Wednesday, 25 July 2012

The insider’s guide to getting good customer service in France!

And no, this is so not a French bashing article.  I’ve lived here for 10 years, my husband is French and my children are 99.9% French ( the 0.1% is a nod to me, their sole English beacon).  There are so many things I love about this country of liberté, fraternité and égalité - the food, the family focused life style, the attitude to aging and the fantastic health service,  But, there are a few teensy, weensy things that still now can drive me to rage or tears or both, such as the administration, the rigidity and the infamous customer service.......

Why is it so difficult to find good customer service?  I’m still trying to understand this.  My husband explains that it dates back to the revolution where following the beheading of the aristocracy, the concept of being a servant and having to serve anyone was not meant to exist any more. He also explains that France produces fantastic engineers and scientists, but still does not really understand commerce or trade.  I also think that culturally the idea of selling products and making money is vaguely distasteful to many of the French with socialist leanings.

I’ve tried storming out of shops before saying very loudly in my thickly accented french ‘ C’est la derniere fois que je fais mes achats ici, le service est tres tres mauvais’ (It’s the last time I’m shopping here, the service is terrible) which only makes the shop assistants snigger - ‘Comme vous voulez Madame’ (As you wish).

So, if threats and losing your temper don’t work, what does?  From bitter, bitter, experience I’ve found the following useful:

 1) Always start your query with ‘Bonjour’

Do take the time to ‘meet and greet’ or ‘butter up’ the shop assistant/service desk. Starting off the conversation with a direct ‘I’m looking for’ or ‘Do you have....’ never seems to work very well and I’m usually ignored.

 2) Have the right attitude

Be positive and polite.  Firm but not pushy. Confident, but not arrogant (you’ll irritate them ) and not too deprecating (they’ll ignore you). Speak slowly and as clearly as possible (particularly if you have a strong accent).   I always carry a notebook in my handbag so if a shop assistant does not seem to understand what I am asking for I can write it down instead.  You could also try drawing it.  Do not at any cost try and mime what you are looking for ( a la Marcel Marceau) as they will then think that you are a complete idiot and try and run away.

 3) Allow them to educate you

And yes, there is a thin line between educating and patronising, but for a shop assistant it is  psychologically better to ‘educate’ you than serve you.  So, milk this for all it is worth and take it as an opportunity to find out as much as you can about French products.  Feel free to ask them what wine is best with a particular meat,  which cheeses to use in a cheese board, and which melon is ready to eat straight away.  You will be pleasantly surprised at how willing they are to share this information with you.

 4) Put the slap on

The French are in general much better dressed than their anglo saxon counterparts and appearances do count.   Make up and tidy hair are essential even for grocery shopping and if you try to approach them in your Uggs, greasy hair and track suit bottoms you will be ignored. Therefore, try to factor in a 30 minute grooming session before going shopping in order in maximise the level of customer service you will receive.

 5) Control your children

French shops expect you to be able to discipline and control your children.  If your children are running up and down the aisles and/or screaming their faces off you will be lucky to receive any level of service and will receive instead a lot of black looks and mutterings about a good fessé (a smack).

So, control your children on a shopping trip ( a little bit of blackmail such as promising them a comic or some money usually works for me!)

A final point is that the same rules about grooming apply to your children.  If they look a bit mangy you are more likely to be ignored, so spend a bit of time smartening them up before going shopping.

Good Luck!

As always a quick recipe - a delicious cauliflower salad which comes straight from the fantastic Ottolenghi cookbook.

Cauliflower is a cruciferous vegetable like broccoli, sprouts and cabbage and this group of vegetables contain isothiocyanates, plant chemicals which help to protect against cancer.   It is also a good source of vitamin C, folate and Vitamin K (which helps to regulate blood clotting).

I served this with warm Moroccan style chicken.

Chargrilled Cauliflower with tomato, dill and peppers.


Blend (ideally in a food processor):

2 tbsp capers, drained and chopped
1 tbsp French wholegrain mustard
2 crushed garlic cloves
2 tbsp cider vinegar
60 ml olive oil.

Season to taste

Salad Vegetables

1 small cauliflower, divided into florets
1 tbsp chopped dill
50g baby spinach
20 cherry tomatoes, halved

Blanch cauliflower florets for 3 minutes in a pan of salted water.  Drain and run under cold water to stop them cooking further.   Leave in colander to dry.  Once dry place in mixing bowl with 60 ml olive oil and salt and pepper.

Heat a griddle pan until very hot.  Grill cauliflower in batches until charred and transfer to a bowl. While still hot add dressing, dill, spinach and tomatoes.  Stir gently, season and serve.



  1. Hi Charlotte! Loved this! Shared it on my FB page for all future France invaders :)! Thanks a lot. Hope all is well in belle Paris.

  2. Thank you Mary. I thought your articles about the US and eating were spot on. It makes you realise that the french inflexibility when it comes to mealtimes (3 meals plus a gouter and no snacks in between) is a very good rule!