The French don’t really believe in the concept of customer service in the way that do most Anglophone countries.

The US generally has developed a culture where the customer is treated as a welcome business opportunity, even when tips are not involved, and as such will welcome people into their establishments generally with delight, whether a restaurant or boutique.

In France, the customer tends to be seen more as an interruption to important tasks such as artistically arranging the underwear display or slicing the baguettes, and is therefore seen as a nuisance rather than a way of paying the bills and making a living.

It is not unusual in a department store to see 4 staff members discussing a piece of apparel amongst themselves while a line of customers bank up at the cash registers, or to see the same group working on the needs of one customer who has asked an interesting question that obviously needs a committee to answer.

It is also part of the local culture that a phone call will always take precedence over any in-store customers, so not only will shop staff take a call in the middle of servicing your needs, but will even go and check the storeroom out back for the caller leaving you standing there waiting for the call to end, and hoping that no one else calls immediately after.

So when you strike a situation where a company does understand that the customer really is number one, it is so much more inspiring and refreshing.

I recently had such an experience.

One of the joys of living in the coutryside is that every 2 years or so you need to have your septic tank serviced and emptied.

Not long ago I rang a local septic tank service company, a representative of Veolia, which is one of the largest global waste and water management (now called environmental services) companies (over 300,000 employees and €35B in revenues in 2009), to come and service our property.

The job took about 30 minutes and cost me €232. When it came to pay, rather than head back to the house for my cheque book, I opted to pay in cash. I handed over €240 but he had no change (they never do) so let him have the €8 difference (considered a generous tip in France) and collected the service form.

One month later I received a rather agressive and threatening letter from the Veolia collections department wanting to know why they hadn’t yet received my cheque.
On checking the paperwork I realised that the waste technician had not written « paid in full in cash », on the requisite form and so to the clerical staff at Veolia I was still in debt.

From bitter experience I knew that I had no option but to pay again, this time by cheque to ensure proof of payment.

I couldn’t however let it go without having my say, so enclosed a letter with the cheque explaining what had happened and finishing with the statement that « … in the future in any dealings with Veolia I will always ensure that I have solid proof rather than just relying on business ethics and honesty …. «.

I felt that it was a total waste of time but at least felt better that I had had my say in print.

A week later I received my cheque back in the mail, with a letter from Veolia advising me that as they believed that business ethics and customer service were key elements of their whole company culture, they felt that the right course of action was to take my word about the circumstances being exactly as I had described them, despite the lack of paperwork, and as such could not accept my cheque.

This was such a rare occurrence that I am now a devotee of Veolia and will spread their virtues whenever and wherever I can, hence the reason for this blog post.

When you get good customer service you generally tell at least 10 people that you were pleased. When you have bad customer service you will try and tell about 100 people about how displeased you were with that particular company.

When a company treats a business situation with integrity, and treats you as a valued customer, I feel obliged to tell the world.

The Veolia values, taken from their web site, states:

“Our ability to listen carefully and professionally and anticipate and adapt to client needs reflects our commitment to building solid, lasting relationships.”

I believe them.



  1. Hi Les, great post. Now we know where to go when we need to clear out the shit. Actually, Aquitaine Vidange (not to be confused with Vendange, or harvest) are pretty good but we’ve never spread the word. The subject has never come up at a dinner party, least of all with you at Chateau Renon over a nice glass of Pomerol.

    One other thing worth noting, as well as the service aspect, is that quotes can vary enormously here in SW France, and not just for wine. We’ve just had some broken and cracked window panes replaced, some of which have quite unusual glass – which meant that it was another thing that we kept putting off.

    We got two quotes for exactly the same work from two different miroiteries (which I find as difficult to pronounce as the French do the word ‘squirrel’): one from the well-publicised Miroiterie Sud Ouest and another from the little known Miroiterie Rive Droit in Latresnes, the town near you (which I always think of of as latrines, incidentally). Two reps came round to inspect what was required. The first quote arrived for over €1200, the second, I shit you not, for just over €400. Both seemed competent, so Miroiterie Rive Droit were duly employed. Brilliant job, too, and all the more satisfying for knowing that it was for a very fair price.

    • leshayman says:

      Hi Gav,
      I think it is because some local businesses think that as our French is not as good as theirs is, that we must be idiots, and that if we also own a chateau that we must be rich idiots.
      I had a local guy quote me €20,000 for fixing a stone wall, who dropped to 20,000 francs (about 1/7th) when I told him that he didn’t get the job, have had a locksmith job quote vary from €200 to €2000, and quotes for the repair of our tractor shed roof after the last storm vary from €1200 to €8000.
      That’s why when you find someone who doesn’t try and rip you off you keep them employed.
      I will add “Miroterie Rive Droit” to my list.
      I will also from now on try and get every French person that I meet to try and say squirrel.

  2. Roisin says:

    I couldn’t agree more, Les. When I get particularly good customer service I try make a point of letting the manager or shop owner know that an employee has done a good job. When I get bad customer service I tell the world, and never use that shop/company again. I’m enjoying the blogs and look forward to the next one.!

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