One of the least pleasant aspects of life in France is taking goods back for exchange or refund. As you know, the customer is neither king nor queen here, but someone to be treated with disdain. Approximately like something nasty that you might pick up on the sole of your shoe.
Only the other day, I had two items to return – in two different establishments. So the preparatory dialogues inside my head were incessant. Mercifully one of the items in question came from Lidl. Now whatever you think of Lidl – and I won’t reiterate the joke about the French woman and her gynaecologist at this point, because I need to check all the salient details before repeating it (I’m notoriously bad at re-telling jokes) – it’s a German-based supermarket chain and its attitude to customers betrays its Teutonic origins. In other words, they give you ‘nuff respeck’.
So I went there first – to help my confidence and build up my nerve before confronting the second establishment with my broken chair. I did my regular week’s shopping in my yellow-and-blue prefabricated emporium of choice and, at the end of the customarily frantic business of trying to bag my items in time with the scanning, I casually presented the cashier with the universal telecommande that stubbornly refused to zap the humblest electrical appliance. I showed her my receipt and she asked no questions. A perfect example, in other words, of customer service as it should be. I pocketed my refund and wished her the French equivalent of ‘top of the morning’.
Then came the harder stuff. All the way down the main drag to Malemort, which is one long commercial zone on the eastern edge of Brive, I rehearsed my spiel. ‘This chair that I bought as part of a set of bijou outdoor table and three chairs… Well, the other day I noticed that one of the slats is broken.’
‘You must have sat down too hard on it.’
’Madame, correct me if I’m wrong, but a chair is designed to support the human frame, is it not?’
’You must have sat down too hard on it.’
’Please look at me, Madame. I weigh under 60 kilos. My wife weighs less than that and our daughter less than her. No one else to the best of my knowledge has sat on this chair. Perhaps a passing deer in need of a rest…’
’Then you must have stood on the chair to do that…’
’No, I assure you, I am 56 years old and have been educated to BAC+4 level or however you measure it, and I know the difference between a chair and a set of steps.’
’No, someone must have stood on this chair to do that.’
’OK. Let’s look closely at the fracture. You’ll see that it runs diagonally, suggesting an inherent weakness in this piece of wood. Had someone stood on the chair, isn’t it likely that it would have snapped like this…(at which point I would have mimed a clean horizontal break)?’
’We’re not going to change it. It’s your fault, not ours.’
And so I was ready to stand outside the shop with my hands on the back of the broken chair, ready to mutter to every potential client entering the shop, ‘This is what you can expect if you buy their merchandise.’ Of course, every potential French client would merely shrug and continue quand meme, n’est ce pas?
Anyway… I pulled up, turned the engine off, found my receipt, grabbed the broken chair and boldly marched into the shop. You know what’s going to happen, don’t you? Yes, that nice woman behind the desk took one look at the chair, examined my receipt and said, ‘We’ll change this for you right away’. Say, what????
So she scribbled some hieroglyphics on the receipt and told me to take it to the warehouse. There I got a little annoyed because the man who took my receipt promptly dealt with a delivery driver who rolled up a few seconds after I did. But hey, that’s normal and I was getting a new chair. When finally said chair was handed to me, an officious little toad who seemed to be the second-in-command handed me back my receipt with a cautionary ‘Attention, your receipt is presque mort’.
I stared at my ‘nearly dead’ receipt and could feel the ire rising up from the small intestine or somewhere close by. I snapped at him, ‘Well what am I supposed to do about it then?’ Take a photocopy, apparently. Ah. Hmmm. I took a few deep breaths to calm myself off and drove off with our new chair in the back of the Berlingo. I felt just a little triumphant.
Thinking about it on the way home, wasn’t it just typical that yer man had warned me about my nearly dead receipt rather than uttering a word of apology. ‘There you are sir. Very sorry that you’ve had this little inconvenience. Take this new chair and have a very nice day.’ It’s not difficult, is it? But no, he had to have the last word on the subject. It’s the French way. I’m right and you’re wrong. No, I’m right and you’re wrong. OK, then, have it your own way, I’m right and you’re wrong. (Ponder that one, you jumped-up little amphibian…)
But still, does this episode suggest that the French are finally – finally – learning that it pays in the long run to provide decent customer service? Or was it just a blip in the status quo?