Wednesday, 5 December 2007

Customer Service, Belgian Style

I have done a number of posts in the past about Belgium's peculiar attitude towards the customer. And the stories just keep on coming.

Not only does customer service, as the Western World knows it, simply not exist here but I'd be surprised if Belgians were even aware of the concept.

What we have instead is some kind of proto-Soviet attitude that means the service provider is doing YOU a favour, rather than the other way round. This is partly because monopolies are still such a part of life here. Every commune is linked to a specific gas, electricity, or cable company so you either go through them, or go without.

As such, I find myself having to visit friends in a different commune to watch BBC 2 which is unavailable in Ixelles, but available over the road in Etterbeek. No one has yet taken me up on my offer to let them watch Rai 2, Italy's answer to the BBC, featuring semi-naked girls in cages and endless chat-shows.

Rather less surprisingly, this attitude is firmly engrained in the so-called public services. Now I cannot really argue with transport in this country. Trains run on time, there are eco-trams galore, and nothing is too expensive. However they are rather less than flexible.

Witness a recent train trip I took to Ypres with a friend to visit the World War One Battlefields. I arrived, somewhat late, at the platform and she had bought the ticket in advance. I say ticket because, despite asking for 'deux aller-retour' both our names were on the one piece of paper. No problem, I thought to myself, we'll sort this out later.

That evening, after our tour, we returned to the station. I would just like to point out that Ypres 's main income derives from the countless Brits, Canadians, Australians and New Zealanders, who come to see the trenches and cemeteries for themselves.

So when I approached the station attendant I was a little surprised to note that his English was rather patchy. I intimated the problem, accompanied by lots of ticket waving and pointing. Two people, one ticket, I mimed. I want to leave now (the train was about to pull up), she wants to leave three hours later, after the last post is played at the Menin gate.

"No problem", he said, "that will be 7 euros 90". I was taken aback. "But I've already paid for my ticket", I said. Thinking he hadn't understood the first time, I pointed out that we didn't want to travel together. "OK, then, he said, that'll be 7 euros 90". Frustrated, I raised my voice, at which point his English, rather conveniently, disappeared altogether.

I tried again in French. After all, the Flemish are always praised for their linguistic aptitude and it is an official language of Belgium, after all. He replied in Dutch. Language Politics - what a nightmare.

The train drew out of the station. I paid my seven euros and went to the bar.


Anonymous said...

My god, thank goodness there is at least another person out there who understands. I tried to explain the sorry state of Belgian bureaucracy to my friends of various nationalities (including Belgians) and they seem to gawp at the idea that the Belgian model is anything less than perfect. Very frustrating trying to make people see the light.

Half-being said...

I agree. One of the most exasperating things about the Belgian system is that so many people here can see there is anything wrong. I have colleagues who will swear blind that the postal service is trustworthy and reliable, even though no package that has ever been sent to my home address has arrived. When everyone else says that it is all fine, it makes you feel like you are on the wrong planet.

Half-being said...

I meant "...cannot see there is anything wrong..." of course.