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French try to make surly shopkeepers kinder

The Local · 31 Oct 2014, 14:43

Published: 31 Oct 2014 14:43 GMT+01:00

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Have you ever walked into a store in France and barely got a frosty 'bonjour'? You’re not alone. The idea of 'customer is king' isn't quite as strong on this side of the Channel or the Atlantic. But they French are working on it.

In an attempt to improve customer service in stores across France, the Chamber of Commerce has come up with a programme called “Préférence Commerce”. It identifies and promotes kindly businesses by putting a special sign out front.

The programme just signed its one thousandth business for the initiattive, French daily Le Parisien reported. 

(Screengrab/CCI Deux Sevres)

Many  Anglos come to France with a stereotype in mind about surly service in France,  but the French have had a few bad experiences themselves. 

"It is true that the sales assistants aren’t necessarily always welcoming," retiree Alain in western France city of Le Havre, whose full name wasn't provided, told Le Parisien.

He continued: "At the bookstore, for example, I have often been poorly welcomed, without a hello or a smile, as if the employees were forced to be there. But we don’t come just to give them our money!"

'We're not great'

Frank of the butcher’s shop “Ambassade de Bretagne”, which has been awarded the label, agrees that there’s room for improvement in French customer service.

“We’re not at the top in terms of welcoming customers,” he said. “Like everyone else, the sales assistant could have slept badly but you can’t forget the customers, it doesn’t concern them.”

The effort to make the customer’s experience as pleasant as possible could pay off for small businesses. Alain said he preferred independent shops to big supermarkets because of the human relations and the quality.

And a recent study by the AFRC (The French Association of Customer Relationship) showed that 96 percent of those polled find human contact important. 

Nathalie, who works in the fruit and vegetable shop Verger de Provence, said that sales assistants are often the only presence in the day of the elderly. And they appreciate a friendly welcome with a smile, but also honest service. 

“Especially since the crisis has made the customers much more demanding: they want things to be good, nice, and cheap,” she told Le Parisien.  

Inspection visits

To keep the programme's approved business on their best behaviour,  mystery shoppers will visit from time to time.

But creating a friendly atmosphere and being polite goes both ways, and isn’t just the responsibility of the shop assistants.

Nadia, a Parisian woman, said she experienced a warmer welcome in Le Havre than in Paris but that she also “frequently gets impatient in a shop and forgets to say hello.”

Story continues below…

This program isn’t the first to attempt to change France’s less than stellar reputation for customer service.

In early 2013, Paris’ public transport authorities targeted the behaviour of the capital’s citizens, launching a tongue-in-cheek poster campaign. It featured politeness reminder with images like a hen squawking into a mobile phone in a crowded bus or a buffalo barging into a commuter train.

Be nice

In June this year the government also revealed a plan to boost tourism by being more friendly and welcoming to visitors.

Foreign minister Laurent Fabius’ tourism action plan would focus on five different areas - gastronomy and wine, sport and mountains, ecotourism, luxury and artisan work, and urban tourism.

Renovating the Gare du Nord and improving transportation to and from Charles de Gaulle were also part of the plan. 

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