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I wanted to write about this since long time. I strongly believe the Belgian Post (“La Poste“) is one of the worst customer service experiences which the country has to offer. And an ideal exampe of where competition will help improve it.

I could tell dozens of such stories (and each one would be worth a blog article), but I will just explain my quest for stamps yesterday. The simple goal: post 26 letters, in standardised format, after 18:00 in Brussels’ city center (aiming for next day delivery, so with same-day pick-up still).

At 17:50, knowing that my closest post office (at city 2 shopping centre) closes at 18:00 (17:45 to be more correct as they will close doors 15 minutes before) I head directly to the large post office at De Brouckere.

Bad luck, it also closes at 18:00. Arriving there at 17:55 the security person tells me the office is closed (which is not the problem as such here). I ask where the next open post office would be. He tells me further down Anspachlaan but couldn’t tell me exactly where. On the way back to my bike I see the post box in front of the post office stating 19:00 as last pick-up time. I return to the person at the entrance and ask whether they’d have an automatic vending machine for stamps. He says no and refers me to the press shop on the other side of the street.

The man in the press shop tells me that he doesn’t sell stamp, I would only get them at the post office (and this corresponds with my experience that you can’t buy stamps anywhere else than at post office or post partner). So why does the person at the post office send me to the press shop?

Not knowing where I could find any other open post office with pick-up time later than 18:00 I decide to cycle to the poor-man’s post office at Midi train station. I call it poor-man’s office because it often the last possibility to go for when you need to post something late and despite being located at the largest train station of Belgium it is actually more used by many people from Anderlecht, one of Brussels’ less-rich communes.

I arrive there at 18:12, take a ticket (number 989) and look at the screen. It shows 960. “Only” 29 people in front of me. While ticket systems are actually a really good invention they are so often abused in Belgium.

The number of people is misleading. The real queue is shown on the screen.
The number of people is misleading. The real queue is shown on the screen.

While waiting in the “queue” I discover in a corner a vending machine for stamps. However, the instructions are very clear: the machine sells only stamp per stamp and you need to insert exact cash for each stamp. Money is not returned. Paying with Proton (Belgium’s well-working electronic wallet on bank card)? No way.

After waiting 25 minutes I tell the man behind the counter I’d like 26 stamps for national standard delivery. He tells me that they are only sold per 10. I said this can’t be (knowing that I bought single stamps the day before in another post office) but he insists that I can only get 20 or 30. I decide that I don’t want to spend more time discussing pricing and packaging for my stamps and go for 30 stamps. I return home and note that it took me again 1 hour to post a few letters in Brussels. Having done this before, I was not surprised.

The story above is maybe not super exciting but it clearly shows how bad customer service can become if you have a monopoly (in this case on delivery of letters).

“A monopoly exists when a specific individual or an enterprise has sufficient control over a particular product or service to determine significantly the terms on which other individuals shall have access to it.” (Wikipedia)

I am normally not the one who cries loud for liberalisation of markets but unfortunately I have given up any hope that regulation or political pressure can still improve anything at the Belgian post. The only solution is strong competition via the European Union’s liberalisation route for postal service in Europe. and hopefully nobody needs to go still to the Belgian Post after 2011/2013 (anyone knowing the exact date of liberalisation for Belgium?).

Further questions

  • Why do post office in Belgium close often at 17:00 or 18:00 while many other shops sell until 18:30, 19:00 or even 20:00? Why is there no spread of opening times among neighbouring post offices?
  • Why does it cost 1,25 € or 1,30 € to send a non-standardised 50g letter from Germany or Austria to  Belgium but 2,70 € if you send the same letter from Belgium to those countries?
  • Why is the cheapest rate for European countries for standard letters 90 cent in Belgium, but 70 cent in Germany and France and 65 cent in Austria?
  • Why does it cost minimum 5,70 € (!) to send a registered letter in Belgium? (I spare you the country comparisons)
  • Why can you get Coca Cola, coffee, bread, phone credit, public transport and your money via automatic vending machines but not stamps?
  • Why can’t you buy stamps in any press shop or whoever wants to sell them? (Remember: the post makes the money at moment the stamp is sold, not when you post a letter)
  • Why do Belgian stamps not carry any value (the € amount)?
  • Why is it not possible in Belgium to distinguish a stamp for Belgium from a stamp for Europe? (you have to know the colours)
  • Why is it possible that a post office like the one at Brussels north station is in such a bad shape, smelling like piss, and nobody cares.
  • Why is it possible that management of the post accepts that its clients have to wait often 20-40 minutes before being able to use the services of the post?
  • Why do I have the feeling that Belgian politicians never ever go themselves to a post office?
  • Why is the post allowed to sell gas & electricty, mobile phone contracts and financial services when it can’t even deal properly with its core service clients?
  • Why does nobody care about bad customer service in Belgium?

The most important for me is the waiting time. Could you image a restaurant letting each client wait for 20-40 minutes before coming to their table and would you expect those clients ever coming back to that restaurant?

Please use the comments to le us know what your experiences have had with La Poste in Brussels. I am also interested in other blog or news articles about customer service at the Belgian post (also in FR/NL).

See also: Jon Worth’s simple quest for a postage stamp

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