19 May 2010

Customer service, you say?

You know how it goes: you make a special drive to a neighboring town, to shop in a particular store. When you get there, it's closed. The sign says it's open all day Monday (journée continue — no noontime closing), and all day Wednesday through Saturday (but with a lunch break). Problem is, you are there on a Tuesday.

France. French businesses. They have the most inscrutably unpredictable hours. In Saint-Aignan, it's the recycling center. It used to be open only two mornings a week, but I could never remember which mornings. Then they changed the hours so that it was open every morning except Thursday. Why Thursday? Qui sait ? Now it's changed again, and it's open, I think, three mornings a week. Which mornings? Who could remember?

Why would a grocery store be closed on Tuesdays? Why not, I guess. Anyway, no tofu for me. The shop is called Planète Verte, and it's in Montrichard. And yes, tofu is exotic. You can't buy it in the markets or supermarkets in the Saint-Aignan area at all.

So I went to the bank, as planned. Because the real estate office through which we found our house here in the Saint-Aignan area was (and still is) located in Montrichard, we ended up opening a bank account over there. Since we hardly ever need to go to into the bank, now that everything is done electronically and with ATM cards, it didn't seem to matter that our bank was not in our town but 10 miles away.

The one thing you can't do electronically is get a new checkbook. For that, you have to go to the bank in person. I'm not sure what triggers the generation of a new checkbook, by the way. It's not a function of the number of blank checks you have in your old checkbook, because we have plenty left. We write a check only now and then, since everything is drafted or paid for with a debit card.

Anyway, there was a notice on our April bank statement that the bank was holding a new checkbook for us. So yesterday I finally went to get it. One time in the past we waited so long to go pick up the new checks that the bank had already disposed of them — sent them back to the main office in Chartres, maybe. We had to wait and then go over again later. So now we know to go get the new checks when we see the notice that they are ready for pickup.

There are two customer service windows at the Crédit Agricole agency in Montrichard, but yesterday only one was staffed. There are no tellers — the place doesn't look much like a bank inside at all. I got in line. There were at least eight people ahead of me, waiting patiently and chatting among themselves. Most of them were older than I am. There is a big retirement community in Montrichard.

I waited ten minutes at least. The man at the service desk, at that point, was still working with the customer who was at the desk when I arrived. At that rate, I figured I'd be there for two hours or more. So I quit huffing and puffing and shifting my weight from one leg to the other and just left. I figured I'd go check out the new Netto hard-discount grocery store on the outskirts of Montrichard, which recently opened for business and keeps sending us advertising flyers in the mail.

After shopping at Netto, which turns out to be a nice, spacious store with good merchandise and good prices, I decided to go back to the bank and try again. I found a parking space not too far away. When I walked into the bank lobby, there were only three people in line. The first one took a while, and then second was up at the desk and out of the lobby in a flash. That was a good sign.

The young woman right ahead of me was carrying a sheaf of papers and kept thumbing through them and mumbling to herself as we stood there waiting. I know what she was doing — she was rehearsing what she was going to say to the bank clerk when she got up to the desk. I do that all the time. She was really stressed out.

It had something to do with a disputed charge of 600 euros on a real estate transaction. The woman asked to see Madame So-and-So. The bank clerk said, no, she's busy, but let me see if I can help you. I'm sure I rolled my eyes at that point, but maybe nobody was watching me. The clerk then spent an inordinately long time looking through all her papers and then staring at his computer screen. they conferred quietly.

Every minute or so, the woman would mumble something to him and make sweeping hand gestures. I really wanted to hear what was going on, but I couldn't get any closer without feeling like an intruder. I just kept huffing and puffing, hoping somebody would notice how unhappy I was with the whole situation. No such luck.

"Oh, I see, the notary who handled your transaction is supposed to reimburse you the 600 euros," he told the customer.

"No," she said, raising her voice a little, "the notary told me that the bank owes me the money. He says it's not his problem." Silence. More thumbing through papers and staring vacantly into the computer screen. More huffing and puffing on my part.

Finally, the clerk picked up the phone and called somebody higher up. No progress. He put down the phone and then told the customer again that the 600 euros was a notary's fee or deposit and that she should go get the reimbursement from him. But the customer wouldn't budge.

The woman behind me, with an infant in a stroller, kept bumping my ankles and heels with its wheels. She was impatient too. Did I mention that I was in the beginning stages of an allergy attack, which continues this morning? My nose was stopped up, and still is, and my eyes were burning and itching. I sneezed many times.

Finally, the clerk told the woman with the papers to go have a seat near the back of the lobby and somebody would be with her in a few minutes. Finally, I was going to get my new checkbook. I stepped up to the desk, explained what I wanted, and showed the man our current checkbook. He looked me up in the computer and found me — but he was clearly distracted and preoccupied.

He suddenly excused himself, jumped up, and walked quickly toward the back of the bank. I saw him stop in one office and the another. Then he disappeared completely. All I could do was stand there and wait. A good bit of time went by. It seemed like half an hour, but you know how that is. It probably was less than 10 minutes. At least the woman with the stroller had quit bumping my heels with the wheels.

Then the clerk came back, all smiles. He looked in a file drawer behind him, checked me out on the computer one more time, and presented me with the checkbook. I signed for it. The unhappy woman with the sheaf of papers and the 600-euro problem was still sitting there, thumbing through her papers and muttering to herself. It had taken me two hours to get the checks — not counting driving time.

I told Walt I would never fall for the "just stop at the Crédit Agricole and pick up the new checkbook" ploy again. Especially not on a Tuesday.

And did I mention that, after their four-day weekend, the builder's crew doing the construction work in the attic never turned up again. Not Monday. Not Tuesday. We are now waiting to see if anybody might turn up this morning. You'd think somebody might call and let us know what's going on.


  1. Oh dear, what a sad story about life in France.
    I have to say the banks here are more efficient than that. Using a cheque near the end of the book triggers a new one to come throught the post and it arrives before you have run out.

    The builders, however are little better. Our experience with bathroom alterations last year was a total nightmare and we're now plucking up courage to ask the decorator to come and finish off where he started and gave up before Christmas.

    Hope you get over your allergies soon.

  2. I'm better today, allergy-wise. It's strange how the allergy attacks here in France last only 24 hours each time. It happens 3 or 4 times in the spring.

    In France we don't pay for our checks. In America, the bank would send you hundreds of them when you wanted them to, but you had to pay for them. They were delivered by the post office.

  3. Hi Ken,
    We're with the Crédit du Nord and LCL. We can choose to order our checkbooks or have them ordered automatically when we're 10 checks from the end of the book. That choice is free. We can also choose to pick them up at the agency or have them sent. Having them sent is expensive as they send the new checkbook via registered mail. But then it's a question of what you consider expensive: a few euros vs a drive into town and a two-hour wait. With the CCP at labanquepostale, you get your new checkbook by mail at no extra cost, but you pay a €0.75 quarterly fee for the account.
    Next time you go into the bank, ask them if they can't send you the new checkbook, for a fee.
    To you Americans in the States, this must all sound ridiculous!

  4. Ken,
    Here's my favorite Credit Agricole story. I enter the bank and there are two windows, but only the one on the right is staffed. I stand in line for twenty minutes or so and reach the teller. I tell her I want to make a deposit in my account there but that it is in a foreign currency (long story). She says she cannot accept it. I ask her how I might deposit it. She says I have to use the other window, the one on the left. I point out that there is no teller at that window. She says I have to use that window. Ok, I think, I'll go over there. I stand in front of the empty window for just a second, then she reaches out, closes her window, comes over to the window on the left, and takes my deposit. There's just something so French about that story.
    Dennis Martin

  5. Great story Ken (and Dennis too!). But no story about closing hours in France is complete without a discussion of the concept of "Fermeture Exceptionelle" (sp?). We've been burned, or nearly burned by that. For example: a restaurant that we had just made dinner reservations at that very morning; a car rental agency in Cahors where we were returning our car just before a 3-day weekend and our return to the USA (a Europcar rep told us to just leave it in the town parking lot; I had visions of getting an enormous bill for a missing car).

  6. I had a similar opening problem in Paris. The sign on the door indicated they would open at 14h00. I waited, but they didn't open. Came back a couple days later. The sweet irony of it was that by returning another day, I saved €30 because it was the first day of the Soldes.

  7. Hi Ken, I mentioned the Planète Verte in a previous comment, so sorry it was closed Tuesday - from experience, I think that Montrichard's half (or somtimes full!) day closing is a Tuesday: we have a holiday home in a neighbouring village just to the south, and if we need to go shopping, try to visit on Monday or Friday, the market days, when most places tend to be open.

    Good to hear your feedback about Netto too! We shop quite often in the SuperU at the western edge of Montrichard, and had passed the Netto, I'd wondered what the shop was like, we will be over early July, and will try it out.

  8. Time for a glass of wine.

  9. Hi Chris, I took your advice yesterday, for sure, during a visit from Ladybird that included a dégustation at a local winery and dinner in a Saint-Aignan restaurant.

    Anonymous, yes, thanks for the information about Planète Verte. I will get back over to Montrichard on a different day of the week to see what's available there. Good point about Mondays and Fridays being the market days in Montrichard. The Friday morning food market there is great. Don't miss the goat cheeses from Mareuil-sur-Cher sold by Mme Bouland.

    Dennis, that's a great Crédit Agricole story. Walt and I should probably transfer our CA accounts from Montrichard to Saint-Aignan, but it gets complicated to set up all those automatic withdrawals for electricity, satellite TV, and other bills all over again when account numbers change.

    Starman, I remember reading about your experience on your blog. Good for you. Sometimes things do work out for the best.

    Bob R., I assume you didn't have any nasty surprises when it came time to pay for that car rental. And yes, the famous Fermeture Exceptionnelle has caught all of us in its trap at one time or another.

    Ellen, well, I've actually been thinking about changing banks, but haven't worked up the courage to face all the paperwork and confusion of such a change. I'll keep that info in mind.

  10. "Dennis, that's a great Crédit Agricole story. Walt and I should probably transfer our CA accounts from Montrichard to Saint-Aignan, but it gets complicated to set up all those automatic withdrawals for electricity, satellite TV, and other bills all over again when account numbers change."

    If you change banks within the same region (may I ask what region of Crédit Agricole are you?) then existing direct debits will just stay the same as it is only the code banque and clé RIB that change but not your account number. New direct debits will need to be put into place with the new RIB details but that's not much of a hassle.

    Re the checkbooks you do have 3 options with CA: pick them up at the guichet, have them sent recommendé (depuis faconnier) or envoie domicile.

    They can also be set up as an automatic renewal or manual where you can order them on the online system yourself or send off one of those slips you can find in your checkbook.

    Wonder where I have been working these last few months?? LOL

  11. Hi Milkjam, We are in Région Centre, and our head CA office is in Chartres. Is that the same as you?

    I did ask about having the checks mailed, and the clerk said it would have to be by registered mail at my expense. I thought about it but figured the registered package would inevitably show up on a day when I'm not at home to sign for it and I would end up standing in a line to get the checks anyway, but at the poste rather than at the banque. That would be according to the principle called in French “la loi de l'emmerdement maximum” — Murphy's law.

    Thanks for the info about moving the accounts from one CA branch to another. I'll look into that a little more. Still sounds like a certain amount of paperwork and maybe not worth the hassle.

    In fact, my partner Walt is the one who handles our money — I just spend it, and he spends some but also keeps track of it all — so he'll know more about how our orders for new checks are set up.

    I have always had good experiences with Crédit Agricole (except maybe his last one) and find it convenient because there are CA ATM machines everywhere in rural France — and in Paris too.

  12. Netto our way does one of the best commercial black puddings I've come across.


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