Friday, September 7, 2007

Netherland's customer service experiences

We have briefly experienced the business culture in the Netherlands in the past three months we have lived here. It is a mixed feeling. Part of the story is good: Most of the time they are polite, and most of them can speak English enough. But another part of the story is, you have to chase, chase, and chase behind. Most of our experiences told us, you have to be persistent and then you can get what you want. I am not sure whether it is because of our lack of skills in the dutch language, and thus there were too much miscommunication upfront; or it is because of the limit number of service staff and higher labor cost due to the requirement of dutch speaking in working in these sectors. We might have been spoiled by the good customer service in US using the cheap outsourcing labor in India. Here we have sometimes feel the frustration.

First, most of the services are not free. I have complained in a previous post that the public library here needs a membership fee. This is the same in banks. We set up a bank account in the ABN-Amro, the dutch bank which recently was attempted to be merged by UK's Barclays. The program we are in needs a annual fee of 32 euro. People are far fewer using credit cards than the debit cards. Similarly, if you have a credit card, there is also an annual fee attaching to it. Since credit card companies make money mainly from the higher interest rate applied to the debt, or any mistakes made by the card holders such as late fee. It is possible that dutch people are more cautious about living in debts, and they are less likely to make credit card companies profitable even with an annual fee. As a result, comparing to the fact that average person in US receiving 14 letters from credit card companies offering a pre-approved credit card, in the Netherlands, we have received none.

Phone services was a little messy. There was a phone line connected in our apartment before we moved in. We were thinking of transferring that number to our account, although we have to register as a new user and there is no savings for us in monetary terms. Surprisingly, no one could find that registered number in the system. Until there is a KPN staff member came to our place to do trouble shooting, he was not sure what was the problem. However, that number was receiving bills every month just one month before. At the end, I don't know what happened in the system, but we have to adopt a new number.

Mr. Awaara's colleague has another vivid experience with KPN customer service person in their office.
'What kind of plan do you have?'

"We have this plan of 27.99 euro per month."
'Do you have other plans?'
"No, we just have this 27.99 plan with X free minutes, and .... "
'Isn't there a plan of 10 euro per month?'
"O, yes, we also have this basic plan of ..."

Utilities was a nightmare for us not because of the utility company but with our landlords. (This can be an even long story but I chose not to disclose it here.) Anyway, since I have always lived in apartments with utilities costs covered, I don't have much to compare. Here the utilities are managed in one company ENECO, water, electricity, and gas. The company will estimate the amount you would spend every month and deduct the amount of money from your bank account. When you moved in, you report all the meter readings to them. When you move out, you again need to report the meter readings and they will calculate the total amount you are supposed to pay. You might have to pay more, or they will return the extra charge they made. It is totally based on trust and they charge whatever you report. The meters are all inside the house.

However, this might be the place problems might come up. We moved in with the intention of covering the utility cost ourselves. Later something happened and the landlady took over that cost and we pay her a higher rent. So we provided all the information to ENECO and again later cancel and transfer to the landlady after a month. Surprisingly, we later were charged for more than 1000 euro for the month we stayed! Of course, this cost will be covered by the landlady and we didn't use that much in one month. Then why? The previous tenant must have cheated in the meter reporting. I would say our landlady might also just realized this fact, and the previous tenant also has his reason to cheat in his situation. Here I just want to say there are some loopholes in this service system that our landlady was not very cautious before.

Here, the supermarket doesn't provide shopping bags. I am totally for this because of the environmental concerns. I found it interesting to see how people come up with different ideas when there is no bag available. (Of course you can buy a proper plastic bag at 20 cents.) The packing boxes in the store are widely used. It is like Cotsco in US.

We haven't made any returns in the supermarket. But once I bought a stove lighter in a small shop. It makes sparkles from some kind of stone to light the gas stove. I tried to use it and it was so painful. It succeeded after many many clicks so I decided to return. The shop owner tried to teach me how to use it until he himself failed in lighting up another cigarette lighter. You know what, it is not simple full refund. I was given a handwritten voucher of the amount I spent, and it is valid for one year. I keep reminding myself that I need to go to that store sometime to find something I need over there.

I came across a dutch living in China now writing about Chinese in the Netherlands:

A last striking point about the Chinese in Holland is that I continuously hear them complain about the service at Dutch banks, stores, and government agencies. One Taiwanese friend of mine even told me that an employee at her bank had literally said, "I don't care whether you come back or not. Bye." I smiled when I heard this, because it sounded all too familiar.

And I recall another Chinese friend who wanted to buy a 1000 Euro laptop. When she asked the salesperson if he could show her some special features, whether he could plug it in and switch it on, he bluntly made clear that he'd rather not be bothered by her.

As my Taiwanese friend put it, "Where I am from you would get fired for behavior like this." And I couldn't agree more. This kind of customer "service" is not supposed to be normal.

He said all these sounded "all too familiar". I am glad to know that it was not because of my color, or not speaking Dutch. It is just so common. So the lesson is you just need to be prepared to fight all the time, for your rights. At least, your rights are guarded safely here in this country.