Can the "Broken Window Theory" Help You Win Customers?

In his book The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell introduced the masses to a criminology theory first introduced in 1982 by James Wilson and George Kelling. Their theory, called the "Broken Window Theory", states that "monitoring and maintaining urban environments in a well-ordered condition may stop additional vandalism as well as the escalation into more serious crimes".

In layman's terms, the theory is based on the premise that areas which are neglected are viewed by society as having less importance than areas which are maintained appropriately. An individual, who is walking by a building which has a broken window, is more apt to break another window in this building than the individual is to break a window in a building without any broken windows. By repairing the damage to the structure before other damage can occur, the building owner, or society, can prevent further destruction to this entity.

Gladwell introduced us to how this theory was used to help clean up New York City in the 1980's. In his book, Gladwell traces the implementation of this theory to first combat the issue of graffiti on subway trains, then later to combat fare-dodging in the subways. After his election to office in the 1990's, Mayor Rudy Giuliani then utilized this same theory as the basis of his "zero-tolerance" and "quality of life" initiatives used to clean up subway platforms and stations, Penn Station, and eventually, Lower Manhattan. While the implementation of this theory was not the sole cause of the success of the programs described in The Tipping Point, it was certainly a contributing factor.

So the question arises, can this theory be used to help shape performance standards, or can it just be used on more wide scale societal breakdowns? Charter schools have used a derivative of this theory for years in addressing unwanted behaviors. Their use of strict regulations and codes to address everything from proper language, personal appearance, required behaviors and classroom etiquette are aimed at reducing the amount of disorder in a classroom. Deviations from the expected norms don't just draw the ire of teachers, but also cause a certain level of ostracism from peers.

The implications of applying the spirit of this theory into your business are quite numerous. Clearly, setting up strict consequences for your customers who deviate from your expectations would put you out of business in a hurry. And for most business owners, going broke is not the goal.

The same catastrophic result could result for businesses that set up strict etiquette and behavior standards for their employees. Stifling creativity, ingenuity and the personal connections between your business, your employees and your customers would cost the owner dearly.

The middle ground lies in the maintenance of your business. Setting standards of behavior, dress codes, customer service guidelines, maintaining the physical appearance of your business and ensuring all safety issues are quickly resolved are but some of the ways this theory can help you build a positive reputation. Specifically, here are seven ways to implement Broken Windows Theory into your business to win over customers:

Define the dress standards: regardless of whether or not you issue uniforms or work clothes, defining acceptable appearance, hygiene and dress standards for your employees will build trust from your customers that your employees are professional in their approach to work. After all, that is why so many people wear suits to work instead of shorts and a t-shirt.

Standardize phone etiquette: your employees are not answering their personal phone. A proper greeting can set the tone of winning the trust from a customer. Identifying themselves by name, including the name of the business and thanking the caller for calling demonstrate a level of commitment that can't be conveyed in a simple "hello".

Seek out customer contact: especially true if you have a brick and mortar business where customers come to you. Nothing tells a customer "I don't care about your business" as loudly as being ignored by employees.

Smile: Harvard University conducted a 20 year study to determine the effects of happiness and smiling and found that both happiness and smiling are contagious. Not only will smiling while on the phone, talking with customers, and working with peers impact the perceived quality of the interaction, it will also impact the actual quality of the interaction. Compared to the lack of quality and perceived quality created by frowning, smiling is a great way to ensure your customers view your business in a positive light.

Maintain the physical appearance of your business: when you walk into a business, whether it is a retail store, a grocery store, a gym or a dry cleaner, appearance of the store counts. People buy more, stay longer, come back more often and recommend your business to others when it is clean and well maintained. High-end department stores don't put all that money in ambience just because they like nice things. They do it because it reflects on the quality of the business.

Pick up after everyone: want to see the Broken Window Theory in action? Go to any national brand clothing store on Black Friday. Stores that spend the time and money to recover their sales floor and maintain a neater environment are consistently thought of top-of-mind of where to shop compared to stores who let everything pile up on tables, in fitting rooms and on the floor.

Be courteous: if you have customers, every once in a while, you will find a customer who is disappointed in something to do with your business. Handling these customer interactions with politeness, empathy and promptness will give your customers the feeling that you care. Treating these individuals as just a number or as a nuisance, will greatly enhance the probability this customer will badmouth you and your company to others. After all, everyone can build a brand in good times, but how you behave in difficult times is what really defines your business.

So the next time you walk by a building with a broken window, pay attention to what you are thinking. And the next time you experience a breakdown of service, ask yourself "how can I make sure not to break that window at my business".