Thursday, February 03, 2011

Is French Business Run on Theft?

That's a bit strong, you may think, but up and down the country people are being fleeced by companies including banks who ignore their legitimate requests to STOP DEBITING MY ACCOUNT.

A few years ago I had a run-in with Cegetel who over-debited my account for 18 months. I had sent Customer Service the necessary registered letter, but apparently to the wrong address - their 'Cancel my Account' address, as distinct from Customer Service, is always written in the smallest possible text in the hardest to find spot on their contract hidden down under 'Really Boring Legalese' and 'General BlahBlah' and I missed it.

Of course, no one wrote to me to tell me my mistake - you're supposed to know, or follow up just in case - or indeed pass my letter on to the right office. That would be way too helpful and probably not in anyone's job description. No, it just went in the bin. I was in the midst of a divorce at the time and my mind was not on following up contract cancellations.

When I did realise what was going on, I spent hours on the phone several time getting through to be told to write to the proper office as they had no record of my request, not even a note on my file in the computer. No one picked up on the fact that there had been no activity on the account for 18 months, they basically told me to suck it up and follow the correct procedure this time. No reimbursing of the excess, natch, not even the slightest 'geste commercial'.

A friend of mine has been trying to get her bank to stop debiting her account for a telephone that was cancelled two years ago. Cancelling a direct debit has to come from the debiting company, the bank won't stop it even though it's your money. If the company has received the registered letter and does not cancel the direct debit, in my book that's theft.

I read another blog recently where someone is battling with SFR who keep 'losing' the registered letters and, naturally, keep debiting the account. Her daughter has left the country to study abroad, a legitimate reason for cancelling an mobile phone account, and yet SFR have been wilfully 'not receiving' registered letters and ignoring all communication (whilst continuing to debit the account, natch). Another where the electricity company mis-estimates consumption by, sometimes, hundreds of euros. In fact, the blogosphere is full of irate customers who are being fleeced of their hard-earned euros by incompetent companies.

Are these companies run incompetently on purpose? or is it part of policy to drag out cancellations for months pretending to lose letters and other documents whilst continuing to debit bank accounts? Is that famous gallic shrug, so beloved of romantic lefties, being incorporated into business management to explain error upon error by arrogant jobsworths?

Maybe this is an example of French business management, perhaps taught on MBA courses and in other business schools - do nothing, deny, do nothing, deny, do nothing, deny, meanwhile feed the money markets with all those ill-gotten gains so even if you have to reimburse what's owed, it ain't been for nuffin'!

How can a company deny receiving a registered letter for which they have signed? Yet they do, every day, countless times a day, incurring huge sums in expensive registered letters to hapless customers. And it's not just one company either. It's a recurring problem right across French business. It's impossible to get things done correctly without following everything up - no one will call you back. It's frankly a wonder that French businesses manage to stay in business at all, and raises a huge question over the degree of competition that exists. One would hazard that 'not much' is the answer seeing how they all have similarly atrocious levels of customer service.

If any one company managed to get their act together over service, I'm quite sure that customers would beat a path to their door.

They are reaping huge profits, these companies, and how? by wilful and persistent denial of customers' rights in cancelling contracts and thieving from their bank accounts through direct debits. Taking money from someone without their permission is theft.

Do we have a choice in how we pay for certain services such as mobile phone accounts? No, they all insist on direct debits or refuse to open an account. The only other option is to use the more expensive pay-as-you-go cards.

Basically they have us by the short and curlies, and then when you try to get out, they don't let you! All you get, as a friend of mine put it, is a face full of shrugging under-worked French shoulders. Monty Python had them sussed. Sit back and enjoy 'Les Francais' from 'Monty Python and the Holy Grail'.

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