TRAVEL with pat and lew

Archive for the ‘customer service’ Category

* A note about Orange and some excellent customer service.

Posted by Lew Weinstein on July 25, 2009

cell phoneOn our trip to Lithuania, our French mobile phones didn’t work. Actually, they did work, and Orange tried mightily to help us, but we did not take advantage of their help.

The phones worked fine in Perpignan when we were leaving and called Nikolas to taxi us to Girona. But in Girona, and again in Lithuania, they did not work. I couldn’t even check the remaining minutes and days, of which I was sure we had both.

We were receiving many text messages from Orange, in French of course, which I should have put into Google and translated, but didn’t.

The day after we returned, our British neighbor who has become fluent in French, putting us to shame, read the messages. It turns out that Orange had tried very hard to be helpful.

“Orange is with you in Lithuania, but you must dial 33 before your number”

“We have multi-lingual help available – call 244.”

That was unusually good customer service reaching out, taking initiative to help us, which deserves to be recognized even if we failed on our part to take advantage of the help offered..

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* good customer service at Galeries Lafayette

Posted by Lew Weinstein on January 29, 2009

I have often complained in these posts about the lack of customer service in France. No more. In June, I had purchased a small camera bag at Galeries Lafayette. Yesterday, I noticed that one of the attachments of the strap to the bag was fraying badly. Galeries is a terrific store – it has become our Bloomingdales in Paris – so I was sure they would exchange it. Problem: the June receipt was in Collioure. I looked up the transaction number on my credit card bill (on the web) and wrote down whatever information I could. Off to Galeries. The clerk said she could not make the exchange without a receipt, but maybe her supervisor could. And, lo and behold, she did.

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* anniversary at Le Train Bleu

Posted by Lew Weinstein on January 29, 2009


At 1:00 pm, we re-enter the station and go up the stairs to what is probably the most elegant railroad station restaurant on this planet, Le Train Bleu. It is like eating at Versailles. This was our treat to each other in celebration of our life together.

The service and the food matched the ambiance, and a remarkable thing happened. My steak, which I had ordered medium-well, came pink in the middle.

Of course, monsieur, we will fix that immediately. AND … while I was patiently waiting, the waiter arrived with a platter of veal and potatoes. What is this? Just something to eat while we cook your steak more. The steak was back before the veal was gone.


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* Velib … not designed for tourists

Posted by Lew Weinstein on January 29, 2009

We have described Paris’ Velib before – a magnificent concept poorly implemented. But, we thought optimistically, we solved it last year, we can do it again. No problem. Wrong!

Velib is a system of bike rentals, with stations all over Paris. You rent the bike, take it wherever you want, leave it at another station. The system is designed for repeat use by Paris residents, who purchase an annual membership and for whom, we suspect, the procedure is quite efficient.

Not so for the occasional user.

There are 17 steps in the process of renting a bike. Make a mistake in any of them and you immediately return to GO. You can almost hear the French bureaucrat chortling in the background.

There are 3 distinct phases, with many sub-steps in each.

First you must register; the cost is 1 euro; it must be paid with a card with a chip (we use our French bank card, our credit cards will not work). When you register, you agree to a 150 euro hold against your bank account in case you don’t return your bike. The bikes are worth more than 150 euros, but be assured the French legal process will find you if they need to.

Step 2 is to obtain a ticket for this particular bike rental. This involves creating a personal 4 digit code which is stored in the system. The ticket comes with its own 7 digit code. All entries must be made on a keypad located below the screen, not on the screen itself; this is not immediately apparent. After each entry, you must enter ‘V’ for validate, although this instruction, if given at all, is less than prominent on the screen. Any mistakes are punished immediately; return to GO.

Imagine doing this with a long and growing line of people behind you. Fortunately the French are patient, and someone will probably help you.

After you get the ticket, the screen says take your bike. This is a trick. If you go to the rack of bikes, choose one, and push the button to release the bike from its lock, nothing happens. Shake the bike, kick it, nothing happens. French people laugh. Take more than a few seconds, and you are blown off the system. Return to GO.

What you should have done is press ‘1’ which is the number next to the words ‘take your bike.’ There is no instruction, however, to push anything. When you finally figure it out, or more likely someone else shows you, if you push ‘1’ the screen will chug along for awhile and then display a list of the available bikes, by the number in the rack. You now enter your chosen number, followed by your personal code (did you forget? return to GO!), after which the chosen bike may be removed from the rack. But not easily. It still takes some yanking and pulling and shoving.

When Pat finally mounts her bike, she is sent on her way by a crescendo of clapping from the outdoor café across the street. My enthusiasm for bike riding having waned, I join the clappers for a cup of coffee.

NOTE: there’s a postscript. When I check our bank account some days later, I learn we have been charged 23 euros. I call and am told the bike was not properly returned 15 minutes after renting it, and was not checked in until after 1:00 pm. This is an outrage.  … Several calls, forms and frustration later, I was told that we had not properly engaged the bike to the rack  when it was returned. Apparently, a small light changes from red to green when the bike is properly engaged, and if it doesn’t, you’re supposed to call the Velib people immediately. We were told that we were charged from 9;15 am when we picked up the bike until 1:30 pm. What happened at 1:30 pm? Did someone then attach our bike? No one knows.

Returning to Partis in August, we told our tale of woe at dinner, and gained no sympathy from anyone.


However, while we were eating, Evan suddenly jumped up and ran outside. He came back to excitedly tell us that the Velib man was outside, servicing a line of bikes on the street adjacent to the restaurant. I went outside, and Rawy followed.

With Rawy translating, we tried to learn what had happened; we got the same story: you didn’t properly attach the bike. But it was locked in the rack. No matter, did the light turn green? Now, since we arrived on Saturday, Pat and I had been inspecting lines of bikes. At every Velib station, there were several, sometimes many, bikes which seemed to be attached but for which the light was still red. Were all these people being charged?

You’re supposed to notice and to call immediately, the Velib man said. How can you call if you don’t have a cell phone with you? There’s a phone built into the rental machine. And he showed us. But what if you can’t tell red from green, Iasked, since I’m color blind. The Velib man had every answer. Without hesitation, he said, “Then you better hold onto madame.”

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* French customer service … NOT!

Posted by Lew Weinstein on January 19, 2009

Posted in ParlerParis …

Part of the American roots which go so deep that it’s doubtful they will ever cross to French soil is the concept of “customer is king” — that because we are the paying customers, the merchant will always do their best to accommodate us. WRONG.

I’ve practiced the French technique of getting good service for years now, with tutelage by Polly Platt and the other cultural experts, not to mention a lot of trial and error on my own. And just when I think it’s been perfected, something happens to stir up those deeply entrenched American roots…like a visit to an Orange/France Telecom boutique to exchange old mal-functioning equipment for the latest model.

I won’t bore you with the details, but imagine a grown woman sitting on the floor in the middle of the boutique on boulevard Saint-Germain at Odéon, papers spread all over the floor, with her coat, hat and other belongings draped on a nearby chair, blocking their copy machine so no one could use it, on her cell phone to a France Telecom customer service representative (oxymoron) after dialing 3900 and a zillion other code numbers which eventually take you to the right person. The person on the phone, now after having spoken to 5 or 6 others, is asking to speak with a sales person in the boutique to settle the matter, who are not only completely ignoring her pleas to come to the phone, but downright refusing to assist! That’s when the American roots exposed themselves…when the yelling started causing a big stir…and then guess what happened? The customer service representative on the phone hung up. TRUE STORY.

Three trips to the boutique and three trips to the apartment later, the issue was settled, but those old American roots found their way to the surface and asked, “will I ever get used to this?”

For the entire post and links to many other interesting and useful articles, click …

LMW NOTE: We’ve had our own customer service issues, with IKEA, getting our phones and internet set up, and with the Paris bicycle rental system. We’ve also had some quite positive experiences at Galeries Lafayette and Le Train Bleu, among many other restaurants. You can read about these experiences by clicking * IKEA’s idea of customer service* getting connected: telephone & internet* Velib … not designed for tourists* anniversary at Le Train Bleu* good customer service at Galeries Lafayette. Or just click “customer service” in the categories list to read them all.

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* getting connected: telephone & internet

Posted by Lew Weinstein on February 22, 2007

Before leaving Key West, I had arranged with France Telecom and Wanadoo – I’m still not sure if this is one company or two – to have the telephone line activated in our apartment, and a telephone and broadband router sent to us in Collioure.  

Everything arrives as planned, and I spread out the instructions and try to get connected. Of course, all the instructions are in French, but there were pictures, and I had a French-English dictionary (no Google translate without the internet), so I set out optimistically.

The phone seems to work right away, but after several hours, there is no internet connection. Has the connection been activated at the Wanadoo end? Have I connected the wires correctly? Is the router functioning properly?

I spend 12 frustrating hours on the telephone with people at France Telecom and Wanadoo, all of whom try to be helpful. I have done this kind of analysis many times, on the phone with tech support people, but always, of course, in English. Trying to do this in French is impossible, and finding an English-speaking Wanadoo technician is next to impossible. It’s a nightmare.

There are also issues of coordination. Apparently, people from France Telecom do not, in the normal course, talk to people from Wanadoo. Nor do people from different divisions within those companies speak with each other. Some do speak English, but it often takes forever to get connected to an English speaker, and when I call back, there’s no way to find that person again.

I remind myself that I am in France, where people talk French. Pat urges me to repeat our mantra. “It’s an adventure.”

Finally, on the second day, I call Sam, and he agrees to come over on his way home that evening. He arrives at seven o’clock. We go through the installation together, and everything seems correct. Until we get to the password.

In the U.S., my experience is that you pick your own password, so that’s what I had done. Wrong.

I had been assigned a password, which had been mailed to me – somewhere – but I didn’t have it. Sam explains the situation to Wanadoo and they tell him the password.

A few minutes later, the internet and email appear on my laptop. We are connected to the world.

That night, we watch internet clips from Hardball with Chris Mathews, and the reception is astonishingly good.

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* IKEA’s idea of customer service

Posted by Lew Weinstein on February 22, 2007

Our IKEA delivery arrives on schedule in mid June. The miscellaneous items are all there, just as purchased in January.

The sofa and ottoman, however, are not correct.

The 3-seat sofa comes with 2-seat covers, and without feet, so we’re practically sitting on the floor, on uncovered pillows with lots of feather quills coming through.

I call IKEA, and after bouncing around from one person to another for 30 minutes, I finally get an English-speaking customer service representative. He promises a call back in 24-48 hours with a ‘prompt resolution’ of the problems.

IKEA doesn’t call back, beginning a long string of broken promises. I call them. They promise to deliver the corrected items within two weeks.

In three weeks, having had no delivery and no call from IKEA, I call them again. The replacement order has not even been placed. We are again promised delivery, this time in another week.

I wonder if anyone at IKEA is embarrassed by this performance. Nobody seems to care. Nobody apologizes.

There is again no delivery when promised. No one calls. And it’s impossible to call them. In a scenario that would be funny if it wasn’t so frustrating, I repeatedly call the English-speaking service line.

A voice message, in English, instructs me to press ‘1’ to continue in English.

I press ‘1,’ and get a stream of rapid French.

The days stretch on and IKEA’s promises remain an unreachable illusion. We’re increasingly concerned about delivering a finished apartment for our
upcoming home exchange. Carmel is due to arrive on July 25th.

We ask our neighbor Brigitte for help, hoping that she can get some useful information in French that we are unable to get in English. Brigitte works through the voice messages and reaches a live person, and it sounds like she’s really giving a piece of her mind to that person. The net result, however, is no substantive information and another promise to call back within one hour. Once again, there’s no return call.

We wonder if this is an IKEA problem or a French problem. Am I being unreasonably impatient? There are many who have written about the bureaucratic mindset in France, and the absence of any real sense of customer service.

It seems to me there’s no system or institutional process designed to make customers happy. It’s simply not a priority.

We travel for two weeks and try to forget our strange sofa. When we return, I re-enter the fray with IKEA with another series of fruitless calls to the English-speaking line.

Same automated response, same flood of French. Does anyone at IKEA realize how idiotic that system is?

Suddenly, in the midst of one more frustrating call, an actual person comes on the line, speaking English. I’m so excited I almost drop the phone.

I try to concentrate on solving the problem instead of venting my frustrations. She listens and tells me her colleague will call back in a few minutes.

“Do not hang up this phone,” I order in my most authoritative voice. “No one at IKEA ever calls back.”

By some miracle, she does not hang up, but instead transfers me to another English-speaking person. I think it might have been her boss. He listens to my tale of woe and tells me someone from the Montpellier store will call back in ten minutes. I ask him to please stay on the line, but he explains he gets off work in ten minutes. He promises I’ll get a call and hangs up.

He must have been a higher level boss, because someone from Montpellier actually calls. That’s the good news. The bad news is that the order for the missing furniture has still not been placed.

“And nobody had the courtesy to contact me to tell me that? You don’t care at all, do you?”

The woman is patient with me. “I’m trying to solve your problem. I cannot comment on whatever my colleagues did or did not do.”

I must have finally gotten through to someone, because IKEA is now on a roll. They send an email that uses previously unspoken words – sorry, apologize, inconvenience – and promises a delivery the following week. Another unsolicited email says the delivery company will call us to set a day of delivery.

The delivery company doesn’t call, so I call them. They have no merchandise for me. How could IKEA have told me that the delivery company would call me, when they have nothing to deliver? Do they just make it up?

Are you tired of reading about IKEA? Imagine how I felt, living with it.

I’m calling IKEA again, but now, after entering ‘1’ for English, they disconnect the line. Seven times so far. Eight. They’re too busy to answer the customer service line. Too busy doing what? Surely not providing customer service. Call # 12 is answered. Same nonsense.

“I will call Montpellier and they will call you by 2:00 pm.”

“But they don’t ever call.”

“They will call.”

“Can I call the Montpellier store directly?”

“No. This is not possible.”

So, the only place you can call doesn’t have the information, and the only place that has the information you can’t call. Who’s on first?

This is not a pleasant way to spend your day. It’s time to go to the beach and read a good book. But first, I must wait until 2:00 pm. And then?

Stephanie from IKEA’s Montpellier store calls at 2:15 pm. She knows nothing about what has been going on, but she says she’ll find out and call me back. Something in the tone of her voice makes me believe her.

She calls back in 10 minutes, having just spoken to the delivery company. She actually called them, instead of telling me to call them. She says they do have the merchandise, and she’s done the very un-French thing of taking the initiative to schedule a delivery for the following Tuesday between noon and 4:00 pm. I don’t have to call anyone.

Even more remarkably, Stephanie adds that when this matter is all cleared up, IKEA will provide ‘compensation’ to us for our trouble. She gives me her email address so I can contact her directly if there is a further need.

I tell her she is the only sign of intelligent life I have found at IKEA customer service and I wish I had met her a month ago. She laughs, and again says she is sorry.

Au revoir. Bonne journee.

On Tuesday, everything arrives exactly as scheduled – the sofa, all the covers, the legs. We put everything together and it looks great! How comfortable to sit at a normal height without being poked by feathers. IKEA has beaten Carmel to Collioure by seven days.

Several months later, back in Key West, we receive a voucher for 75 euros to be spent at the Montpellier store.

So what did we learn?

It’s our experience that customer service in France is a mystical concept, even if, like Brigitte and Rose, you speak French. It’s not that the personnel are unfriendly, or even that they don’t want to be helpful. The system, however, is stacked against results. Stephanie is the only exception to this rule that we’ve found. Her action in initiating a call to the delivery service and scheduling the delivery, so normal in the U.S., stands out dramatically in France.

Maybe things will change, but I wouldn’t bet on it. We love living in France, and this incident with IKEA will certainly not change that. But I could never work in France. It would drive me nuts.

In a broader context, I wonder how, if this mind set continues, France will ever compete successfully within the European Community. 

Posted in ... 2006, customer service, problems | 7 Comments »