May 3, 2013

Struggling on

And in more ways than one! I’ve moved on as quickly as I could, but I’m still without a toilet. I’ve had to go one step at a time with the work and have only lost a day due to the tile adhesive not drying as quickly as it should have done and having to leave it for a further 24 hours, but it’ll still be another few days before I’m finished. But I’ll come back to that in a moment. My main problems recently have been due to the hopeless attitude of French organisations, both private and public sector, towards customer service, which to them appears to be a totally alien notion. We’re not used to this nowadays in the UK, probably because of the way competition has been introduced into many aspects of British daily life. There’s still some way to go, but we take for granted that when a private individual or small company comes up against gross inefficiency, plain bad service or malpractice, then often the former will have the whip hand. However, this is far from the case in France and there are no signs that things are likely to change in the near future. When my financial adviser at my bank wrings her hands and says that this is the way things are here, then I have to say that I begin to rather despair. But maybe I ought to explain what has made me come round to this way of thinking.

I mentioned some time ago that I had a problem with EDF and my electricity meter not showing the correct breakdown of the units I’d used, between full rate (Heures Pleines) and cheap rate (Heures Creuses). I got into quite a lather when I failed to receive any response to the letters I wrote to EDF about the problem even when I knew they’d been received (recorded delivery) and customer service confirmed as such on the phone. Eventually I got a letter out of the blue saying that the ‘Moderateur’ agreed with my complaint and that EDF should agree a modified bill with me, which was done and the matter duly settled. What got my goat was that nobody in EDF could be bothered to let me know that the matter was being dealt with and to wait until the ‘Moderateur’ had come to a decision.

The same is now happening all over again with my new EDF problem, ie having 400 volts fed into my house, that has destroyed half of my electrical appliances. When I phoned customer services, they said that I should send them a list of the damaged items, which I did asking them to confirm when they had received it. I know that they have done, but once again, nothing. This is the manner in which a Government owned monopoly expects to treat its customers, who by paying their electricity bills keep those employed by it in jobs. Time for some competition? Come off it mate, not in France 😐

Anything else? Well yes, actually. A few weeks ago I bought a pair of walking boots off a French web site and when they arrived, they were too small. I returned them at MY expense even though it was the fault of the boots, not my foot size, and after several weeks of chasing the supplier, I was made to feel lucky that the amount I’d paid for them was credited back to my bank account. Good going? Hardly. By coincidence, I’d previously bought some boots off a well-known British web site and they were also too small when they arrived. The supplier also failed to acknowledge my correspondence, failed to make a prompt refund and then apparently lost the boots after I’d returned them by recorded delivery from France. However, the difference was that I was able to use the facility of the Small Claims Court to make a claim against them and ended up with my expenses and interest being paid, plus a free pair of boots.

So is that all? Unfortunately, no. I made what looks like another cardinal mistake of buying a replacement for my damaged microwave oven from the well-known French web site, Rue du Commerce. Unbeknownst to me, although you create an account with Rue du Commerce and place an order on their web site, they then offload it to a supplier, in this case GrosBill, who delivers the goods to you and supplies you with an invoice. Hmmmm…. I hear you say, so who is the ‘contract’ with? Well, if it was Britain, Rue du Commerce, of course as it was they who accepted your order, but it’s obviously a highly unsatisfactory arrangement with the potential for things to get very messy if the deal goes wrong. But what an earth could go wrong, I hear you say, it’s only a microwave in a box – all they have to do is check the box against the order, pick it up and ship it out? Ah, yesss…. but come on now, this is France.

I placed the order with Rue du Commerce on 15th April and my payment was immediately taken. On 16th April I received confirmation from GrosBill that the item had been despatched and a PDF invoice. So far so good. Unfortunately I wasn’t at home when it was delivered on 18th April (I was out on exploding soldering iron business readers may recall) so had to pick it up from Plazac post office on 19th April. When I got it home I only had to open the top of the box without even unpacking it to see that whereas I’d ordered a microwave in ‘Inox’ (stainless steel), the person who’d shipped it out who we must assume to be some way down the food chain, had picked up one in black. And that’s when my problems started. Put aside that the only way you can contact either Rue du Commerce to complain about their error and/or their lamentable lack of customer service is not just via one premium rate telephone number, but two, the second of which you are only told about after dialling the first one. Put aside the tortuous and highly inefficient communication chain via not one, but two ‘customer service’ departments with the potential for misplaced messages and misunderstandings. What I find totally infuriating is that after having eventually made contact and having received promises on several occasions that the matter will be rectified in ‘5’ days and then ‘3’ days and that ‘a prepaid label will be sent’ for me to return the item to them, here I am two weeks down the line and (a) the wrong microwave is still in its box on my kitchen floor, (b) they still have my money and (c) the last message that I received two days ago was, ‘Am I sure that the microwave I’ve received really is black?’

I asked my financial adviser at my bank yesterday if France has an equivalent to the UK Small Claims Court, which makes it so easy to deal with problems like this, inevitably resulting in the merchant losing and it costing them money. There is no equivalent in France – and in fact there seem to be few, if any consumer protection laws at all. One has to ask oneself what French politicians are doing besides having affairs with each other and/or each other’s partners that can be so important that putting proper consumer protection laws in place in this day and age can take such a back seat. It’s because nobody else is having problems, you say. Wrong! According to my financial adviser, everyone is having problems as a result of rogue traders and retailers who couldn’t give a damn, knowing that when they’ve got your money there’s precious little that you can do except mount a full legal claim against them. And as my financial adviser (who’s French, by the way) pointed out, everyone knows how the French legal system works (eg over a year to get the papers through to buy a house) and how slow and expensive that would be. So for that reason, everyone just shrugs their shoulders and takes out legal protection insurance at extra cost which they can then use to get such a case underway.

What a ridiculous system. Good for the lawyers but hardly the way to run a modern economy I’d have thought and I fear that if France fails to address it, there will be little chance of its making its economy more efficient in this, the internet age. I now understand why people here have told me that they don’t buy off the internet, preferring to go into Perigueux and pick up the goods themselves, and also why most of the French e-commerce web sites I’ve come across seem so ‘clunky’ and 1990s in style compared to what we’re used to in Britain. For my part, I’ll not be using either Rue du Commerce or Grosbill again and in fact as far as possible, I’ll return to my previous policy of buying as much as I can from UK web sites and having it shipped over. The shipping adds to the cost but in the long run it’s less financially risky and although it takes a few days longer, it frequently still works out cheaper overall than buying locally. And anyway, I can’t see why French traders should deserve my custom when they are prepared to treat me and my business in such an off-hand manner.

OK, now let’s get back to my toilet. As I mentioned previously, although still unfinished, work on installing my new WC has continued. Each step, putting down concrete, screeding the floor, laying the tiles etc, has needed a complete day and in fact, laying the tiles needed two because of the time it took the adhesive, that was left over from my fireplace work, to dry. Same thing with grouting the tiles in – the amount of grey grout that I had also left over from my fireplace, wasn’t quite enough to do the job, so today I had to go back to Les Briconautes to buy another small pack. But now the floor’s done so allowing for the grout I put in today to go off, tomorrow I’ll be able to start fitting in the ‘Kit WC Suspendu’ itself. Here are some pics showing the steps I’ve taken and the progress made since my last posting.

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I’m absolutely delighted with the way the new floor tiles have come out as an almost exact for match for the originals. I couldn’t get any more of the ‘terres cuites’ that I bought for my living room floor and in fact, although the originals in the above pictures are terra cotta tiles, the new ones are ceramics. They are slightly smaller in thickness and although unglazed, they had a coloured surface on them which was close in shade to the old floor tiles and also with some variability in colour. I gave them a go with my wet polishing machine and lo and behold, it not only gave them a nice smooth surface like the originals but also ‘distressed’ them a bit, modifying the colour slightly and making them almost indistinguishable from the originals, especially now they’re down and grouted in. That’s one bit of luck, anyway 😉