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France is often labelled as a country that doesn’t do customer service very well. but it has a very specific set of traditions and rules relating to how you should ask for things, and the service you’ll receive as a result. There are some cultural factors that help to explain why visitors sometimes feel as if they are not getting the best customer service, and there are a few things you can do to improve the situation.
The number one rule of good service is to engage in the cultural practices of a country. In France, that means that every exchange, with everyone, ever, should start with a ‘Bonjour‘. If you immediately ask for what you want, as is socially acceptable in some other countries, everyone will think you are rude. This is true for when you walk into any shop or any building, or stop anyone on the street for directions. Before asking for what you want, wait for their ‘Bonjour’ in return. Likewise, when you leave, it’s customary to say ‘Au revoir‘, regardless of whether or not you have bought anything.
If you are in a bar, a shop or a café, it’s acceptable to ask for what you want next. However, if you’re looking for information or help, then you must continue with ‘Excusez–moi‘, as you’re asking them to spend time with you and your problems. This can work wonders.
The French don’t often form orderly queues. More and more supermarkets are putting signs and markings into their shops to tell people where to queue, but this still tends to be in the larger, international stores. If a new cash desk opens, it’s still usual practice for most people to rush to the one that opens, regardless of where they were in the original queue. The only way to deal with this is to keep calm; it might be your turn to get lucky next time.
Queues are more common in the smaller, individual shops such as the bakery or the butcher, where service is likely to involve a lot of conversation, even in the larger towns. And sometimes, there is a queue, even when it doesn’t look like it: it’s not uncommon for everyone to congregate outside the Post Office before it opens with no apparent queueing system, but once inside, it usually turns out that people have paid attention to where they are in the invisible queue and will take their turns accordingly.
Many people in France who work in customer service take it very seriously. It might be a profession, not just a stop-gap job. Waiters take wine courses and shop staff learn how to wrap beautifully. Many butchers and bakers will take real pride in their profession and you need to honour their expertise. Asking questions and advice from the people who really know their jobs will be rewarded with better service.
Remember that money doesn’t talk in France. In the US or the UK, the customer is king, and if you’re willing to pay, shops are willing to sell. It just isn’t the same way in most of France. Most businesses are privately owned, rather than chains, and in most cases, you are entering their place of work or their company. Remember that it is their premises, not yours, and they don’t owe you anything. They will expect respect and courtesy. Arrive with the intention of being a good customer and you’ll find that they’ll be more friendly.
Don’t get worked up by poor levels of customer service; read The Guardian’s advice on getting service in a busy restaurant with these helpful dos and don’ts. If you get angry, the relationship will just get worse. Finally, if you’ve followed all this advice and you’re still unhappy, you always have the option of walking away – politely.