Dutch Customer Service – what did I learn?

I recently spent a few days in the Netherlands, celebrating my 5th wedding anniversary. Beautiful weather, incredibly flat & green country with the world’s tallest men, I’ve often visited the country’s capital, Amsterdam, so was keen to explore beyond to new destinations.  It’s yet another country where almost all adults speak flawless English, making it a great tourist destination for monolingual Anglo Saxons, but how was the service?

Efficiency is the name of the game – for a small country, competing with  much larger neighbours (France, Germany, UK), the Netherlands punches above their weight.  Having been decimated in the second World War, the Dutch have focused heavily on building a strong transport infrastructure, solid education and plenty of innovation in shipping, waterways management & agriculture.  Generally things work really well in the Netherlands.  Compared to the chaos of London, catching a train in rush hour, marveling as it arrives on time, with seats available for all passengers made a refreshing change.  On the roads, cyclists, cars and pedestrians each have their own lanes, flowing harmoniously together to get people to their destination with the minimum of stress or fuss.  The Dutch get a lot of things right.  Where things don’t quite stack up is with customer service.

Checking in to our hotel, confusion on names, some of our party having been booked with 2 rooms, others with the wrong room, we hoped it was just a blip.  But there was a recurrent theme around getting the little things wrong throughout our stay in the Netherlands.  Wrong topping on a lunchtime pizza, wrong type of wine served, incorrect charges at a shop.  Each incident was a minor matter, but it seemed to happen all to often.  In the smaller businesses, we noticed a lot of smiles, and even warm apologies when things went wrong, but in larger businesses, restaurants and hotels, there was a distinct whiff of “not my job, so not my problem”.  Sure, it’s an attitude you can find anywhere, but there was a clear focus on delivering a task, rather than working with a customer to make them happy. Requests to fix an issue that was not the fault of the customer was all too often met with a shrug of shoulders.

The other notable lack in Dutch customer service is the small gestures that mark out better businesses.  Serving a glass of water when a customer arrives at their table, bringing cutlery when serving food in a cafe or even helping an elderly infirm customer to a seat at the train station seemed to be missing.  Dutch folks are very polite and welcoming, so perhaps it’s a cultural difference.  The expectation of international travelers of a smile on arrival and an apology if something goes wrong don’t seem to have reached Dutch shores quite yet.

During our trip, visiting various towns, we experienced some lovely service, warm genuine smiles, attentive and patient.  Delft, as a very popular tourist destination seems to really value their visitors, with many shops, cafes and restaurants going out of their way to accommodate their guest.  In one antique shop, the owner took considerable time in helping us find the perfect gift, sharing his insight and knowledge of the pottery of the region.  He created that sense of “valued customer”, irrespective of whether we purchased or not.

As our holiday came to an end, we went to check out of the hotel and noticed a series of charges for services we hadn’t consumed, plus other services where we had been charged twice. Again, shoulder shrug, “not my problem.”  The taxi to the airport was late and charged more than twice the rate quoted by the hotel – “not my problem”.  The trip ended on a similar note as it began – people delivering a task, not focusing on customer outcomes.

Of course, it’s personal opinion, and I very much look forward to my next trip to Netherlands (with my expectations adjusted accordingly). Once again, it made me reflect on the nemesis of good customer experience – delivering tasks.  If you cringed or rolled your eyes during your summer holiday, did it also prompt you to check out your weakest touch points in your customer experience?  Perhaps your customers are feeling that same sense of frustration that you felt?  Perhaps it’s time to put it right and replace task delivery with customer outcomes!

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