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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free mobile

Firing SFR Mobile

This is the unwitting third in a series of “firing” articles.  Once you realize that it’s definitely more difficult and hence, more satisfying, to fire service providers in France, you are far more willing to do so.  Some time ago I shared the experience of firing Societe Generale, my very first bank in Paris, but a luxury afforded me because I already had a business account at BNP Paribas.  A telemarketing experience late last year gave me the opportunity to much more easily fire EDF in favor of Engie.  When I saw that cost savings in banking and electricity, I wondered where else I might trim the fat.


I walked into SFR within 24 hours of arriving in France in 2013.  My French was impossibly lacking in confidence and vocabulary.  Thankfully, two of the staff there spoke English fairly well and gave me a list of the documents I would need to get a mobile phone line.  One of those was the banking details (what is known here as a RIB – releve identite bancaire) of my not-yet-in-existence French bank account.  Thankfully, I was able to get a bank account set up the following day, and bank details in hand, I made my way to the SFR store once again.

I knew that I would be calling the United States and I didn’t want to have to switch to Skype all the time to make those calls.  But, unlike cell phone plans in America, cell phone plans in Europe are not only fairly inexpensive with large data packages, but those plans include international calling.

The plan I originally signed up for offered hours and hours of free calls to the US as well as dozens of gigabytes of data.  I was also allowed to roam around the EU on that data.  Total cost?  60€/month.

Over the years the plan continued to upgrade and/or I would upgrade when I saw new features available.  The plan I ended up abandoning recently had unlimited data and calling to the US and Canada and the EU.  It also meant that whether I was physically in the United States or here in Europe, I really had no worry about getting additional charges, as that roaming was included.  I would only get charged if I made calls to countries not designated in my plan, or traveled to places outside of my plan and wanted data.

Unfortunately, SFR’s data packages in Asia, South America, Africa, Australia, and New Zealand were always prohibitively high, so I ended up getting a local SIM when I traveled to those places and put that SIM inside an unlocked mini wifi device, which then allowed me to tether multiple devices, including my French phone.


Xavier Niel, who has an estimated net worth of $9.3B USD, is the founder of many businesses, including the ISP and mobile phone provider Free.  A year before I arrived in France, in 2012, he created Free Mobile, which was offering unlimited text, voice, and data for 19,99€/month.  Over the years this plan continued to upgrade until it essentially matched my SFR plan.  The highest tier plan didn’t offer unlimited data, but 150 gigs of domestic data and 25 gigs of foreign data per month was going to be more than I would use.  When I discovered this plan I checked with a friend who had Free to ask about the service.  She said that in the city and in the United States it had been fine.  The only times it had been iffy was in some parts of rural France, but that made sense, given that the company wasn’t even ten years old and was still building out its infrastructure.

Still, it seemed to be too good to be true!  In addition to use in France and the EU, the Free plan gave me use of my phone and data plan in Australia and New Zealand, places that I normally spend at least $100-$200/month on data.  But who was I to argue with what would be a 600€ savings a year from what was at that point a 70€/month charge (the price had risen slightly over the years) from SFR?  I checked with SFR to make sure that I didn’t have a contract in place, then picked a day to go to Free.

I brought all the items I needed to open an account at SFR: passport, electricity bill, RIB.  The woman who helped me smiled and said that I wouldn’t need any of that: just my debit card.  The way number portability works in France is simple.  You call 3179 from your phone.  You will hear a recording that reads a number to you.  That is the RIO (releve d’identite operateur).  The recording also states whether your number is free of a contract (and if not, what you will have to pay if you choose to port your number anyway).  You receive a corresponding text message with all that information.

The person helping me at Free typed in my mobile number and then this RIO.  She then asked whether I preferred to be billed on the 1st or the 15th (I chose the latter).  Then she scanned a card that held a nano SIM and handed it to me.  She told me that I would get a text from SFR sometime in the coming days telling me precisely when my number would be ported.

The Switch

Sure enough, about a week later, SFR notified me that my number would be ported on the 26th of the month between 11h-15h00.  I thought that I would see the coverage drop at some point during that window and when it did I swapped SIMs, changed my voicemail recording, and went on with my day.  A couple weeks later, SFR refunded me for the portion of the month that was unused due to my cancellation.

I’ve now had Free for almost two months and heartily endorse it.  I’ve not noticed a change in my service quality but have certainly noticed the change in charges to my bank account each month!  That’s to say nothing of the growing confidence that comes with choosing your service providers based on price and quality, not by default and laziness, which is something that is instinctive in America, but not-so-normal here in France.