Business development · 29 March 2016

Being too hip to care might be your excuse for bad customer service now, but what about when the cool kids move on?

Don't think you can get away with icy customer service just because your brand is cool
Don’t think you can get away with icy customer service just because your brand is cool

Reykjavik has a lot in common with tech giant Apple and ailing retailer American Apparel – and not in a good way. Small business owners should take note.

Iceland’s capital city is undoubtedly one of the hipster hotspots of the world. It has an ironic London Underground themed nightclub that’s harder to get into than The Box, an indie movie named after one of its postcode districts, and plenty of beards. But in spite of this – or perhaps because of it – the city’s vibe is characterised by slow, arrogant service, and a lack of willingness by staff to apologise.

When I visited over the Easter bank holiday weekend, this obviously wasn’t doing the city’s many small businesses any harm. Bars were buzzing until 4.30am and hotels were fully booked, while gift shops did a roaring trade in volcanic salt and small-batch gin. But tourism in Iceland is still very much in its early days. It took a back seat role in Iceland’s economic growth until the country’s financial crisis, after which visitor numbers started rising and have doubled since 2010. So in many ways the capital’s thriving hipster economy is a bit a like a trendy young company building a reputation based on being too cool to care about customer service.

In this respect the owners of Iceland’s small firms are in good company. For much of the last decade, being too cool to cater to customers has characterised Apple’s approach to service too. When customers complained in 2010 about an antennae problem with the iPhone, the official response was to tell them they were holding the handset in an inappropriate way. So much for “the customer is always right”.

But just because a minority of big firms are managing to pull it off, that doesn’t mean that emulating this approach to customer service is a good idea. Your micro business might attract bearded students, but it probably isn’t as cool as Apple. And while locals might flock to your business for the the vibe in spite of the service, rudeness simply doesn’t scale.

American Apparel should serve as a warning to micro business owners tempted to go for this strategy. Cool for a decade despite the famed nonchalance of its scantily-clad staff, the firm – which selects staff on the basis of looks rather than customer service skills – has twice gone bankrupt and had to bailed-out in the last two years. Part of the problem is that its hipster customers lost interest and, inevitably, moved on.

Reykjavik is a beautiful, vibrant city in spite of its attitude problem, and I hope it doesn’t go the way of the troubled retailer any time soon. But if if you think your bad customer service can be hidden behind ginger beards and ironic baseball caps, then it’s time to reconsider.

For inspiration about how to shun pretentiousness and win customers over, check out this interview with the owner of Britain’s best coffee shop.

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Hannah Wilkinson is a reporter for Business Advice. She studied economics and management at Oxford University and prior to joining Business Advice wrote for Kensington and Chelsea Today about business and economics – as well as running a tutoring company.

Business development