June 27, 2011 6 Comments
We have a 500 year old wall that goes all the way around our 6 hectare property that goes from 2-3 metres high on the road sides to about 5 metres high on the vineyard side. It is the original wall in the same way that George Washington’s hatchet remained original despite having had 3 new heads and 6 new handles replaced over the last 200 years.
Our wall has been patched and re-patched so many times over the last half-millennium that it is a mix of stones, sand and cement styles, shapes, colours and age. It needs constant attention and care as when it was first built it wasn’t built with a foundation. In the old days they just flattened the earth and started laying the stones.
Sadly, we had two parts of it collapse last December on the same day, about 100 metres apart, after 5 weeks of almost continuous heavy rain. The insurance company refused to accept that this was caused by unusual circumstances and therefore would not accept responsibility for payment of reconstruction.
I went out for quotes from local French stone masons, and the three that I received ranged from €10,000 to €20,000. As these are significant amounts, and seemed rather inordinately large, I decided to widen my search. I eventually, through a friend, found an English stonemason who had recently moved to France who quoted me about €2,000, has already finished rebuilding the first hole, and is doing a great job.
This is not the first time that I have come across the local custom of the “Prix Anglais”… a special price for foreigners, particularly English speakers.
The local view of many tradesmen and service providers seems to be that if you are a foreigner and you come to France and buy a chateau you must be rich, and as your French is no better than their 8 year old son’s, you must also be stupid so, as there is no way that you would have any understanding of the value of anything, they may as well load their quote to the highest levels, in case you are rich enough and stupid enough to accept an inflated quote.
This is such a short term view of how to conduct oneself that it just doesn’t make any business sense at all.
Our English stonemason took one look at all the old stonework on our property and realised that there was enough work there to keep him busy on a regular basis for the rest of his working life, and that if he was reasonable (not necessarily cheap), I would be glad to continue using him. He was right as I have already asked him whether he could spend 2-3 days every month doing general upkeep, at a time to suit him.
Contrast this with the “Prix Anglais” attitude which is to try and make as much as you can out of this foreign git on the one job,as you never know whether he will want you to ever come back.
The first time I hit this was when we wanted to have the locks changed on our current house when we took possession in 2001. The first quote we had was €2000, the reasoning being that the locks could not just have the tumblers adjusted as they were too old and would therefore need total replacement. One of our neighbours gave us the name of a locksmith mate of his who came in and adjusted the tumblers and gave us 4 sets each of new keys for all doors and charged us €160.
The next time involved the collapse of a retaining wall in our back garden, when the initial quote of €20,000 came down to francs (about 1/7th) when the contractor realised that I was somewhat more fiscally savvy than my French accent would have suggested to him. I did not use his services then or ever again.
I have found this short term thinking to be so prevalent among many French trades and service people I have met that it is a refreshing surprise to find local tradespeople who understand that successful business relationships are built by securing and retaining clients that use you automatically without having to fight competitively for every piece of business. That what most people look for is honesty and trust rather than just being cheap. The attitude that every foreigner is there to be fleeced as quickly as possible, even if you can only get away with it once, is not the way to build a long-term successful business reputation amongst the foreigners living in France, who are an increasingly larger part of the demand for services. When I have challenged trades people about this “Prix Anglais” they will often openly admit to it, and generally find it terribly amusing rather than being embarrassed at being caught out.
Over the last 15 years we have found and use a builder, plumber and electrician whom we call automatically whenever we need their services without worrying about whether we should get competitive quotes to ensure that they are being realistic. To this list we can now add a stonemason.
The success of any business is not based on how many customers you can “screw” the one time, but how many of the same customers you can service well and fairly forever.