The thin line between a “personal assistance fee” and just bad customer service

This morning, when I bought my ticket at the NMBS Europe (Belgian Railways) counter, I was charged 7 euros. On top of my 40 euro ticket. A service fee for all international tickets bought at the ticket counter. In other words: I paid 7 euros to be able to buy a 40 euro ticket. You might call me cheap, but I truly think that is a lot of money.

No, I don’t have a problem to pay for service. I am happy to pay for the extra service I receive at my favorite hairdresser, optician and even bookstore. I can get my shirts a lot cheaper somewhere else, but I buy my shirts because I like the guy at the store. I go to specific restaurants because I love the service there. I reward service. I am not the best tipper in the world, but I think I am pretty average. I usually give a tip between 5-10% of my restaurant bill.

And I don’t want to be negative. I hate it when bloggers and twitterazi go rogue. I want to try to understand why they did this to me. I am not NMBS best customer, but I am pretty loyal. On average, I buy 8 international train tickets a month with a total value of approximately 300 euros (and on top of that, I buy a fair share of local/national tickets). I am a train evangelist. I love working in the train and usually promote it with passion.

And yes, this service fee of 7 euros obviously is a decent nudge mechanism to get people to buy online at I totally get that. But I still think it is a lot of money. That is why I went looking for more reasons why NMBS would have me pay this fee. I stumbled upon a leafle:

  • NMBS Europe wants to bring you the best service every day. That’s why they invests in new technologies and well-trained personnel. As an example, they are redecorating the service desks at their stations in Brussels-South, Antwerp and Luik-Guillemins.
  • They frame it as a “personal assistance fee” and they end the leaflet with “more than ever, we are at your service”.
  • They state there is an evolution within the global travel branche to charge people when they want personal assistance with their purchases.

Ok. Well, my thoughts:

  • Investing in new technologies and personnel. Sure, I get that. But why is your company the only company that charges me separately? Apple is investing in new technologies and personnel. So is Philips. So is Shell. They don’t charge me for that as an extra fee.
  • Offer me an alternative. Both my Dutch ABN and ING bank cards don’t work at the NMBS ticket machines. So my only alternative to not paying 7 euros is to buy at That isn’t always convenient; I can’t always plan my trips several hours beforehand (to browse online and print it) and with the steep prices of Belgian mobile internet services it is a pretty costly operation to buy via mobile.
  • Create stuff worth sharing. Not a dissatisfier every time you have a customer. I really believe that companies should exceed expectations at every touchpoint. Everytime you act remarkable, it will fuel positive conversations about your brand. But this works the other way around. Every time a person gets confronted with the 7 euro fee, that is a negative experience. Period.
  • Nudge towards online. Yes, you want me to buy online. Yes, I understand that might be more convenient for us both (although in my case, it’s complicated). But it might have been a better idea to gradually increase prices for offline tickets and maintain the same prices online. That way I don’t feel getting punished every time I buy at the ticket counter.
  • Relative service costs (Railways). In The Netherlands, the fee for buying the same international ticket at the ticket counter is 3 euros. That is a less than half of the NMBS service fee for the same service (well, to be honest, I usually really think the service at the Dutch ticket counters is actually better). I don’t get it.
  • Relative service costs (Other). When I get good service in a restaurant, I pay up to 10%. Voluntarily. At the NMBS, when I get service (there is no quality insurance there), I pay 15%. I really really don’t get it.
  • Manage expectations. When I pay 7 euros (15% of my total of 47 euros when I buy a single ticket from Ghent to Amsterdam) I expect a pretty good service. At decent restaurant I pay 10%, at the NMS 15%. That builds anticipation. By coincidence, a NMBS employee sold me a wrong ticket yesterday. When I pay 7 euro to get serviced, my failure tolerence is pretty low.
  • When I pay I want a receipt. Seriously, when I pay 7 euros, at least give me a receipt or at least proof I got ripped of.

Because, seriously. There is a thin line between a “personal assistance fee” and just bad customer service. There is even a thin line between bad customer service and being ripped of. And I really felt that way today.

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