maybe I dont expect too much anymore 😀 Now the university is a different story…

    I think French customer service should study Bank Of NZ for how to treat people – I needed a new credit card – I called the bank, spoke to someone immediately (for free), they waived the $30 fee and in less than a week my card arrived by courier post to France. I called again to activate the card and within 5 minutes everything was done.
    .-= Kim´s last blog ..Tsunamis =-.

  4. You just shot to heck an illusion I had about dining in France! I thought it would be a lovely, civilized experience. Forewarned is forearmed!

  5. As an RN, we get the whole “customer is always right” garbage as well. I treat people with respect, kindness, and courtesy but they are NOT always right. Subsisting on a diet of Twinkies and Diet Doctor Pepper is not a “lifestyle choice” it’s a recipe for a short (and in america, and expensive) life.
    I like it when people treat me with courtesy but I don’t want them giving me phony kindness and kissing my heiny! I don’t need the waitress to be my friend, or the guy at the grocery to know everything about lettuce. I’m easy to please as long as people do their jobs!
    My mom worked a grocery store’s fish counter where if the customers complained about ANYTHING, they got a 50 dollar gift card! Didn’t matter what, the store just didn’t want any people badmouthing them! It only encouraged more bad behavior by the patrons.
    My mom almost got fired because she didn’t “step and fetch” fast enough and she got turned in by some yuppie!

  6. I do agree with you but I had a problem with Fido and I had to call them 5 times (on a 3 months period of time), being hung up twice after being put on hold for 30 minutes once! SO maybe I had bad luck but I’m not sure service is always better here… Except at restaurants. 🙂
    .-= Delph´s last blog ..Présentations =-.

  7. Plus, between us, I hate shopping for shoes.

    You must be the only woman I know who hates shopping for shoes ! 😉
    .-= Sidney´s last blog .. =-.

  8. people were never rude to me in paris, except for a cab driver. i told him where i wanted tp go- in french- and he grumpily told me he couldn’t understand my french and to tell him in english. so i told him again where i wanted to go, slower, in french.
    everyone else was nice. oops, except the restaurant that decided we had stayed long enough and took our food away even though we were still eating.
    people aren’t rude in paris. oh, except they don’t clean up after their dogs. you have to watch where you walk.
    oh, and parisians like to smoke. *cough cough*
    but most of them are really nice if you are nice to them first.
    .-= Seraphine´s last blog ..On Being Boiled Alive =-.

  9. Yes, Zhu, it is that bad. Unless you go to a super fancy, expensive store or restaurant (and how often do people like us do that?), you will get crap customer service in France (mostly in Paris). I have learned to deal with this by expecting absolutely nothing from anyone in France. When I get the smallest hint of something, I am pleasantly shocked. But it’s exhausting and demoralizing to live like that. Loving how friendly businesses and their employees are in the U.S.

  10. @Agnes – I admit that the service we good on Air France (and the food!) were good. That said, most airlines these days are cheap and not-so-friendly, so…

    @Cynthia – Really? I’ll try Café de Flore next time! My idea of “coffee” in Paris is usually a bottle of coke I bought from the vending machine 😆 I really can’t stand some of the waiter’s attitude.

    @Kim – Banks have pretty good customer service here. But in France, I always had problem with my bank. It only ended when I finally closed my French bank account a couple of years ago (I had asked then numerous time to close it but the bank always had an excuse not do…).

    @Beth – Well, the food is good, don’t worry 😆

    @Rich B – Gosh, I’m so French, I don’t even know what are Twinkies and Diet Doctor Pepper…! Never tasted either — does that make me an healthy person? 😆

    I agree that some take the “customer is king” a bit too far. You can’t complain — or sue — for trivial matters. And people should expect professional care in hospital where they are patient – NOT customer. That include accepting advices from people who know their job, like you!

    @Delph – Okay, I agree here, phone companies suck in Canada (cf. previous post). The exception! I had tons of problems with Virgin Mobile too.

    @Sidney – I know, it’s weird! I’m a handbag person 😉

    @Seraphine – Believe it or not I had to resoort to speak English in Paris a few time. I was talking in English to Feng and then to French with waiters etc. They would reply to me in (bad) English. At the end I gave up and said that yes, indeed, we were Americans 😆

    @Bluefish – Gotcha 😉

    @Tanya – And even in expensive restaurants (not that I went often), waiters tend to be professional but snotty!

  11. Salut Zhu,

    Yes, two world’s collide :)France and North America do not have the same Operating guides !
    The first thing that at the same time mildy shocks and amuses me each time I arrive on North American soil is the customer service zeal”.
    The funny thing is after several days of having smiling cashiers, and “have a nice day”, I get back into the old reflexes 🙂

    Coming as a now 20 year resident in France, you get to be feeling like a bit like an alien, because you are now used to worse.Fortunatly, I sometimes get a good experience too at times !

    My worst horror stories are those “hotline” numbers for service for our Internet Co/ France Télécom. They are NOT free and I give myself a minimum waiting time before I cut.

    With time, you learn to cope with and anticipate some types of problems.

    Bises xx

  12. That’s interesting!
    Is king “roi” in French? Like ROyal… From Latin, maybe!?
    I like etymology! I just checked “king” on Dictionary.com it’s actually from Scandinavia…

    So the customer is a “King” in French?
    In Japanese, the customer is “God”. Ha ha… Maybe that’s why customer service is so fucking unbelievably good in Japan. They’re programmed to bow at you even if you don’t buy anything!

    Re: Birthplace of Cheddar Cheese / 车大芝士的发源地 / Tempat Lahir Keju Cheddar / チェダーチーズの発祥地

    Ha ha… I want to go to Condom.
    Did you also know that there’s a place called Fucking in Austria?! Crazy German language!? Ha ha…
    .-= London Caller´s last blog ..Spring in summer / 夏天的泉水 / Mata air pada musim panas / 夏の泉 =-.

  13. Def. agree with you! French customer service on average is not so great, especially from what I’ve experienced in places like Paris, that seems to be the worst!

    I’ve gotten used to friendly customer service. It really makes a difference. I remember shopping at a Walmart a little while back and the lady working at the checkout was so grumpy and unhappy, complaining to me about her job, that I never wanted to go back. I felt bad for her and her work environment. It seemed awful.
    .-= Seb´s last blog ..Mon petit dejeuner. =-.

  14. @Seraphine – 😆 That’s true though, I realized that speaking French in some touristic place in Paris seems to confused employees and waiters. So I adapt 😆

    @barbara – These phone lines are the worse. I was so happy when I discovered 1-800 numbers in Canada… it’s just so much easier!

    Some “family businesses” are very friendly in France. Yet it is true that it’s kind of a culture shock for me to adapt to French customer service when I go visit France!

    @Crikette – Yep, it is never perfect… I do admit the perkiness annoys me sometimes here.

    @London Caller – Yep, “roi”, “royal” “royaume” (kingdom)… Are customers actually “God” in Japan? That would explain the great customer service, I’ve heard it was insane!

    @Seraphine – ring, koi… I’m making up my own words 😆

    @Seb – Paris is definitely the worst in terms of customer service. I have low expectation, so that when I go there, I’m not disappointed!

    @Kirsten – Well, on the other side, you can’t go wrong with crêpes 😆

  15. I am French Canadian and moved to the United-Sates in 1997 when i was 22 years old. It took me a long time to get use to the American Customer service as well ( years), which goes to show that it is question of adapting to a new culture. I felt arrases by all the personal questions people would ask me when I barely knew them and most importantly might never see them again…. such as: what do you do for a living? are you married? or do you two live together? where do you live? and so on…

    Also…I was VERY irritated by the “babysitting” type service I was getting in restaurants. Waiters coming to our table 2 minutes after dropping our food and asking if the food was good when I had a full mouth and my personal conversation with my friend was interrupted. They would come over at our table an average of 5 times per meal to ask if everything was still all right and if I needed anything else, I felt like I was having dinner with the staff.

    AND I absolutely HATE the way American waiters will try to get the plates out of your way and ask you if you are done…if there is still food on the plate(food I just purchased!) don’t even ask… it is still mine and why do I have to answer so many questions and why are they not waiting for me to be checked out before cleaning my table????I feel presure to leave the place for some one else so they can run more table/money in a given evening!

    As far as my experience goes, I prefer French customer service when it comes to restaurants and that even after 12 years, I found the service in the states extremelly rude and can see that the only purpouse is to make money, regardless of this fact of life, the client should not feel it at almost every bite! Actually, if you go to a fancy restaurant in the States still, you will notice that the waiters are available and reachable with a simple hand wave… but wont pester you or try to get you out of there fast by cleaning your table as you leen back… which to me, prove that it is a more proper way to wait and serve.

    As far as call centers or counter services…I find the American customer service being much much more friendly and efficient and after 12 years in the states and 22 years in Canada, I can say that most of those type transactions were without a doubt MUCH more enjoyable in the United States and horrible in Canada.

    It is not the first time I read that French CS is treating people like “shit” and I find that to be a radical statement, it is important as a growing human being mostly if traveling the world, to realize that it might be seen rude to YOU but that your way to see thing might be seen as rude to them when they come in your country.

    I can’t start listing all the things that I hated about Mexico and the way they treat tourist sometimes, but I keep going back for more and realize that it is their country and if I do not respect their culture I should retrain myself from going back.

    Yes, French can seem rude and sometime are, I believe I am rude in some occasions…this said American are renown for being rude and that arround the world..thinking they are king everywhere they go and expect that the world should speak English…

    I travel to Quebec once with an American co-worker to visit business and sell our service. I was there to translate to French…the American sales rep. walked out of one of the business and said: what kind of morons does not speak English” than I said…here is the very reason Quebecors do not have much respect for Americans, nothing says WE HAVE to speak English, and I was one of those “morons” just a few years ago and was doing just fine, living with them and doing just fine in our little French province, everyone went to work/school, ate and raised kids.

    French need to stop thinking they are the smartest people in the world and Americans need to stop thinking they are THE ONLY people in the world.

    That’s only my opinion but although I am French, I have lived in both American and French culture, and saw the good and the bad and to my opinion they are equal in both parties…and frankly I can accept being called a snob from being French and believe that yes I use to be and still might be a little but I refuse to be called rude…When I go to Mexico, I scrape the little Spanish that I have to communicate to them in their language out of respect..because I know that this is one of the main reason French Canadian resent Americans, most American ( not all) wont even learn how to say hello or thank you in French…these are little tiny efforts that makes a world of difference.

    This said, it is only my opinion…

    Please excuse any grammar mistakes, I am trying to improve everyday by writing, which I just did!

    • Thank you so much for your interesting comment! Je peux écrire en français mais continuons donc en anglais 🙂

      I felt the same when I first came to Canada. I still hate when waiters ask “so, is everything alright?” because my mouth is always full, and as soon as they ask they leave anyway, so you barely have time to reply anything anyway. Sure, service in French restaurants can be long yet you have time to enjoy a meal, I also didn’t like when waiters clear the plates as soon as you put your fork down. This would be so impolite in France!

      I also agree, call centers are better in North America, more efficient for sure, plus the call is free.

      I find it very rude when people, Americans, English whatever expect people to speak English everywhere. Not only it’s rude but it’s also stupid 😉

      This is also so true: “French need to stop thinking they are the smartest people in the world and Americans need to stop thinking they are THE ONLY people in the world.” Love the way you put it!

      Thank you again for taking the time to share your opinion. You should write more about your life in the U.S.A, you can obviously write well 🙂

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