Broken windows, broken business

Do you have any broken windows in your business?

When he was mayor of New York, Rudy Giuliani adopted an aggressive approach to law enforcement, focusing on what would once have been considered minor offences such as graffiti and fare evasion. The idea was that by focusing on the lesser crimes, a message would be sent that criminal behaviour—whatever sort—would not be tolerated.

Giuliani’s strategy bore fruit. Crime rates in New York dropped faster than in any other major city in the country.

Giuliani instituted an approach to policing that was based on a theory developed by two criminologists in the early 1980s. In his 2000 book Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell describes the broken window theory as follows: “…crime is the inevitable result of disorder. If a window is broken and left unrepaired, people walking by will conclude that no one cares and no one is in charge. Soon, more windows will be broken, and the sense of anarchy will spread from the building to the street on which it faces, sending a signal that anything goes.”

Law enforcement under the broken window theory asserts that each offence should be treated equally—jaywalking and murder should be prosecuted with equal fervour. It is a doctrine of consistency.

More recently, Michael Levine, in his book Broken Windows, Broken Business, applies the broken window theory to business. In the context of a business, a broken window results from a lack of attention to detail.

A broken window can be anything in your business. It could be a messy sales counter. It could be a surly or listless employee. It could be your hold music, which tells customers that they are “valued and important” and then keeps them on hold for a further forty minutes. It could be a peeling paint job or the worn carpet on your floors.

A broken window is anything that is sub-par that a customer might notice. The problem is that customers will infer something else about your business from that broken window.

A customer in a fast food restaurant with a messy counter may ask questions about the cleanliness of the food preparation areas. A customer at a mechanic dealing with a surly and disinterested employee would be entitled to ask how much effort is going to go into diagnosing and repairing their car. A customer of a financial institution on hold for forty minutes may question the value that institution places on their customers.

Those questions lead to more questions, and eventually, they will lead to defections. Even worse, the majority of your customers who have a problem won’t even bother telling you what that problem was – they will just go and buy from your competitors. You may never know what is driving your customers away.

Over the next four weeks, I will be examining the broken window theory in the context of different levels of business. We will take a look at broken windows at floor-level, line management level, middle management level, and senior management level. The broken windows that occur at each level have different characteristics and different solutions.

The most important thing, however, is to pay attention to your own business and work out what broken windows a customer might notice. Here are some questions for you to think about before next week’s article.

At the floor level, is information on your products and services easily available to customers. Whether you communicate via a website, in person, through advertising or over the phone, customers need to be able to find the information they’re searching for quickly and easily.

At line management level, are your line managers aware of the importance of simple things like grooming (for business conducted face-to-face), greetings (for business conducted over the telephone), and quick turnaround on emails (for business conducted over the web)?

At middle management level, does your performance management system drive behaviours that are congruent with your declared business strategy? Failing to align your performance management system to your business strategy will at best result in your managers facing dilemmas about whether to act in the best interest of the organisation, or the best interest of their careers.

At senior management level, are your marketing tactics designed to feed directly into your sales process? When marketing tactics fail to either accurately qualify leads (for a business-to-business environment) or set up appropriate expectations (when marketing to consumers), confusion and dissatisfaction are the usual results.

You never know when a customer will walk away from your business because of the broken windows you didn’t see.


Want more?

Other articles in this series:

Comments are closed.