When is a dirty bathroom a broken window? This question could govern your success or failure. Answer that question properly—and use that answer as a guiding light—and your business could dominate its competition forever. Ignore the answer, and you will soon reprove your business to failure.
The “broken windows” philosophy was first set forth by criminologists James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling, deliberating on petty criminal acts like graffiti, purse snatching, or jay walking, and how they can lead to larger crimes such as murder. Something as small as a broken window sends a signal to those who pass by every day. That means more serious breaches—theft, defacement, violent crime—might be overlooked in this area.
If a window in a building is broken and left unrepaired, all other windows will soon be broken since people perceive that the owner of this building and the community around it don’t care if this window is broken: They have given up; disorder reigns here. Do as you will, because nobody cares.
Broken Windows in Business
That same theory applies to the world of business. If the restroom is out of toilet paper, it gestures that management isn’t paying attention to the needs of its people. Perceptions are a vital part of every business, and if a retailer, service provider, or company sends signals that its approach is lackadaisical, its methods halfhearted, and its execution indifferent, the business could suffer severe—and in some cases, irreparable-losses.
When broken windows are ignored, fatal consequences can result. Small things make a huge difference. A messy reception area might lead customers to believe that the company doesn’t care about cleanliness or quality. We all bear some responsibility to stand up for what we want and have every right to expect from a company to which we give our hard-earned money. In a capitalist society, we assume that a company will do its best to fulfill the desires of its customers. If the company sees sales slipping but doesn’t have data from consumers as to what made them decrease their spending, the company will not know what to fix.
Still, businesses that don’t notice and repair their broken windows should not simply be forgiven because their consumers don’t make a fuss. Leaders are responsible to tend their own house—and the time to repair broken windows is the minute they occur.
Prevent Broken Windows
Since small things can snowball into large problems, smart owners prevent broken windows at—or before—the first sign of trouble.
In a business, the broken windows can be literal or metaphorical. Sometimes a broken window really is a broken window, and a new pane of glass needs to be installed quickly. However, most of the time, broken windows are the little details, the tiny flaws, the overlooked minutiae that signal much larger problems either already in place or about to become reality.
Companies that fail to notice and repair their broken windows suffer greatly. Those that attend to every potentially broken window win.
People want to feel that the businesses that they work for and those they buy from care about what they want. Consumers are looking for businesses that anticipate and fulfill their needs and do so in a way that makes it clear the business understands the consumers’ needs or wants and is doing its best to see them satisfied.
Broken windows indicate to the consumer that the business doesn’t care—either that it is so poorly run it can’t possibly keep up with its obligations, or that it has become so oversized and arrogant that it no longer cares about its core consumer. Either of these impressions can be deadly.
Tiny details—the smaller, the more important—can make a big difference in success or failure. A broken window can be a sloppy counter, poorly located sale item, randomly organized menu, or an employee with a bad attitude. It can be physical, like a flaking paint job, or symbolic, like a policy that requires consumers to pay for customer service.
The Broken Windows Pledge
Broken windows are everywhere, except at the best businesses. I invite you to take the Broken Windows for Business Pledge. It’s a serious statement outlining the tenets of the broken windows for business theory.
- You can pay attention to every detail.
- You can correct any broken windows I find in my business, and you can do so immediately, with no hesitation.
- You can screen, hire, train, and supervise my people to notice and correct broken windows as soon as possible.
- You can treat each customer like the only customer my business has. You can be on constant vigil for signs of Broken Windows Hubris and never assume my business is invulnerable.
- You can mystery shop my own business to discover broken windows.
- You can make sure every customer who encounters my business is met with courtesy, efficiency, and a smile.
- You can exceed customer expectations.
- You can make a positive first impression and assume that every impression is a first impression.
- You can make sure that my online and telephone customer service reps solve a customer’s problem perfectly the first time.
- You can be obsessive and compulsive when it comes to my business.
If you live up to the promises in the pledge and make them second nature, you will discover your business—and your life—running more smoothly than ever before. You will never look at a broken window-or an unbroken one—the same way again.