My secret life

The customer is always wrong

In Belgium, I think you might say that the customer is always wrong. It is certainly true in department stores, where you can be quite sharply reprimanded by the assistant if you try to interrupt her while she is on the phone.

But the full truth of this proposition only came home to me recently after I had my car serviced. The garage where I get this done once a year is proud of its ten-point customer service policy. I often read this while I wait patiently to be served.

I am happy to wait. I do not expect customer service in Belgium, just as I do not expect mountains in the Netherlands. Each country has its positives and its negatives. We have to be tolerant. So I stand at the desk reading the ten-point customer guarantee and realise how lucky I am to have a garage that puts me at the very centre of everything it does.

I finally hand over the car keys. “We will call you when your car is ready,” says the cheerful young man at the desk. I know this is not true. They always forget to call me. But I can live with this. I am not going to call my lawyer just because they have forgotten point 6 of their customer service pledge.

So I collect the car at the end of the day and read through the long list of checks that have been done, items that have been replaced, adjustments that have been made. It all adds up to a huge bill, more than the cost of a week in Sicily. But they did replace a squeaky windscreen wiper so I am in no position to complain.

Two days later, the phone rings. I know from experience that this will be the customer service department calling to check that everything was to my satisfaction. The polite man on the phone wants to know whether I am fully satisfied, quite satisfied, quite dissatisfied, or totally dissatisfied.

I always say that I am fully satisfied, because once I said, well, not really fully satisfied.

The man was shocked. “No?”


“Would you care to state precisely what was not fully to your satisfaction?”

Here I was stuck. I speak a moderate level of French, enough to discuss the weather, or to avoid ordering Steak Americain thinking I will get an American steak, but not sufficient to explain that the car had started to flash a red warning light telling me that the tyre was flat, when it clearly wasn’t.

“Oh,” the nice man said. “I am sorry.”

I thought that was the end of it, but two days later I had a call from a different man in the customer service department telling me that my complaint had been brought to his notice and would I tell him precisely what was not fully satisfactory. So I had to explain once again that, following a visit to the garage that cost me an arm and a holiday in Palermo, the indicator started flashing that the tyre was flat.  This took a good ten minutes of my time.

At the end of it all I really wasn't satisfied. But there was no one interested in my complaint. So now I know not to complain. The customer is always wrong in Belgium, even when he or she is definitely right.