Cultural differences: how do the Dutch, Americans and Ukrainians treat their clients?

May 28, 2008 — 15 Comments

In my many travels around the world I’m always curious to see how I will be treated in a restaurant. I think if you go to enough eateries and try to see the common aspects of the service, you can tell a lot about the service mindset of the local people. In this blog I will discuss the differences that I have experienced in my quest to understand ‘Why are clients treated that way?’ in the The Netherlands, United States and Ukraine. I hope the blog will also help managers to deal better with issues related to offshoring units in the Ukraine. At the same time I hope that Dutch politicians will see my worries for the Dutch society. Btw, the blog is long, sorry for that.

NL: the client must be treated well, but is definitely not king
Dutch people understand really the art how to trade, how to work in a decent way with people and how to create consensus. I think this is why Dutch people relatively get high ranking posts in international organizations, businesses, NGO’s and governmental organizations. The reason why I say relatively is because The Netherlands only has 16 MLN people. It’s a small country, but very well organized. Some say that it’s too organized. Besides this the country has a strong tourism industry, as they receive over 10 MLN foreign visitors in official hotel accommodations every year, equal to 62,5% of their own population.

The way they usually do business is firstly to care for quality of their product. If we look at a restaurant, then usually the combination of decoration, quality of food and price is accordingly with the environment and pricing. This way they know that they can serve their customers a good product, so probably the customer will not complain too much as the customer will agree to the product / price combination.

And when a customer complaints, then it should be reasonable. This means that a client should not raise their voice too much, should just accept situations / facts that happened beyond their control, should not think that a getting a discount or an upgrade is a normal thing.

I guess the reason why servants can handle in such a way is because they usually have a good feeling about the value of their proposition. And besides this they are paid normally and do not highly depend on tips to get around. So I might say they depend less on customers who do not fit them, but at the same time try to make the fit as good as possible.

This is why many foreigners often are disappointed when they think a complaint will help to get more discount or an upgrade. It’s rather the other way around, the friendlier / decent a customer is the better the service is. But I’m quite sure that comments of customers are well appreciated and will be used to improve the service or the product, as this is what they care for. A benefit is that you will usually get the same pricing rules for the same product, who ever you are. And usually you will be satisfied because the Dutch understand that a clients expectation should be managed.

US: We appreciate your business!
In my last trip to Las Vegas I heard the CEO of Continental Airlines expressing the words ‘We appreciate your business’ in the promotion movie. And this message was consistently used at the beginning and ending of the flight. I guess that’s what Americans really understand well, do do business. The US is the country where dreams can become true, where a nobody can become a somebody, where you can really live it large, where you are respected if you are successful. This is the country where having 5-15 vacation days a year is very normal, where you have to pay then thousands of dollars each year to get a good education, where having 2 or 3 jobs at the same time is normal. Americans have this mentality to really do BUSINESS. I guess this is a reason why in comparison with the Anglo-Saxon economy, relatively a lot more companies get IPO in the US. In the US you have to take care of your own! If you’re not a millionaire, having no work is NOT an option. This is why they have such a low unemployment rate (4,8 % in Feb. 2008 ) for such a big country, EU-7,1% / FR-7,9% / NL-4,1% / UK – 5,2% / China-4,2%.

In the US MBA students must write business plans that forecasts hundreds of millions of turnover, preferably billions of turnover. And if you do decide to turn in a business plan with only tens of millions of turnover, be prepared to be not taken seriously. Doing business in America is about taking huge risks and getting big profits. Such mentality can lead to big great wealth, but doesn’t favor stability as the credit crisis has shown so painfully.

So when you get to a diner or restaurant in the US, waitresses / waiters understand very clearly that they have to get your business. It’s very common that approximately (or should I say at least) 15% should be paid for gratuity. This means that waiters / waitresses still heavily depend on tips to get a decent salary. This concept is communicated quite clear and my friends in the US always make sure that I leave 15% on the table. Only when I’m really dissatisfied, I can leave 10%.

So it’s logic that you will encounter a very friendly waiter or waitress. They are usually very informative and usually don’t keep you waiting for a long time to get you the first drinks. At the same time they’re quite sure when you’ve finished diner, as they usually automatically present you the bill after the last round of coffee. And in between you can be quite sure that will they check up on you to see how your drinks are and when you have a soft-drink you’ll usually get a refill.

This kind of mentality does give space for discounts and upgrades when a service or a product was not as good as it should have been. Complaining and asking for a persons name does help to get better treatment. As for the value of your complaint, I guess it also depends on whether you’re a regular or not, whether you bring back more business or not.

UA: what does the client do for me?
Ukraine is one of those former Soviet countries that is rising. But as they were dominated for so long by a communist regime you can still feel the ‘Russian mentality’ where people complain and do not trust the government. Paying taxes is a bad thing, as it usually and still goes into the pocket of politicians. And without taxes and politicians who know how to handle money to care for the people, infrastructure and society people really have to take care of their own. This is why paying a bribe to a police officer is so normal in Ukraine, because then the question ‘What’s in it for me?’ is answered very clearly; less paper work and hassle with the government. So its quite logically for Ukrainians to be skeptic about what the other people do for them (their government) before they do something back (pay taxes). But once a Ukrainian understand ‘What’s in it for me’, then a great potential can be unleashed.

The difference between rich and poor is HUGE when you compare the contrast between the big city of Kiev with it’s decadent center and the people who live 50 kms outside of Kiev and have to live with less than 200 dollars a month. But people with guts, dedication and willing to take huge risks have a big chance to achieve greatness. Even between different working class the difference is already too big, an average waitress in a restaurant earns 200 – 400 dollars, an average IT worker earns between 1000 – 3000 dollars (nett). And even with these kind of salaries, the average IT worker switches very easily for a better paycheck.

In the Ukraine it’s quite common that in an average restaurant you will have to wait long before you get your order and usually it doesn’t come at the same time. The logistics in the Ukrainian kitchen is usually not developed enough to have all table guests enjoy the same course at the same time. With the increasing business presence it is improving, but in general Ukrainians do not really care about it. Even in Japanese restaurants you can easily get your hot dishes before you get your maki roll. As for the waitresses in a normal Ukrainian restaurant, they’ll serve you but not often with a smile. This is different when you go in the expensive places where an average night out / diner will cost you the same as in Europe and will cost you definitely more than in the US. But don’t be surprised if your tip should be at least 10 dollars.

Complaining, discounts, you’ll probably won’t have any luck in getting a decent discussion about it. For just a few hundreds dollars a month, how much should they care for your business? Probably the bosses get most of the money and 50% of profits, but the average waitress who serves doesn’t. And complaining or asking for discount in the expensive places only works if you’ve spent big bucks, but then you will get it always. In one of the more expensive places you will get automatic discount cards for 10% or even 15% when your bill exceeded a few hundred dollars. In the best clubs your bill has to exceed 800 or 1000 dollars to get that card.

So in the Ukraine I guess it depends on who you’re dealing with:

  • the person that still has to survive with a few hundreds of dollars a month, who logically doesn’t see the clear benefits of a better product or a better service.
  • the person who is in reach of at least 1000 dollars a month and understand that there is more to get, who usually also thinks it’s also easy to get to 2000 or even more.

The first group is still struggling to survive and has not yet had the chance to get a decent salary and thus has less time to think about the well being of their clients. The last group is probably earning 3-4 times more than their parents were earning at their ages and unrealistically thinks it’s easy to earn 10 times more. So find the young and hard working Ukrainians, but be aware that they are very opportunistic.

The pros and cons

The Dutch way to manage things properly
Personally I like the decent approach from the Dutch, where over the long term things will steadily improve and are properly managed. The product is good and gets better, but the client’s perception will also improve. The better you manage the expectation of the client, the less work you have to fix your product to get their satisfaction. This is why Dutch banks weren’t making big bucks a few years ago, but with the current credit crisis can easily keep on going without having to sack thousands of people. Even when Dutch experts were contracted to rebuild dams for New Orleans after Catharina, the Americans wanted everything fast and to last 10 – 15 years. In the Netherlands they take more time to build the dams, but then again they want everything to last 100 – 150 years.

But the negative side effect of this controlled way can take the edge out of things and can make people feel too safe and care less about the product. This is the reason why in The Netherlands many people just don’t care to work, because the employment and social legislation will take care of them. That’s why talented people, who pay 50-60% of income tax, either think that they should not work a lot harder or think they should move to another country to work harder. This combination worries me, because the increasing wealth of the Dutch society makes people feel more safe and more lazy. In The Netherlands people find it normal work 32 or 36 hours a week and to get 25 or even 30 vacation days. Imho this is too much on the relaxing side of life.

The American entrepreneurial spirit
I would like to see more combination with the American spirit where people who have success are more appreciated and where bankruptcy is considered as a valuable learning lesson. A good entrepreneurial spirit will benefit any society. This is now becoming more visible in The Netherlands as more and more professionals are becoming a freelancer, a move that in my opinion will benefit society. If only the banks, insurance companies and the government would just really appreciate this group of people who are willing to take more risks and to work harder. They usually depend less on the checkbook of the state. Personally I faced a bankruptcy in The Netherlands and the government only made it more difficult for me to take a big share in Componence. I’m happy I found a way to circumvent it.

But with the riches and great chances in the US there are so many people have to work 80 – 100 hours a week in America, to just pay the basics of life. Why should we work so hard to have so little time to enjoy life? Having 5-10 days of vacation days is just not good enough to enjoy life. And why can the richest country in the world have such cheap food prices, but at the same time so many homeless people who cannot afford a daily meal? What’s the worth of a society when Veterans are treated in the cheapest hospitals?

The bold Ukrainian mentality
In the Ukraine you can find many young dedicated people who really want to work hard to please you. But don’t expect they will just say ‘Yes, we will’, but will give a good discussion to find out what the best way is. The only question is if you as client can handle such criticism and understand that you can get better results through it. The fact that many Ukrainians think they can achieve so much can be good for the productivity and development of any company. It’s definitely refreshing when you compare it sometimes with the average Dutch mentality of workers who are just satisfied with the way things are and are comfortable with the 9-5 working hours.

But you first have to get there with the people, this means that you have to get them to a decent level of salary. And when you get there, as soon as possible let them see that getting more money is not that easy. Let them understand who the client is, how hard it is to control the satisfaction of a client, how valuable a client is. And when they get it and the your person is ambitious, you can be quite sure that you will get the right support to get things done. Just make sure that you are aware the risk assessment capacities of the person in question, they tend to overrate themselves. So do not be afraid to invest into an ambitious Ukrainian, just make sure that the performance requirements are set, evaluated and met. And if possible try to make them care for others, for their society, as this is the biggest challenge of Ukraine. Just imagine what all the wealth of the richest Ukrainians and the boldness of all Ukrainians can do for their society …

But all in all I believe in the statement in Covey’s book of 7 habits: “Treat your people like you want them to treat your best clients“. This way you can get any person of any culture to understand how you want them to treat your clients.

PS: I didn’t include a comparison of Indians in here, because I simply know that the Indian culture is very diverse and I need to visit India a lot more to even try to make some conclusions.


15 responses to Cultural differences: how do the Dutch, Americans and Ukrainians treat their clients?

    Alexander Arendar June 2, 2008 at 10:30 am

    Really nice article Ha.
    It is not about restaurants off course, it’s about way of how people live their life 🙂
    I must admit that while being at NL I have never felt like to make any complaints at any place. Maybe that is just because NL services are really much more elaborated and of higher quality then in UA.
    I’m sure also that 50 hours per week should be enough for anyone to cover his basic needs. That doesn’t mean that all other 118 hours one needs to “have fun”. Work and self-development, education and other stuff are a bit different things. And there is also your HEALTH, comfort, harmony, etc. So it’s really a pity that some people need to work out 80-100 hours per week, that is just not a life.
    Also we Ukrainians really need to learn how to treat clients. “Client” as a concept is quite a new thing in post-soviet countries so it needs a certain effort to understand and accept.
    Hope to see some new articles from you soon.


    more imformation can be given regarding impact of cutural differences on product sold internationally

    Maksym Popovych November 9, 2008 at 1:15 pm

    I’m Ukrainian, and although, I’m supposed to start protecting my culture, I won’t. I currently live in the USA and I travelled throughout Europe a lot, so that I understand everything that aurthor of the paragraph included. Moreover, I agree to expressed points of view.


    Really nice article, I found a lot of truth in it: I’m ukrainian, but I’m studying in the USA now, and the difference between people in both countries is very noticeable. Yes, Ukrainians are grumpy comparing to lovely and easy-going americans, but there’s the reason – we’re poorer. If in the USA a simple mail carrier earns $1000 a month, in Ukraine he will be close to homeless person with salay not more than $180. Wouldn’t YOU be unhappy if you’re poor and the Government cares only about its pocket? But anyway I will never want to live in the rich America. In Ukraine people are much more guesful and helpful, we understand and help, that’s what I like the most. So even if the waitress in Ukraine will never smile to you – don’t percieve it like a sin or a crime, it’s a part of our being…


    I am from Ukraine and I want to say that author just expressed his personal view at Ukraine which isfar from reality. And the comment about if you go to a good redtaurant in Ukraine the proces go up to European…well.. what did you expect? good service for cheap prices?? i wonder where in the worl you get a good servie for little money? I don’t even think in Africa….btw the salaries that arementioned in the article are not remotly close to the salaries pople really get. And the last thing how can you really compare NL US and UA?? it doest make any sence


    Your section on the Pro’s and Cons is 100% ACCURATE.
    I lived there for 28 years and as far as I am concerned it was 22 years too long!
    I ate out in restaurants 2-3 times a week and can say that on the whole the service stinks!
    They don’t get tips so they don’t care whether you really enjoyed the meal or not and YES you are SO RIGHT – in NL the client is anything but king!
    I fled The Netherlands finding it stiffling for small business-owners like myself. The over taxation, over-brureacracy, rules, regulations and fines was just too much for me to bear any longer.
    The Netherlands is a BIG BROTHER state and I was having no more to do with it.
    I am about to declare bankrupt in NL where I have 3 companies.
    I am now a permanent citizen of the US.
    Can the dutch authorities touch me here in the US and force me to play by dutch law.
    Q. Does Dutch bankruptcy law have any jurisdiction in the US.
    Q. Do I have to declare bankrupt – I have no possession or money in The Netherlands at all.
    Your comments and tipes are welcome.


      Hi Peter,
      Thnx for the kind reply 🙂

      It depends on the sum of money I guess. Bankruptcy is a situation where a certain lawyer will decide if they will hold the owner personally responsible or not. If they can’t find you, then they might have a judge rule that you should pay a fine or something like that. In the worst case if the Belastingdienst or UWV still have a claim, then that can become a crime issue. But still, I don’t think they will chase you where ever you are. But I’m not sure what will happen if you come back to NL …

      Again, it depends on the sum. If it’s a less than 100Ks … I don’t think a lot will be done. I have heard of entrepreneurs who had 20-30K of debt to Belastingdienst, layed low for years … nothing really happened.

      But I’m not an expert, just a Dutch entrepreneur. Things are going bad for me now as well, but I still want to pay my taxes when I can. NL has a lot of good things also 😉

      Bye, Ha


    ‘In The Netherlands people find it normal work 32 or 36 hours a week and to get 25 or even 30 vacation days. Imho this is too much on the relaxing side of life’

    Is it to much?? really ?? Why work if you can enjoy life. Your missing the whole point Dutch people work to life and do it in a stable way unlike the southern europeans see greece, spain etc. And also you forgot to mention that even though 36-40 is very normal and we often get 25 days off the productivity is among the highest in the world. So if we can get more done in a fewer hours why not take a longer break ;).

    ‘that’s why talented people, who pay 50-60% of income tax, either think that they should not work a lot harder or think they should move to another country to work harder. ‘

    If you are getting any where near the 50% taxes you don’t have to worry about anything. And like i said productivity is among the highest in the world, low unemployment and why people are moving to other countries is because of the Dutch entrepreneurial spirit and the enjoyment of freedom and traveling. That is why i am currently in the UK ;).

    To make a long story short, Why do you life? It think we Dutchies 😉 have a very Utilitarian few of the world and our lives and we should do anything for our happiness. Therefore work is not our life it is only there to support our lives. Maybe the population in other countries are trying to show off how hard they work to much or do not have the ability to think about it since they have a struggle getting their basic needs.


      Hi Jobhopper,

      Thnx for the reply. I would say that we should live our life to make sense out of any moment, also when we are at work. But working 36 hours per week, why should I if I love what I’m doing at ‘work’? And in the current situation and the economic outlook for the coming 10-20 years I think Netherlands needs all Dutch to understand that we’re not that rich anymore. And the world has changed in such a way that we Dutch need to work a lot harder to keep our special place in the economic world order.

      Besides all this I believe that the Dutch have the opportunity to find jobs that can really matter and they don’t need to work for bosses who they don’t really like to follow. Such luxury is less available in other countries, especially in developing countries like Ukraine where the average income is still 400 – 600 USD per month?

      Again, thank you for giving your comment on my blog!


    I call Ukraine. “THE CITY THAT NEVER SMILES”. It has to be one of the most unfriendliest places in the world. No one smiles there and everyone is cold like the weather. Out of the two weeks, I stayed only 4 people smiles. Its like the whole culture has forgotten how to smile. Not even in Russia did I have this problem. Dont get me wrong. Ukraine has is extremely beautiful and has a rich culture, but I guess communism and the fact that the holocaust that happened their with the Russians took the life blood out of their souls.


      Honestly I must say that I haven’t been visiting Ukraine so much in the past few years, but you might be right that on the surface there seems not to be so many reasons for people to smile. But on the other side I do remember Ukrainians taking more time to spend quality time with each other in natural surroundings, at least a lot more than here in Netherlands. And in such environments I feel that Ukrainians are more in touch with what is important in life and can find more happiness in the basic elements of life than the Dutch. The average Dutch has so much more than the average Ukrainian, but happiness is not multiplied by the same factor.


      There are economical reasons of course, people are worried how to make a living. Maybe young generation will change this soon.


        I definitely agree with you, but I think there is also much more than economy. The Soviet Union took from people the religion and people have no higher goals left.


        I personally feel that the young generation tried to change things in the ‘Orange revolution’, but too bad the government betrayed that trust … I see a lot of young people taking the chances in life and are doing very well, especially in the IT field I see young people making a lot of money. But I fear that as long as the government does not earn & receive the trust from it’s people, it will be hard for Ukraine to spread the prosperity more broadly amongst it’s people.

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