Customer Service Hell: Amsterdam Railway Station


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Every now and again on my travels I experience extraordinary customer service. Some of them are heavenly; when everything goes as expected and someone does something that produces real delight. But sadly, far more of them are absolute hell; when nothing goes as expected and no-one take responsibility for recovering the customer, fixing the problem, or for learning from the situation.

My most recent customer service hell was at the recently refurbished “Service Centre” at Amsterdam Central Station. It provides a great example of how not to improve customer service and of how not to recover when it isn’t working.

On Monday, I was at Oxford University taking part in a mind-stretching Mobile Social Networking course (more on that in a later post). As the course finished too late to catch a flight home to Cologne on the same day, I organised to fly home via Amsterdam on Tuesday so that I could have a working dinner with colleagues and then take the train back home.

The flight from Stansted to Amsterdam with EasyJet was just fine. So was the short train ride to Amsterdam Central Station. But I thought I should buy my return train ticket before going to dinner so that I would know what time I had to be back at the station. I approached the recently refurbished Service Centre to be met by four uniformed staff eagerly showing customers how to use the new queue ticketing machine. I punched in Germany and travel later the same day and received my ticket No. C490. Then I looked at the indicator board to see that C449 was being served. Groan, 41 people were before me.

Once past the entrance, I entered the surreal world of the Service Centre, as in service, but not in the usual sense of the word. The first thing you notice is all the comfortable seating arranged in horseshoes where customers can wait to be served and the flat screen showing videos about how all of this is for the benefit of customers to entertain them while they wait. And wait. And wait. But there weren’t many customers waiting, certainly not the 41 that were supposed to be before me.

The second thing you notice is the 22 ticketing desks and that the vast majority are unmanned. I counted seven manned desks out of the 22. That doesn’t mean that there weren’t plenty of uniformed staff around, there were, but they were busy with the queue ticketing machine, talking to each other, doing other ‘railway stuff’ or just with walking about, anything other than serving weary customers.

I asked a uniformed lady if this was normal and if she could arrange for more staff to be diverted to actually serving customers. Her response, in a very polite tone, “Sorry, there is nothing I can do”! I also asked her if I could book a ticket using a credit card (like I had done at the airport to get to Amsterdam), only to be told that that was not possible and that the machines in the service centre only worked with the Dutch Pin&Chip payment system! And you know what, I believed she was genuinely sorry. And that there was nothing she could do about it. She was as much a victim as I was.

After waiting 40 minutes, seeing numbers reel of quickly as their owners had just given up and left, I finally got served. Only to find that the last train to Cologne left 20 minutes later at 6.34pm. At 6.34pm! With a heavy heart, I booked my seat, exited the Service Centre and phoned my apologies to my colleagues.

The whole experience was surreal, and raises serious questions about the competence of the Netherlands Railways to deliver a satisfactory customer experience and about their customer orientation:

  1. Why was so much space given over to ‘waitertainment’ and so little space to actually serving customers? It is a Service Centre after all, not a waiting room!
  2. Why were there so many ticket desks, yet so few ticket desks actually open?
  3. Why were there so few staff serving customers, yet so many staff obviously available?
  4. Why put uniformed staff into the position where they want to help customers, but the system simply doesn’t allow them to do so?
  5. Why have a ticket queueing system, when more than half of the customers simply abandoned the Service Centre before getting served because of the wait?
  6. Why have a ticket machine that only uses a local Chip+Pin rather than an international credit card? And at the Netherlands’ busiest international station!

Take my advice next time you are in Amsterdam. Buy your ticket when you land at Schipol Airport. Either that or give over plenty of time to experience your own service hell at Amsterdam Central Station.

What do you think? Should Service Centres actually be about serving people? Or is waitertainment considered acceptable these days?

Post a comment and get the conversation going.

Graham Hill
Independent CRM Consultant
Interim CRM Manager

Graham Hill (Dr G)
Business Troubleshooter | Questioning | Thoughtful | Industrious | Opinions my own | Connect with me on LinkedIn


  1. Hi

    I am afraid that the Dutch Railways are even worse than you suspect.

    I was in Maastricht two weeks ago… I wanted to get to Bonn-Cologne Airport.

    I went to the railway station.

    The ticket machine allowed me to press a dozen ticketing options (including whether I wanted to take my bicycle, my dog, travel the same day, or travel at a later date, travel first class, etc. etc).

    Unfortunately, as you have found – the final stage was to make payment… and my Credit and Debit cards were rejected… all six of them !

    Even more unfortunately, only one machine (with a long queue) would accept cash… Much more unfortunately, I did not have enough cash in my pocket…

    With a heavy heart I joined the end of a long queue snakeing across the concourse. At least I consoled myself with the thought that at I had the foresight to book the ticket the night before my departure.

    When I got to the front of the queue (some 45 mins.. and some very evil thoughts about the situation later…) I explained that the machine would not accept my cards.

    The Customer Advisor (well, Customer Service Assistant would just have been too much of a misnomer) ‘advised’ me that there would be a surcharge for buying a ticket from him rather than the automated machine… This, despite the fact that it would not accept my cards !

    (Gordon Brown take note – this is a clever stealth tax that would raise money without offending any UK domiciled voters…)

    I reluctantly agreed to pay the extra, and asked for a ticket to Bonn-Koln…

    …which was when he then dropped the bombshell…

    “I am sorry – I cannot sell International Tickets, you need to go to Liege which is our International Station…”

    “…but …the machine outside can sell me the tickets to Koln ?”


    “…but it wont accept my cards”

    “No… then you need to go to Liege… it is our International Station”

    Aaaaaaargh !!!!!

    Mike Nicholls

  2. Hi Mike

    Nice to hear from you. Thanks for your comment. Maastricht, that sounds familiar…

    I don’t know what it is with railways. The various ones in the UK all have adopted yield management systems to fleece customers out of their hard-earned cash and make it practically impoossible to know what the best fare from A to B is. And having taken the Stansted Express a number of times recently, the standard of trains themselves is dire.

    The railway in Germany is great when you are on it, but the call centre rejects the same credit card that the Internet website accepts gladly. And in a recent public test, the same yield management systems consistently failed to identify the best fare from A to B. Still, it is much much cheaper than trains in the UK and much much better. Proof positive that high quality doesn’t aways equate with high prices.

    And we have both had our trials and tribulations with the railway in the Netherlands. No doubt they use yield management systems too. But it is hard to find out if you have to go to another railway station in another country to buy a ticket (Maastricht is in the Netherlands and Liege in Belgium, for non-European readers)!

    This disservice is all part of the arrogance of so many former (or current) government monopolies who never had, and probably never will have anything like a customer-orientation. And who do not have enough real competition to force them to pull their socks up.

    Graham Hill
    Independent CRM Consultant
    Interim CRM Manager

    PS. I was in Amsterdam again today, having my missed meeting. I drove.


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