Thursday, August 29, 2013

Have You Fixed Your Broken Windows?

Image courtesy of Pixabay
Have you heard of the Broken Windows Theory? If so, do you have any broken windows in your company?

Don't know what the Broken Windows Theory is? It's a hotly-debated theory in criminology that, in short, states that if a community tolerates minor crimes, e.g., broken windows, graffiti, or turnstile jumping, more and larger crimes will likely ensue.

Give them an inch, and they'll take a mile.

I know, I know. Every once in a while, I bring up something odd, and you sit there asking yourself, "What has she gotten herself into now?" Bear with me. This is a good one.

First, the story behind this concept. It was first introduced by two social scientists (James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling are their names, in case you want to check them out) in an article appropriately titled "Broken Windows." In the article, they gave this example to explain their theory:

Consider a building with a few broken windows. If the windows are not repaired, the tendency is for vandals to break a few more windows. Eventually, they may even break into the building, and if it's unoccupied, perhaps become squatters or light fires inside. Or consider a pavement. Some litter accumulates. Soon, more litter accumulates. Eventually, people even start leaving bags of refuse from take-out restaurants there or even break into cars.

From the Wikipedia page about Broken Windows Theory:

Under the broken windows theory, an ordered and clean environment – one which is maintained – sends the signal that the area is monitored and that criminal behavior will not be tolerated. Conversely, a disordered environment – one which is not maintained (broken windows, graffiti, excessive litter) – sends the signal that the area is not monitored and that one can engage in criminal behavior with little risk of detection.

It reminds me of that one bit of yarn on your sweater that needs to be tied off before the entire garment unravels.

You might be starting to see where I'm going with this. What if we took that paragraph and put it into customer experience terms? (You can apply the same thought process for the employee experience, as well.)

An ordered and clean environment – one that is monitored and maintained – sends the signal that the customer is important and central to the business and that a poor customer experience will not be tolerated. Conversely, a disordered environment – one that is not monitored and maintained (rude staff, dirty bathrooms, long wait times) – sends the signal that the customer is not important and that one can have a bad experience with little risk of detection.

I think there are a few customer experience lessons here:
  • Don't ignore the small things.
  • Customers see and remember the small things.
  • The small things may not be "just small things" to your customers.
  • Fix the small things before they become big things.
  • The details matter. It's all about the details.
  • Everything you do (or don't do) signals the customer about where your priorities lie.
  • Monitor your customer interactions. Listen to customers. Act on their feedback.
A customer-focused and customer-centric culture is really a series of little things, all done well, all done right. A series of little things, all done right, sounds like consistency to me. Consistency leads to trust. And trust is a crucial part of the relationship your customers have with you, and vice versa.

Don't tolerate broken windows. Fix them - before the entire building collapses.

If the camel once gets his nose in the tent, his body will soon follow. -Arabian proverb


  1. Great insight Annette. Malcolm Gladwell made a similar analysis using this theory in "The Tipping Point." He wrote about how NYC made inroads on major crimes by paying attention to the petty ones. If a subway car came in with graffiti, it wasn't put back into service until it was cleaned. If someone jumped a subway turnstile, they were arrested.
    Little things can make a big difference. Imagine if you were proactive, instead of reactive with the "little things". Chick-fil-A is a company that differentiates itself through the small stuff.

    1. Thanks, Stan. Thanks for mention Malcolm Gladwell's analysis. I meant to mention his use/analysis of this theory. I really think there's something to this concept. And thanks for sharing your post on Chick-fil-A. Great examples of the little things.

      Annette :-)

  2. Annette I guess it has an impact on staff and culture. If they think it is OK to be sloppy then sloppyness is what you will get.

    A little like having children perhaps?


    1. Ha! James... great analogy. Exactly like that.

      Annette :-)

  3. Hi Annette,
    This is a great insight and one that I completely agree with. Taking care of the small things can have the biggest and earliest impact and allows us to build a platform upon which we can build bigger and better things.



    1. Thanks, Adrian. More evidence that we are kindred spirits. :-)

      Annette :-)