Does Your Business Have Any 'Broken Windows?'

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You may have heard of the "broken windows" theory, but probably in connection with politics and law enforcement. Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani famously employed this philosophy in the 1990s to clean up his city.

The basic idea of broken windows, which was first introduced by George L. Kelling and James Q. Wilson in The Atlantic in 1982, is that if you let the little problems slip, like broken windows, vandalism and rampant graffiti, bigger problems eventually become insurmountable. Ignoring tiny errors or mistakes, invites ambivalence to much larger problems!

Some years later author Michael Levine adapted the theory to the business world in his book, Broken Windows, Broken Business: How the Smallest Remedies Reap the Biggest Rewards. His take was that if you let the little things degrade in your operation, particularly how you treat your customers, it will eventually impact the entire company.

When problems go unaddressed, they tend to repeat themselves. Soon a mistake becomes standard operating procedure. That sets the bar even lower for other areas of your operations. Employees start to take less pride in what they do, impacting productivity and morale. Clients notice they aren’t getting the level of customer service they’re accustomed to, and begin to look for other partnerships.

Say you're walking by a restaurant and you're hungry. You notice the windows are so dirty you can hardly see inside. Would you want to go in? Or you do enter and notice there is flaking paint and chipped plaster on the walls near the cooking area. Does the grumbling in your stomach suddenly stop?

Even though these things may have no impact on the quality of the meal you receive, they send a signal to customers -- that management doesn’t care about the details and makes you wonder what else are they cutting short and ignoring a commitment to quality.

Transfer the example to a professional office setting. Is the carpet in the reception area worn? Is there nobody manning the front desk, or the person there seems disengaged and bored? Do your employees dress and behave in a professional manner? When people call your office, are they put on hold for long periods with an automated message telling them, “Your call is very important to us?”

If you are the owner or manager of a business, you have to take on an almost obsessive-compulsive personality when it comes to how the organization runs on a daily basis. You must manage the organization in a very meticulous, deliberate way so that any problems are quickly discovered and addressed.

Take the initiative to see your company from the perspective of a current or potential customer. Are they getting the experience they want from the engagement? Are there shortcomings, even minor ones that could be remedied to improve how they view your organization and their overall experience in interacting with your company?

The best way to determine how people see your business is to ask your customers. Reach out to them for feedback from time to time, and ask them to report flaws in what you do. Invite constructive criticism—to make your operation BETTER!! Some industries even use secret shoppers or other monitoring services to report back with unfiltered information you can use.

We can apply the broken windows idea to virtually every aspect of a business. Is your website up to date and easy to use on every platform? Is it simple for people to find and contact your company? Is the method for receiving incoming inquiries monitored constantly and professionally?

In finding the little flaws in your business – and keeping them from becoming big ones - the secret is to think about the type of brand you want to build for your organization, and then work to make it reality. Envision the customer service experience you want your customers to have, then find out if that’s what they are actually getting. As the owner-- it is OK to be OCD about customer service and your customer’s experience!!

If you find there are any broken windows in your business, even teeny cracks the customer can't yet see, fix them quickly before they become the new normal. Duct tape may keep the glass from shattering, but replacement allows the customer to enjoy the experience.

Tom Sponsel is managing partner of Sponsel CPA Group.

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