Fribble French Customer Service

By David Wolpe (TMF DBunk) (TMF
August 11, 2000

"72 heures! Ahahahahahahaha! Vous rigolez, monsieur!" (You gotta be kidding, buster!)

This voice, of a woman who sounded as if she'd spent too long selling cigarettes in a Monte Carlo Casino Lounge, or who had perhaps taken a few minutes off from slaughtering helpless livestock, belonged to a customer service representative in Marseille, France.

That's right -- she was, in this delicately worded and infinitely compassionate statement, fulfilling the art of French Customer Service.

France, you will recall, is the country that gave us wine, Lafayette, Brie, the Eiffel Tower, the guillotine, and edible snails. France's trains run fast and quietly and on time. Their farms and vineyards are tidy and productive. We have many fine friends there. I am a Francophile.

Their customer service, however, sucks. I have come reluctantly but definitively to that conclusion after spending some months there.

I opened a checking account at the post office -- you can have "La Poste" be your bank, if you want. Late one Thursday afternoon I was called to the phone. It was this woman, The She-Dragon Of Marseille.

"Monsieur Wolpp?" she said. "You are overdrawn by 200 francs on your checking account." (I've loosely translated the French, adding, where necessary, that which was communicated by tone of voice.)

"Oh," I said, "well, I actually arranged for a money wire two weeks ago. My bank in the states confirmed that it was sent. It hasn't come through yet?"

"What time can you be at your local post office, tomorrow morning, with cash? 9:00 a.m.?"

"I beg your pardon?"

"Neuf heures!!" ("Nine in the morning or I'll have your first-born.")

Naturally my hackles were raised. I said: "Madame, a money wire usually takes 24 to 72 hours. I will call my -- "

It is at this point, dear reader, that her legendary laugh was emitted: "Ahahahhaha!!"

I then did what I would have done in the States.

"Je veux parler avec le chef, Madame." ("May I speak to your boss please, Madam? You're in a lot of trouble.")

"Je suis le chef." ("I'm the boss, you loser.")

"Really, madam?" (I think you're lying.) "The head of the post office? You have no superiors?

"That's right, Monsieur." (I'm protected from you by a huge unwieldy bureaucracy, and there's nothing you can do about it!)

"Well, madame, this is what you call customer service?"

"I note your tone of irony, Monsieur. And, if I may say, all you Americans are that way. You will be at the post office tomorrow morning at 9."

"No I won't. I have to take my children to school at nine." (This was a lie, but now it was war.) "And by the way, Madam, you may be friends with all 250 million Americans, but I am not. So I am not going to make generalizations about them."

"9 o'clock!"


"10 o'clock, Monsieur. If the money isn't in there by 10 o'clock, I'm closing your account."

"That's fine," said I, "and after I've deposited the money I'm going to close my account."

"I don't care what you do, Monsieur!"

Astounded, my faith in and love for all things French profoundly shaken, I walked the street of the village. If I smoked, I'd have smoked. If I drank, I'd have downed a Pastis in the village bar with the locals. But I bumped into a friend, a Frenchman, and related my tale.

"La Poste?" he laughed. "They treat us like pigs!" (Comme des cochons!) "But there's no point in moving to another bank. They're all just as bad."

I asked another friend in the village. She, too, said, "There's nothing that can be done! It's horrible."

It's a strange kind of complicity, in a way the opposite of a truly competitive environment. If no one bothers to give good customer service, then there's nowhere else to go.

From what does this kind of behavior stem? I've asked myself many times. Has it got something to do with Louis XV? Napoleon? The rise of the bourgeoisie? The invention of the guillotine?

The next day I did go pay, by 10:00 a.m. And while there I met with the head of the local Post Office. And she provided me with my single biggest insight into this phenomenon. She told me she knew the name of the Dragon of Marseille, but she wouldn't give it to me. In France, the job of the employee is not first to serve the customer, but to shield the superior.

More on this, in other circumstances, soon.