The Free 5
One of the keys on my laptop keeps falling off.
It’s the ‘5’ key. I never realized how often I typed the number 5 until every time I tapped that little plastic square, hot damn if that méchant little digit didn’t hop right off my keyboard. Since I’m in the US, I thought I’d head over to one of the Apple stores to see if they could fix it for me.
Within a few minutes, the cheery salesperson diagnosed the problem, returned with a new key, and popped that little dickens into place. For free!
Then he said something really odd to me, something I haven’t heard in a long time.
And it kinda freaked me out.
“Is there anything else I can help you with today?”
Not only did he fix my computer—for free!…but he asked if there’s anything else he could do for me. While that may not seem like much to you, I was basking in a fuzzy, feel-good glow for a good thirty-to-forty minutes afterwards. (Actually it’s been a few weeks and I’m still feeling all warm and fuzzy about it.)
Almost uniformly wherever I’ve been traveling, people are practically tripping over themselves to help me. Sometimes it’s a bit much, like at hotel breakfasts where if you take a sip of your coffee, they rush over with their trigger-fingers on the coffee urn to replace the sip you took from your cup almost before it hits to saucer. Same with the towering glasses of ice water. (Does everyone in America have the same never-ending case of brain-freeze that I’ve had the past few weeks?)
In France, there is customer service, but it’s not a right but a privilege and you gotta work to earn it. They don’t have to help you…and why should they? It’s not like they can be fired or anything, so why should they help you? Remember Oprah getting the boot (and I don’t mean those 1500€ riding boots) at Hermès? You have to make them want to help you. Just showing up, or being filthy rich, isn’t enough. Pouring on the charm works (sometimes) or do what I do and throw yourself at their mercy, whether you’re at La Poste or le Gap.
Case in point: A friend bought a pair of pants at H & M. After a couple of days, she changed her mind and decided to return them. Since all the tags were still attached, she didn’t think there’d be a problem At the store, though, the saleswoman picked up the pants, buried her nose in the crotch and threw them down on the counter in disgust, proclaiming, “Of course, we cannot take these back! These have been worn!”
After a few words back-and-forth, she made the ultimate mistake: she asked for the manager. And if you live in France, I don’t need to tell you where that leads.
A lot of people write me that they had great service in France, and I applaud you all on your successes. Really I do. I, too, have had good service—mostly in the shops that know me. Or ones I enter groveling, willing and content to take any morsels of kindness or assistance they deem to offer me. If I have to return or exchange anything, I spend about a day in advance preparing my speech and getting ready for the big event. I also make sure to choose an outfit that will be pleasing to the person at the service client counter. It takes the better part of the day to work up the courage to make it to the store, then go through the motions and make my pitch. And whether I’m successful or not, I immediately head home afterwards, put on my pajamas and repair to my bed where I stay put for the remainder of the day.
There’s a couple of rules I have in France when trying to get someone to help me.
One is that you just shouldn’t expect anything, so when you get help, you really appreciate it. But beware of offers of l’aide: a favorite tactic in the department stores is to automatically send you to another floor for whatever it is you’re looking for. That’s the oldest trick in the book to get rid of you, and a sure sign that the object you’re looking for is usually just around the corner from where you’re standing.
Another thing to be wary of, one that will instantly kill the deal, is if you interrupt salespeople carrying on a conversation amongst themselves or talking on the phone with a friend. I once had a guest who wanted to buy something, and after waiting a few moments patiently at the counter, when the salesclerk showed no sign of terminating the call or ringing up the sale, he had the gall to lift his hand to get his attention.
It was at that point that I slowly, s-l-o-w-l-y backed away…and pretended to look busy elsewhere, distancing myself before things got messy.
So I’m taking advantage of all the generosity and kindness around here, whether genuine or not. I’m calling all the 1-800 numbers I can and asking lots of pointless questions (just because I can), ordering complex coffee drinks even though I don’t really like or want them, requesting that everything remotely possible be served ‘on the side’, and trying as many pieces of clothing on even though I have no intention of buying them.
But I haven’t tried to return anything yet.
I’m waiting right before I head back home to Paris at the end of the month.
I’m saving the best for last.