Late yesterday afternoon, the phone rang – as it does from time to time, even here in this outpost of civilisation.
When it’s a cold-call, they usually speak so quickly that I just about catch the name of the organisation they represent if I’m lucky. I heard the letters EDF. The electrical company. Probably another ‘free survey’ to test the possibility of putting solar panels on the roof. Which meant that I would have to explain, yet again, that we had panels for our hot water, but a previous survey had shown that our poor orientation meant that panels for power were not viable.
In fact, no. It was someone pushing the benefits of paying for our power by means of equal monthly payments rather than the current bi-monthly bills. He pushed them so forcibly that it rang alarm bells. If there was something in it for me, there sure as hell had to be a lot more in it for them. I explained politely that I was quite happy with the current arrangements. Call me a Luddite if you will, but I like to see my bills so I can check our consumption and see how many more insidious taxes they’ve added to the total amount payable.
He harped on about the benefits and I explained again that I was OK paying bi-monthly. Then he asked me why. Why was I happy with it? Why didn’t I want to change to equal monthly instalments? At this point, I puffed out my chest and put on my best Tory politician tone and intoned ‘because I don’t-want-to-change’. (Aha! The crux of the matter: a man who doesn’t like change.) Finally, he acknowledged – with more than a hint of righteous indignation – that he had taken up enough of my time, and there was nothing left but to wish me ‘une excéllente soirée’. (You, too, moosh.)
Over the last five or so years, the French nation seems to have woken up to the concept of customer service. After decades of abusing customers and treating them as ignorant pariahs, certain big-wigs seem to have figured out that customer service can help an organisation to keep its existing customers and even, mrabile dictu, win some new ones. It’s as if, however, this radical idea has been passed down to the workforce in the form of commandments, but without any training or other forms of reinforcement.
Consequently, you can hear how hard they’re trying; you can smell the insincerity. It puts you off. But if you have the temerity to refuse, they come over all hoity-toity, as if you’ve wounded their pride and made some hurtful remark about the origins of their parents.
Selling’s the same: the mantras are all well rehearsed, but the sincerity isn’t there. I remember once being conned by some cartoon blousy blonde, who had no doubt been drafted in by the bank to sweet-talk their silly susceptible male customers into signing up for some credit card that they didn’t really want. Opération carte de crédit…
When I discovered that the card was only free for a limited period, after which you started paying a not insubstantial quarterly charge, I marched into my local branch of the Crédit Agricole and hung around till I could see the manager. He took me into some plush new office presumably funded by previous opérations carte de crédit), sat me down and asked me what the problem was. I explained that I was returning the card, because I wasn’t used to having to pay for one and I wasn’t at all happy that I had been ‘induced’ into taking it out in the first place.’
Whereupon, young thrusting fresh-faced manager disappeared – to return a minute or so later with a be-suited henchman. Together the pair of them assailed me with a tirade about the potential costs of lost cards and the need for insurance to cover the appalling consequences and had I thought, Monsieur Sampson, about the destitution that could lie just over the horizon and… When breath was drawn, with my limited French I voiced my distinct feeling that I wasn’t a valued customer of the bank, more some hapless maquisard who had been apprehended and now interrogated by the Gestapo. For good measure, I told them that I had a good mind to close my account.
Arms were thrown up in horror. Oh Monsieur Sampson, what a thing to suggest, ha ha, you English and your renowned sense of humour, nervous titter, of course this isn’t an interrogation; of course we value your custom. And just to prove it, the be-suited henchman tip-toed off and left the manager to calm the troubled waters. We shook hands at the end. The bank took back the card, rescinded the charge and I kept my account open.
Some years later, I bowed to the inevitable and took out a low-cost card when I opened my account with La Poste. It’s just one facet of French life that you come to accept. Like lousy customer service and a shirty reaction when you deflect another hard sell. Oh, excuse me a sec, the phone’s ringing…