French Customer Service

Another Take on “French for ‘Customer Service'”

Unlike Stephen’s article on French customer service, my experiences have not been nearly as rosy. It’s interesting that one or two specific events can stick out in our minds as indicative of an entire system. There are enough tales and tropes about French waiters and service in restaurants that I’m not going to address that genre of customer service here. Rather, I thought it’d be helpful to share some of my experiences of French customer service via the telephone, as I’ve had the joy of sorting through various appointments, banking mishaps, and health care struggles.

Be Prepared

One of my most memorable customer service experiences was with assurance maladie. I’d called to check on the status of my carte vitale – my application had already been rejected twice for reasons unclear, and I wanted to confirm that it was finally being processed.

In order to verify my identity, they asked for the last four digits of my IBAN. This is not something I have as a handy PDF on my computer, and it took me awhile to access my account. While I explained to the woman that I was in the process of finding the number, she coldly told me that she would hang up if I had to keep looking. I managed to keep her on the line, and we worked through my request despite her hostility. Clearly in France, it’s the agent not the customer who’s always right.

Practice Patience

The answer to many of my customer service questions has simply been to wait. After months of waiting, I’ve called assurance maladie about the status of my CSS only to receive an update in the mail later that week. Generally speaking, it takes several months for the French government to do anything.

At the same time, follow up on important appointments. At my visa appointment in October, I was told I’d be convoked to sign a contract d’integration and never received that notice. When I was emailed about my titre de sejour being ready (in March) I mentioned this, and was immediately emailed a convocation. Although this all seems like it should be automated, my sense was that if I hadn’t said anything, I never would’ve received a summons, and I wouldn’t been french toast at my next visa appointment.

Your French Will Never Be Good Enough

At one point I asked my partner to call the office of immigration for me, and he succeeded in having a conversation (what a concept) with a secretary who had previously told me to send an email, then repeated this as the answer to every question I asked. She understood my French, and I was being polite, but somehow a native speaker got further. Or maybe Fred is just more charming than I.

Pick up the Phone (Or Your Pen)

As I will mention in an upcoming post about the DELF B2, in my four years since arriving in France, I’ve sent more official mail than in my entire American life. The technology of virtual chatting or even filling out customer service forms is still being implemented in France. In general, the easiest way to get an answer is to call. Even with my fluent French, this usually means explaining myself multiple times and hacking my way to an answer. Often, this also means sending a letter –– it took six months of calls until I sent a letter to my phone company demanding they change the address on my bill. (An address change which I needed as proof of residence for my visa). And I’ve even had to do send letters to get concert tickets refunded.

My advice when it comes to French customer service is also useful advice for the world at large: be polite, prepared, and persistent. It may take that (and more) to get what you want.

Photo by Icons8 Team on Unsplash

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Why So Serious: French Advertising

More and more American audiences are getting used to something that has happened in French movie theaters for some years now: advertising that has nothing to do with movies, but is cinematic (and often quite serious) in scope.  The challenge is that it’s hard not to laugh at any of these pleas for you to buy stuff.  Sometimes it’s just so over the top.  As I’m often the only one laughing when this stuff comes on I try to laugh quietly so as not to be the obvious American who finds it ridiculous.  Take, for example this ad for Dior Sauvage starring Johnny Depp, which plays on all the mysterious and bad-boy tropes that the French love.

Depp manages to be Captain Jack Sparrow while fearing and loathing Las Vegas.  Oh, yes, and I’m supposed to want Dior after all this dark mystery.  Is this aimed at me or the ladies?

But, Dior has a diverse portfolio, and for the vampire types who like Led Zeppelin, you can watch Robert Pattinson.

Dior is playing the “get the girl” card that you normally associate with these male cologne ads.  Along with this, it’s now the mode to use English in your ads.  Witness this hilarity in which an advertisement designed for the French marketplace ends with a subtitle for the English catchphrase at the end of it.

Diesel ups the “get the girl” ante with Thor’s brother, Chris Hemsworth, in this ad.

Yes, buying cologne is now an act of bravery.

I understand I’ve only been focusing on the obvious (yes, Stephen we get that the French are into their cologne). But, coffee is also a pretty serious thing in La France.  When I was first in France the famous (now long past) campaign of George Clooney for Nespresso was part of my introductory French language class, as it featured some simple subtitled text for us to translate and practice. I found the campaign to be funny, intelligent, and perfect for Nespresso. Unlike the other commercials I’ve shown so far, the series that Clooney did was all about poking fun at himself – he always thinks the women know who he is (and desperately want him), but they are always interested solely in the coffee.  For the record, this is my favorite one.

This campaign introduced an expression that’s part of pop vernacular now. Clooney says, “What else?” and in French this translates to “Quoi d’autre?” and you can use this expression in situations and almost everyone knows what you are alluding to (the expression, as its equivalent in English, obviously stands alone apart from this ad, but the intelligence of the writers was in co-opting it).

The French take their advertising seriously. So, promise me not to laugh too hard when you watch it with them. 🙂

This story also appeared on Medium.

French for “Customer Service”

“It’s not my problem”

-accompanied by a shrug, said by almost every French person ever to a customer in need of help.

The quote above is a caricature, surely, but my French friends will admit it’s pretty close to the truth.  It’s my third year here in Paris, and when your expectations are so very low, when you get surprised, you want to share it.  So, here are two such stories.

Groupama

Groupama provides my renter’s insurance, something that is helpful in itself, but is also a requirement of most of my visa visits, including my recent one to move away from visitor status to a path to citizenship.

However, they, like many French insurers, make it impossible to cancel a policy online.  You have to go in person and provide a signed etat de lieu as proof you have moved out.  Your word is not enough (same thing happens at the bank when you try to change your address).  Do you have proof?

In any event I had moved out of this place roughly 6 months before I managed to get to my insurer.  I took the blame, as other things always seemed to take priority.  Not only was the cancellation smooth, only taking a few minutes, but the agent marked the cancellation to the end of the lease, and credited my account with 6 months of premiums!

As the French write: “Waoh!”

Decathlon

The next mission was already impossible in my mind before I attempted it, but in the spirit of “try everything once” I took back two inflatable mattresses to Decathlon.  I had purchased the first one for guests who might stay at my apartment and it worked fine for months.  Until it started to slowly deflate.  I spent some time trying to find the slow leak so I could patch it, but no dice.  It was only 15€ and I hadn’t kept the receipt.  I bought another.  This one started deflating almost immediately.

I called it a day on the inflatable mattress plan and bought a Japanese-style fold out bed at Castorama.  No deflation possible!  But I still had two non-functional inflatable mattresses.

I suggested to a couple French friends that I would try to return the beds without a receipt (I had idiotically not kept the second one, either).  They laughed derisively.

“I’ll just play the dumb American,” I said.  “Plus, I’m willing to accept store credit.”  Turns out I didn’t have to.

I arrived at the enormous subterranean Decathlon near the Madeleine (Americans, think Dick’s Sporting Goods or Sports Chalet) and got into the returns line.  When it got to be my turn I explained that I didn’t want an exchange, but that I wanted to return these mattresses for store credit.  The young girl called a colleague over, who then walked with me to the camping department, where the inflatable mattresses lived, in order to observe the malfunction.  And to my dismay, the same thing happened as whenever I brought an Apple device to an Apple store for troubleshooting: nothing.  I almost wonder if the Apple Store is a stern father figure for my Apple devices and they suddenly “behave” when they are at home.

I watched, bemused, as the inflated mattress which had deflated over and over in my home held the air intact.  We even tried sitting on it to force the leak.  Not a peep.  Resolute as Churchill on the beaches.

The kid read my incredulous expression.  “Don’t worry,” he said in French.  He walked me to the counter, got me a gift card for the value of both mattresses, and as I walked out of the store and held the gift card in my hand, contemplating the imposing facade of the Madeleine, I smiled.

Maybe there is a French word for “customer service” after all.

PS  Don’t worry, I have a horror story to share in the future for those who wish to further the paradigm of “the French just don’t care about customer service.” 🙂