A guide to formal French

Formal French
Business French

Turn your school French into formal French

If you’ve read my “Business in France” pages, you now know that making an effort towards speaking some of your French contact’s language will go a long way to making or breaking the deal. I’ve compiled a list of expression that will sound slightly more formal than your school French. Don’t feel overwhelmed by the words : whilst remembering any of these may get you some brownie points, the simple fact that you’re trying will undoubtedly be appreciated.

Add “Monsieur” (Sir) or “Madame” (Madam) to your greetings for an instant touch of formality
“Bonjour Madame”
“Bonjour Monsieur”

If this is your first meeting, or if you’ve just been introduced to someone new, simply say:
“Enchanté” (Nice to meet you).

If you’ve met before, you may add something along the lines of “How are you?”
“Vous allez bien?”
or, if you know each other well, the more casual
“Ça va?”

Formalise your “Thank you”
Rather than “Merci”, try “Je vous remercie”.

To take your leave and wish them a good day
“Je vous souhaite une bonne journée”.
And you may also add :
“À bientôt”. (See you soon)

Stay away from your school days clichés (the only people I have ever heard pronounce the word “Sacrebleu” in my lifetime were either English or senile), and you’ll be on your way to a decent business conversation.

French Business Etiquette

When in France, do as the French do

French business meeting
French manners to observe when meeting French customers

As you’ll already know, striking the right cord when interacting with people is key to doing business with them. Your French may not be fluent, and you might not be totally confident on the subject of local business etiquette, but any form of effort in the right direction will be appreciated. In other word, a mispronounced and somewhat hesitant « Bonjour » is still better than a loud and confident « Hello ».

Follow the guide for a few more ideas.

This is serious French business.

Whether you’re here to strike some kind of French deal, to discuss a French contract or tender, or simply to discover or present a new opportunity, this is serious business and there is no need to try and make your contact laugh or smile. Don’t be surprised or upset if they don’t look particularly friendly either: it’s nothing personal (unless you’ve stepped on the boss’s foot on your way in?). In the same vein, make sure you adhere to a reasonably formal dress code (although that may depend on the industry you’re operating in) a give a firm handshake.

Formal French

You should be prepared to speak French as much as you feel capable of. This may not extend much further than « Bonjour », which is still better than nothing, but if you’d like to take it a little further, check out our phrase guide to Business French for the Do’s and Don’t of business French (Here is a free hint, you don’t say « Comment ça va ? » to a business contact unless you have met them several times and have a good relationship with them).

In the same vein, it might pay to prepare some documentation, brochure or at least a web page translated into French or written for the french market. Trust me, your contact will appreciate the gesture and if you’re going to work with France, it will be probably be needed in the long term anyway.


It goes without saying that you should aim to be on time, but don’t be too early. It’s simply not French.


The French drink coffee all day, especially in a business environment. If you decide to accept a coffee, expect a strong and small expresso-like drink presented with sugar cubes and a spoon for you to help yourself to. If you’d rather drink yours long, weak and milky, I suggest you ask for a glass of water instead and save that discussion for the Starbucks down the road, later.

Protecting your exchange rate

Protecting your exchange rate

International trade means different currencies, and whilst this was always a consideration, the recent referendum has drastically affected the exchange rates across the board. If you sell your products or services overseas (this doesn’t just concern France and the rest of Europe: although the Euro is obviously at the heart of this crisis, the financial markets have been affected all over the world), here are a few things you can do to limit the damage.

Should you invoice in the local currency ?

Although it makes sense to convert your GBP prices to invoice in EUR or USD, this may leave you to take the brunt of the exchange rate, and the longer it takes your clients to pay you, the more likely it is that the final amount hitting your bank account will be quite different from the one you were expecting. Before adjusting your price tags to overseas markets, make sure you’re ready:

Open a currency account

If this is a regular occurrence, consider opening an account in the currencies you use the most. This allows you to wait for a favourable period to change your monies into Sterling, and you may even find it useful should you need to purchase products or services in the relevant country(ies). Your bank probably offers currency accounts, as does Paypal. Additionally, your clients will appreciate the fact that they won’t have to worry about the exchange rates either.

Consider a money transfer provider

Rather than simply allowing your bank (or your client’s bank) to manage the exchange, get paid in currency and consider using the services of a money transfer provider. Compare their rates beforehand like you would the quotes of any supplier, and go with the cheapest.

Double your customer base by reaching for a neighbouring market

Small businesses can double their customer base by selling to France – but what are the pitfalls?

As many small UK businesses find it increasingly difficult to meet their targets and keep afloat, more and more of them are marketing across the Channel in an attempt to increase their prospective customer base. You can get an international marketing plan going with as little as £500, but beware of the pitfalls (check out my list of Do’s and Don’ts of doing business in France).

With technology becoming smarter and more ingenious by the minute and multilingual marketing agencies fast emerging, selling overseas has never been easier. But many companies seem unable to convert their marketing efforts in France into new business. Why and what are the most common mistakes people make?

1. Do you speak English?

Language is by far the most important aspect of selling to a different country, yet one of the most common errors British businesses make is to think that they can approach a foreign market with brochures and websites in English and get away with it.

Yes, someone does need to speak French! But it needn’t be you….

Some form of French marketing material is a must:  an English website won’t rank on French search engines, English banners won’t attract attention from a French audience, and even if you somehow manage to make contact with prospects, your literature, correspondence and other contracts will soon put them off if they can’t understand it. A bilingual contact is also paramount; you need to be able to communicate with your customers in more than what’s left of your school French, and Google translate won’t cut it either.

I once worked with a company who advertised ‘French speakers’ as part as their customer service, counting on email correspondence backed by automated translation to deliver the service. They eventually lost most of their contracts with French businesses as clients phoned up and discovered that they couldn’t communicate with their supplier.

If you French doesn’t go any further than “Bonjour, comment ça va?”, there are a few options available to any business looking to communicate with French prospects:

  1. The most affordable option is to employ a bilingual marketing agency (such as www.frenchmarketing.co.uk). This will give you access to all the benefits of a French office as well as the experience of a French marketing expert at a fraction of the cost. They can be at hand to represent you at all time but you only pay whenever there is work to be done.
  2. A French speaker in your UK office. If you are recruiting for any role at the moment, just add the little line Fluent French would be an advantage to your ad’. It might not cost you anymore and make all the difference.
  3. A sales person in France. If you can afford their salary and the travel expense that comes with it, hire yourself a French sales person in France. A financially safer alternative is to look for a freelance sales agent to take on your products (“Carte Commerciale”), but note that the commission will be much higher.
  4. Look for dealers in France. You can start your investigations with a market report with some emphasis on potential dealers, or simply target your French competitors’ dealers. A French dealer will have the same interest in growing the business in France as you do and they will provide invaluable help with your marketing mix, your sales, your customer service etc.

2. Boss, I need to go to Paris again….

Since you mentioned targeting France as a new market to your sales team, their credit card bill is through the roof and there’s nobody in the office, yet you don’t seem to see the sales flooding in. Sounds familiar?

Don’t make the mistake of instantly booking up lots of speculative and cold meetings with prospective clients. There is a lot you can do to virtually warm up leads and seek new business before you get on that plane.  Will you need to go to France? Yes, but not to start with.

Use technology (http://ways2work.bitc.org.uk/howtodoit/rethinkingbusinesstravel/reducingbusinesstravel for some ideas) to get around the expensive trips to France: webcams, videoconferencing, teleconferencing (try powwownow.co.uk, it’s free), instant messaging and your good old emails and telephone are plenty enough to get you going. If language is a problem, your bilingual marketing agent can step in to translate and help you close a deal. Obviously, you will get to a stage when you need this all important face-to-face meeting with your new representative and with your clients, but by then you can count on your French business to sustain its own travel costs.

Presence at trade shows can be invaluable when it comes to growing the business but, before you fork out several thousands of hard earned euros into an event, consider whether you could pair up with a prospective dealer to share the cost and take advantage of their fluent French – they may already be attending anyway. Alternatively, your French Marketing Agent should be able to source a French speaker to attend on your behalf.

3. They’ll just have to pay us in Sterling

Exchange rates vary from day to day, and many businesses will try and mitigate their losses due to currency variations by setting their price in pounds. This is a big no-no! If you’re selling abroad, embrace the currency and swallow the (probably small) cost of the Euro rising. If you want to try and keep it under control, check out my tips on how to protect your exchange rate, but offering products in GBP to the French is like screaming “I can’t be bothered to adjust to your culture, and I might not bother to send your order either!”. It will wipe out all your efforts in one clean sweep, and the chances are the reaction will be something along the lines of “I can’t be bothered to buy from you!”.
Just like with any other marketing exercise, keep the purchasing process as easy as possible for your clients. Don’t expect them to convert GBP to EUR, they’ll sooner walk away and buy it from somewhere else.

4. Avoid wasting money on international banking fees

If you’re sending goods to someone who is registered for VAT in France, it’s likely that you’ll be able to zero-rate the supply for VAT purposes (provided the transaction meets all the conditions outlined by HMRC: http://www.hmrc.gov.uk/vat/managing/international). Trying to exchange cheques or BACs payment with a customer overseas can prove costly (admittedly, it may well be worthwhile for the best deals). Alternatively, if you don’t already use Paypal, now is the time to give it a go as it will make the transactions with France cheaper and easier. Ultimately, if business is likely to pick up quickly and massively, a bank account in France could well be the best option.

5. Extortionate P&P

Talk to several freight companies and strike a decent international shipping deal: unless you sell online services, the chances are you will be sending out samples and products to your newly found customers and you don’t want to put them off with extortionate shipping costs and complicated return policies. Ideally, look for a courier with branches in both countries (www.norbertdentressangle.co.uk). Once you’ve got it sorted, make it clear in your marketing materials that delivery is no more costly with your quality UK products than it is with lesser French ones!

Stick to the basics

If your product works in the UK, there is no reason it can’t reach a similar turnover in France providing you keep things simple for your clients. The translation costs will largely be offset by the fact that you have done a lot of the leg work already when you set up in the UK.   By converting your brand and your business model to French in the right way, you’ll find a world of new prospects right across the Channel.

For more information, visit www.frenchmarketing.co.uk­.