Dutch customer service. What customer service?

10 April 2014, by

When I first purchased clothes online, I needed to return one piece. As the returns form online wasn’t very clear, I brought it back to the shop.

There, I learned immediately that this was the WRONG thing to do. I was told that "everyone knows how to return clothing purchased online," with the implication that I was stupid. That their returns form was unclear and that this was my first time purchasing online was irrelevant.

I returned to the shop the next day and asked to speak to the manager. It turned out that the person I had spoken to was the manager.

Welcome to Dutch customer service!

I have been told, on other occasions trying to return clothes, that I have purposely ripped garments or washed them the wrong way, while one store manager told me that if she had purchased a jumper for 40 euros and it fell apart, she wouldn’t complain.

Then, of course, there are the bars and restaurants where you wait 15 minutes to order a drink while the waitresses chat, and upon pointing out that your bill is incorrect (you’ve invariably been overcharged) you receive a new one without so much as an apology.

Then there are various other service providers about which I could rant on and on, but you probably have your own stories...

So why is customer service in the Netherlands so bad when compared with many other countries?

Customer service in the Netherlands

The Netherlands is a highly egalitarian society and the Dutch are almost obsessed with everyone being equal. If someone famous goes into a shop, he or she must queue like the rest of us. If they go to the theatre, they sit in the same seats as the rest of us (have you noticed the lack of "boxes" in theatres here? It’s to show that no one is better than anyone else).

Whilst I personally like the idea of everyone being equal, it does have its drawbacks. Namely, customer service. You (the customer) are no better than I (the shop assistant/customer service representative/waitress), so why should I go out of my way to help you?

But what makes the Netherlands so different?

There are many other egalitarian countries out there, for example the US, which is known for its high levels of customer service while also being an egalitarian country. The difference lies in the fact that in many other countries the customer has a temporary higher "status" over the service provider personnel while business is being done.

dutch customer service

There’s a very definitive attitude of "we want you as a customer, we value your custom (and want more of it), so we will do our utmost to please you." Hence, the whole philosophy of customer service.

Is it all that bad here?

No, it’s not. Not all Dutch customer service is as bad as the examples above. Invariably, service outside the big cities of the "west" is much better, and even within the big cities there are those who realise the value of good service.

Is there anything to be done about it?

Unfortunately, as I’m so fond of telling my own clients, "you can’t change a culture" - there are some things you just need to accept and deal with. In my experience the only Dutch who complain about the customer service here are those who have spent some time abroad and have seen how it can be.

However, all is not lost. I do believe that change is possible, but it needs to come from the inside: from shops, the catering industry and service provider owners and managers.

There are two main reasons for improving customer service:
To attract (and keep) more international customers
To differentiate yourself from the competition to the local Dutch population

So, if you are in a business where either one of the above applies to you, maybe you should think about the image your customer service policies (or lack thereof) gives your clientele.

Or, if you’re a client sick of the bad service you’ve been getting, show them this article, tell them what you think of their service and who knows what may happen!

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Comments arranged by date (Total 7 comments)  
April 11 2014, 12:16AM

I think trying to return an online purchase to a retail store, of the same brand, is not ever normal and you were wrong to expect it to be possible. The retail store on the street doesn't necessarily have any access to your purchase history and your receipt is not from their store.

Also, saying hi to the staff when you enter a cafe or bar usually ensures prompt service. If you ignore the staff when you enter (and I have seen this), they will simply presume you want to be left alone. Make contact if you want contact and interact with staff as fellow human beings and you will have great customer service. If you presume you are higher status, temporarily or not, because you are simply buying a pullover or pair of underpants, I think that the issue is not if the customer service is good or bad.

April 15 2014, 01:38PM

wowwow, please don't generalize. I bought a Marks and Spencer's shirt online and I returned it via their retail store in The Hague. It's possible! So the author is not WRONG (as you said it) to expect it to be possible.

Dutch customer service is just bad when compared to most other countries. Period. Nothing to do with higher status or whatsoever but the staff are paid to specifically provide customer service and most fall short in delivering this.

April 11 2014, 01:25PM

My experience so far is that customer service here in Holland is just fine. I've only been here 2 years so I will reserve judgment. My sense is that the mom and pop orientation of many of the businesses here is far more customer centric than the large company model.

In America, customer service died with social mobility. Of this I am certain. Giant companies, underpaid employees, pat answers, no one with any real authority all lead to extreme frustration on the part of American consumers.

April 11 2014, 03:14PM

Having had summer jobs in the US for 4 years and having lived in Utrecht for 2, I exactly understand what this article is pointing out. Apparent difference is there, and it's huge. You'd be fired in an instant in the US if you behave the way half of the people I'm being helped by in the Netherlands do.
Yet I absolutely prefer the Dutch way! It's so much more real - can cause frustration to customers with different expectations which is probably not smart from a business POV, yes - but working in a shop here doesn't expect you to be an actress, denied from being a normal, dignified human being for the duration of your working hours. Try the "behind the counter" perspective. The sorts of customer tyranny you are forced to endure in an American business with a fake smile on your face while the management finds this absolutely normal might be useful to consider.
And this definitely isn't a matter of something the Dutch need to "fix" or "improve" (they don't seem in need of a lesson on how to accumulate wealth). In arguments like this, I find it's more the Anglo-american's perpetual bafflement: how do the Dutch pull it off? How can they suck so much at customer service [suck = not do it like us] and still have their capitalism working out just fine.
Plus, if someone believes the States is an egalitarian culture in practice, we're already not on the same page.

April 13 2014, 04:53PM

Being an expat in Nederland I totally agree about the *bad* customer service, especially when it comes to communicate in English. Having sent an email to the customer service in a famous webstore here, I received a reply in perfect English(!) saying "I am not able to answer to you in English, here is the Dutch reply". Just because he only had the dutch answer to copy-paste.
Or going to a restaurant and the waiter ignoring you for half hour, but not the other customers, even if you stand up an shake your hands, just to make an order ! And of course I went to the neighbour restaurant and I even left a tip for their service. Let them be losers.

April 15 2014, 01:58PM

Living in the Netherlands for almost 5 years now and coming from a culture with a fame for hospitality, the problem to me first seems to be that the service sector is often working students - who don't exactly consider what they are doing is a profession in itself and may not adopt a service minded attitude, often treating you in an inconsiderate manner as if they are doing you a favour instead of meeting your needs and focusing on serving you, like a professional waiter would do. Good news is that there is still hope!
I suffer, like many of you, from the misfortune of having to deal with the services of Dutch companies like OV-chip kaart, GVB, NS etc.. Once one of the big Dutch banks' employee I was put through to so I could get more help hang up on me telling me there is nothing else to do while I was crying asking for another ATM card from Bangkok as they had blocked my card to 'protect' me, and now I was alone and broke in Thailand! Of course this is a generalisation as the experience can greatly vary on the quality of the establishment one chooses to pay for the services of, and the personal touch of the employee serving. Unfortunately I rarely get proper services even when I pay unless I have made my research and got lucky to find the right businesses.
The Netherlands has a highly educated population, often a 'no can do' attitude towards customers in the customer services, wages on the lower end for people working in the service sector negatively affecting the development of a more professional working culture among the service industry, and the lack of a full realisation that they need to revolutionise their vision, service sector and culture if they want to be able to meet the quality demands of foreigners/ tourists and more conscious Dutch people in more metropolitan cities like Amsterdam. If you have been to any of the Scandinavian countries, you probably noticed that Scandinavians realised this decades ago when Scandinavian tourism started to take off, and they not only revolutionised their service industry but also their cuisine along with this. I wish to see that the people of the Netherlands - who are known for their open mindedness as a part of their modern and inspiring culture - tap into the completely free and vast treasure of multiculturalism surrounding them, take an objective look and bring their standards up by simply learning and applying better practices from foreigners, by both the consumers demanding more, and the organisations realising that they can create more value in business along with sustainable success by excellent customer service.
As consumers we should challenge service providers more and demand more until this is done. I also didn't forget of the hope I spoke of above - what can you do in the meantime? You can either get prepared to pay high value for good service if this is how the business differentiates itself, or see and experience the difference by choosing establishments which are multicultural as foreigners enrich any business culture and create value in different ways!

April 25 2014, 06:46PM

I am sure most ex-pat Anglophones have been told at some point there is no word in English for gezellig.

I always like to reply that this is true, but that there is no word in Dutch for customer service. As Dutch people tend to laugh and concede I have a point, I don't feel I have much of a case to make to support that

About the Author
Caitriona Rush

Caitriona has spent 18 years living and working in 9 countries around the globe. She works as a cros...

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