Dutch customer service. What customer service?

Dutch customer service. What customer service?

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.

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!

Caitriona Rush


Caitriona Rush

Caitriona has spent 18 years living and working in 9 countries around the globe. She works as a cross-cultural consultant and provides workshops, trainings, consultancy and one-to-one sessions to both...

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jiminal 20:39 | 6 February 2018

I believe this goes deeper than simply being an egalitarian society. The infamous Dutch stoicism and biking culture are some of the elements that have helped shape a very independent, resilient people. Great value is placed on self-sufficiency and individual problem solving. This is where Dutch society is at it's weakest, stubbornness and perceived arrogance rear their ugly head often. As with no one being above another person, the Dutch saying: 'there's a right way, a wrong way, and Dutch way' certainly rings true when it comes to customer service. The enormous burden placed on self-sufficiency means there is also often painstaking adherence to divisions of labour. If you ask a Dutch person for help you will see their brain scanning for the right answer, or at worst an answer, as long as it doesn't involve asking someone other than themselves. A Dutch person would rather give you incorrect information or 'send you from the closet to the wall (another person)' than consult others in their team, and heaven forbid admit fault or that they simply don't know. This leads to the scenario where the person helping you will revert to the 'system' or 'framework' protecting their independent thinking and they will point to this as if to say 'you should understand this system and way of thinking: figure it out' regardless of whether that has anything to do with the problem or question you're posing. I'm very wary of Dutch people for their inability to admit being wrong. It's a glaring human flaw that is glossed over in what is really a society full of obstinate know-it-alls who don't know as much as they think.

disteinway 10:15 | 1 November 2018

I've just had a terrible experience with a company run by two Dutch expats in Belgium who were giving me an estimate to renovate a bathroom. After reading this, it explains a lot of their behavior which I perceived as rude and arrogant. During the process of receiving an estimate, I pointed out several errors in their offer (in pricing and calculations) and the salesman got angry with me, called me difficult and stormed out of the meeting. I even apologized to the man when he got angry, and said, I think we've had a misunderstanding I did not mean to offend you. He refused to apologize to me for calling me names even when my husband intervened on my behalf. Being American, I found this really shocking, that a tradesman would not apologize for the errors and try to make it right rather than get angry. It makes sense now if Dutch have this attitude towards customer service and cannot admit to being wrong. Weirdly your article and this comment has made me feel a lot better

Louise Loh 22:27 | 12 August 2018

Can't be more agreed with you! I'm from California, too! I went to Amsterdam in August, the patrols at the train stations, two of them at two different days implied that I did it purposely for the wrong tickets. The first thing they did was scolding and blaming me. I was so shock and didn't know what to say! I am not your daughter! I screamed in my heart. If i did it again next time, I would get fine 50Euros one of them said. However, they both let me go at last. I wanted to buy a ticket when all the machines failed to take my card. The information counter lady told me to "go straight" when I asked her questions, "go straight" that's all many times she said. She even lazy to look at me when she talked. I was so lost where she wanted me to go or what to do. I went straight and saw more machines, I thought she wanted me to try different machines. They all failed again. I came back to another counter for another helper, after asking questions several times, he finally told me where to go and look for. I just wanted to cry. They spoke English, you know. Second day, at this Salsashop at the Amsterdam Centraal, the salsa restaurant is like the chipotle in California. We ordered the bowls, but the rice probably was too old and dry. We could hardly chew nor eat them. It was like chewing sands. So I told the worker the dilemma, she said she needed to ask the manager what to do. She came back with a card "buy one and get one". I didn't want to buy again. I needed to eat. I told her I couldn't eat the rice, I got sick stomach if I did. She went back in and out, and said you can buy one again. WHAT? The manager refused to come out and resolve the problem. She just wanted to get rid of us. We didn't ask for a refund even. This was just a peak of the ice berg, all the customer services we experienced at Amsterdam had been very frustrating! Just like Jiminal's mentioned below, when we asked some one for help, they referred us to another, and then that person referred us back to the original. person. In the hotel, the housekeepers collected the dirty towels, but didn't replace new one. I had to call for towels. Never experienced anything like that in America. What egalitarian? I think they are egocentric people! I had many bad days here! I just wanted to cry! Can't they just speak properly and just be straight to the solutions? At least be kind?

Rajarshi Rakesh... 05:10 | 29 August 2018

Great that you have identified a legitimate problem with the Dutch culture. I saw a societal response to this sort of trend in an Asian country where the Starbucks cafes became little islands of US like service. Invariably, if the ‘culture’ does not wake up to it, the ever increasing expat population may find its own enclaves/islands within Netherlands where sadly the lucrative jobs won’t go to Dutch people! It is a crisis in waiting and requires a simple change in attitude to Internationally acceptable standards. A simple way to explain this could be how attitude towards women in some Conservative societies cannot be justified with ‘culture’. Similarly, lack of service orientation can get you fired, be it US or Holland!

Zack Tu Nan 13:40 | 20 December 2018

Huu huge relief. Especially for us coming from the world's most friendliest country like Myanmar, Thailand and literally throughout the whole Asia, the customer service here is very rude and they don't apologize even if they are wrong. For atleast courtesy like we are so sorry for the inconvenience, I never get that here. Now I realized it's egalitarianism thing.

Cantemir Mefa 23:03 | 10 June 2019

I am Cantemir MEFA, a Romanian man, working for Rock Solid bv, Alkmaar, Netherlands and living in "De Keizerskroon" Hotel in Halfweg (1165 MA), Netherlands. Despite the EU legislation of prohibited smoking in common areas, in the hotel where I am living, many persons are smoking very abundant in the common areas of the hotel and I eat all the times in a fumes from smoking atmosphere and also, my room is full of this smoking fumes. Because of this situation, I can’t sleep during the sleeping hours and I start to build health problems (yesterday evening I was at an emergency hospital, because of my heart problems appeared suddenly!). I complaint to the administration of this hotel for 4 times regarding this aspect, but the managers of the hotel don’t care at all about the non-smokers (!?). Police also, don't want to take any action, so, I am a victim living in this, self-proclaimed, "3 stars" hotel. Please, I really need to be helped! I feel discriminated against others and tortured! My email address is: Thank you! Kind regards, Cantemir