Disinventing Service, The Belgian Way

Belgian people are usually very friendly and nice when you meet them privately. We have many good friends here whom we appreciate very much, and who have been great blessings to know. So it is therefore extra tragic that as soon as you put a Belgian behind a counter or in any other service function, s/he turns into Basil Fawlty.

These last few week, I have had cascades of bad experiences of that kind, each of which is a story on its own. I have had to call, call, call, call, shout, yell, rant and rave at a car glass company to come and fix my car’s broken window as they had agreed to do (they finally turned up in the middle of the night), I have been scorned by checkout staff at my local supermarket for being a paying customer, I have been rudely told off by waiting staff for complaining that we didn’t get what we ordered at a restaurant – and had another argument when trying to explain that I wasn’t going to pay for food that I didn’t receive – and to round it off nicely, today, I had someone at the call centre of the famous Belgian rail company slam the phone down on me (after him being rude and generally disinterested) when I called and asked why their Internet booking system didn’t seem to accept any Visa cards (yes, there was enough money on them, yes, we did try several different cards).

Previous experiences include being yelled at by a toilet lady because my brother-in-law from Sweden, who only wanted to use the public lavatory, did not speak French; and the whole story about when it took Belgacom five visits and numerous calls to do such a simple thing as connecting a phone – at one point, they managed to hardwire us with our neighbour’s phone – is a story in itself that I hope to share some day.

My friend‘s tale of having to threaten a local appliances chain with legal action in order for them to hand her computer back to her after repairing it – her own computer – is a story she’ll have to tell herself.

I just can’t fathom this. More often than not, people in such functions act as if their jobs were so below them that their customers are, too. They take an attitude of being some sort of Government officials, before whom you’d better take your hat off and bow down in humility, for them to lower themselves to even hearing your request.

In fact, I have even found that it works better if you play Opposite World with them: if you as a customer constantly apologise to them, things work better.

The idea that we as paying customers pay their salary just doesn’t seem to enter their heads. Rather, they seem cross with us for keeping them at work, rather than sitting at the local pub drinking Hoegaarden on the taxpayers’ expense.

I know that this is a harsh way to say things. But during my total of about five years in this country, I have been so rudely treated so many times by so many different people who were supposed to be customer-friendly that I most certainly see a pattern. This just doesn’t happen in other countries. And I feel that it is time to speak up.

I do not want to be treated like a piece of dirt just because I’m getting my groceries. All I want is my groceries. You don’t even have to smile or say hi, like many don’t here, just check my stuff out and let me pay and I won’t bother you any more. But as soon as they make a mistake or mess up, they get angry with me.

In other countries, the customer is always right. In Belgium, the customer is always wrong.

There are some fine examples of the opposite, and I hope to one day be able to publish my own Good Brussels Guide of companies and shops who treat you well. But far to often to be acceptable in any way, you get the opposite. And that’s just not good enough.

Some 30 years ago, it was all the same in Britain. We British treated our customers like garbage, to our everlasting shame. We used to handle complaints by shrugging our shoulders and say “Sorry, I don’t know”; “sorry” here generally being used in this context meaning “I don’t know and I don’t care“.

But then came Basil Fawlty, and Monty Python’s Parrot Sketch, and we saw ourselves and how awful we behaved. We moved on.

You’d hope that there would some day be some Fawltieckxe Toren/Tour des Fawltieckx on Belgian TV, but frankly I doubt that it would do the trick. Basil Fawlty is quite an ordinary figure in Belgian everyday life, and I doubt very much that people would get the jokes at all… because his behaviour seems to be considered quite normal here.

(click to play)

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5 Responses to “Disinventing Service, The Belgian Way”

  1. Richard Says:

    I have to agree. As a brit living in Belgium for some time there are lots of positive things about the country. However when it comes to common sense and customer service it has a zero rating. Sadly I have found the only way to get something done is to shout and cause a fuss, otherwise you are just ignored.

    The commune system is simply diabolical and probably breaks many European laws. I still have to queue in the Foreigners queue and have a different ID card to a Belgian.

    Belgacom (the worst telecoms company on the earth) took 5 months to connect my phone and ADSL (apparently it’s quicker in Afghanistan).

    Don’t get me started on the driving and the traffic system.

  2. Jacques Says:

    I must agree with every word. As Israeli living for several years now in Belgium I am just amazed each time when I have to deal with Administration in Belgium. 1 out of 10 Belgians works as a civil servent. It’s a country of administration and time wasting..

    They don’t try to think when they work, and they just follow the orders without being creative or without the will of doing anything that require a bit of thinking.

    For example, I went to the Post the other day, wanted to post a letter to Israel. The post were out of stock of 1 euro stamps and the cleck asked me to return the next day.. I asked: “Can’t you put two stamps of 50 cents?” She was so angry that I found a solution and that now she does need to stamp my letter, she gave me a grin and sent me away

    Belgians !

  3. jonathan Says:

    Richard: In Afghanistan, I suppose all you do is tie a piece of wire to the closest phone line and there you are. Which is pretty much what Belgacom did when we had our phone installed – check back here within the next few days and I’l tell you the story about that!
    Jacques: Oh, that’s just hilarious! “Oh, no, I have to WORK! Go away!!” kind of. And the Post of all services, which should be feeling the impact from the Internet by now…

  4. Jonathan Newton’s Tales from the European Underbelly Phoney Belgacom! « Says:

    […] June 25th, 2007 — jonathan Following a few recent comments here on this site, I must share the story of how we got our […]

  5. Maha Says:

    You guys, this echoes my experience exactly as a visitor from the U.S. I found it (the Belgian rudeness) confusing.

    Recently when the snow hit Belgium, apparently, the airport “was not ready for it” and neither were the streets? No salting, no cleaning up, mud and sliding everywhere. Yup, Afghanistan prepares for snow a lot more efficiently.

    What was *most* disturbing was the attitude of clerks in the airport when I asked questions about why the pay phones took away lots and lots of my money (including credit card) while still cutting my calls to airline companies in the middle of calls. I asked whether I was misdialing or if there was a mechanical problem. The response, “here, you have to pay” !! What? That was weird. The heck of a response was that? Who said I was a free loader? And pay for non working phones?

    Even at the stupid communications’ center at the arrivals’ floor of the airport I had a woman from hell. She was Miss Rude Galore. When I complained that the number I was dialing did not connect, (rather kept repeating unwanted automated info about winter games over and over), she shouted, “what do you want me to do?” and went ahead and charged me an arm and a leg.

    Add to that the look of bored sales person at a chocolate shop with a sign, “come in for good deals”. When you go in to ask about the deals, the sales person shrugs with a dismissive, even angry gesture, “the sales are all over. You look yourself!”, as they turn away. What the heck..

    And of course, the sighing, the rolling of the eyes and the nasty tones from some individuals (not all, but some — you’re right). But to hell with this attitude. It really needs to change. Until then, no more Brussels, thank you very much.


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