Broken Windows, Broken Business: How the Smallest Remedies Reap the Biggest Rewards

by Michael Levine

Broken windows theory came up in a recent conversation. The person I was speaking with said he read the book, but it quickly became apparent that we were talking about two different books. I was talking about Fixing Broken Windows, a book about crime control which I have previously reviewed. He was talking about Broken Windows, Broken Business, which takes the premise of the crime theory and applies to it business.

“Wilson and Kelling suggested that a ‘broken window—any small indication that something is amiss and not being repaired—can lead to much larger problems. It sends signals, they said, that the bad guys are in charge here; no one cares about maintaining some kind of order, and anyone who wishes to take advantage of that situation would be unopposed. It leads to lawlessness, a kind of anarchy by neglect.”

“That same theory is applicable to the world of business… Certainly, the perception of the average consumer is a vital part of every business.”

“It starts, clearly, with something as seemingly insignificant as an inadequate supply of toys to go with Happy Meals, the prepackaged product aimed at young children. Because McDonald’s does a great deal of advertising and promotion to children, and emphasizes the Happy Meal toy in all of it, children will often ask to be taken to the restaurant specifically to get that particular toy. When the franchise owner or manager has not ordered an adequate number of toys, or the company itself has failed to produce enough and supply its restaurants, the child is disappointed, the parent frustrated, and the cycle of dissatisfaction set in motion.”

SERVICE. “Service is the absolute center of broken windows for business.”

“Call [a large corporation] sometime and have a stopwatch handy. See how long it takes for you to speak to a living, breathing human being after you’re done with all the automated phone system prompts… During the 2000 presidential campaign, Ralph Nader was fond of saying that if he was working late at the office and wanted to listen to classical music, he’d call United airlines. They were certain to be playing ‘Rhapsody in Blue,’ and he’d get to hear a very long segment of the piece before anyone picked up.”

Bad customer service is the ultimate broken window. There is nothing more damaging to your business than the consumer’s belief that you don’t care about what is bothering him or her… Customer service isn’t just the department where complaints are addressed. It’s any encounter between an employee of your company (or, if we extend this idea as far as it goes, any representative of your company, including your product) and the people who might ever be interested in buying your product or service. Any encounter.”

This includes your website. “A consumer who needs assistance with your product or service is not in a forgiving mood to begin with—he has spent money on something that doesn’t seem to be working properly, and he is heading toward frustration… Finding a home page with a badly placed assistance link (or worse, none at all) is just going to add to the customer’s sense of irritation.”

BRANDING. “Can little things turn a consumer against an entire brand? … The ‘weakest link’ theory is at work here, and it is very strong.”

“To create a personality for a business, and to have that personality permeate every aspect of the business, to have it become the business in the minds of customers, is the goal of branding… But all these things are tied to a larger concept: the idea of trust. For customers to accept a brand, to have an opinion—preferably a favorable one—about the brand, and to embrace it to the point that the mention of the brand name is enough to evoke a positive image in the mind, it must never disappoint.”

“When the bad impression is made on the first experience with the company, however, it’s extremely unlikely the consumer will become a regular customer. In fact, it’s better than even money that you’ll never see this particular customer again. Ever.”

EMPLOYEES. “Employees who go above and beyond the call of duty are the ones who will spot and repair broken windows. Motivating employees to do so is one of the most important jobs a manager has.”

“The saying that a chain is as strong as its weakest link has great resonance in the world of the broken windows for business theory. An employee—especially one who has direct contact with customers—is the most visible type of broken window imaginable. Nothing will drive customers away faster than an employee who isn’t with the program.”

“An employee who is a broken window often becomes a virus…What incentive does a worker have to produce when those who do nothing are being rewarded in exactly the same way as those who put in maximum effort?”

DOING IT RIGHT: DISNEY. “Consider, especially, the experience one has when attending a Disney theme park in Florida, California, or anywhere else around the globe. If ever there was an atmosphere in which no windows are broken, this is it. Cleanliness is famously obsessive; there never—never—a candy wrapper left on the street. Problems are solved immediately by a staff that is (get ready, it’ll be a shock) cheerful about doing their jobs, and enthusiastic about making sure the customer’s (guest’s) priorities are the most important thing.”

“A few years ago, a system was installed called Fastpass, which allows guests to reserve a place in line. Guest tickets are swiped in a machine, and a time to return in reserved on a ticket. The guest can go to any other attraction in the park, come back at the appointed time, and see the attraction without waiting in line. This addressed the most serious broken window in the parks—families having to spend long, hot hours on line for an attraction that would last four minutes. The solution was simple, yet demonstrated the park’s obsession with making the day enjoyable for its customers.”

DOING IT RIGHT: IKEA. “Many of the consumers at Ikea are families, especially younger families, trying to find the right furniture for a first home or to furnish children’s rooms. Hence the Ball Room…. The parents, who sign their children in when entering the store, can look for the items they need without any worry about their children—and without the children expressing boredom with the shopping experience. This not only makes Ikea a much more family-friendly furniture store, it also makes the experience much more pleasant for those of us who don’t want to listen to bored children complaining…. Oh, and by the way, the Ball Room service is completely free of charge. Try finding a babysitter who charges $0 an hour.”

SURVEY: n=3. “I recently sat with a group of fourteen- to sixteen-year-old girls at a fast food chain call In-and-Out [sic] Burger, which operates on the West Coast. Here the core audience for a fast food chain told me they preferred the smaller, lesser known In-and-Out to a larger chain like McDonald’s or Burger King, and it was because In-and-Out paid attention to details. The bathrooms at In-and-Out weren’t as swank as those in a Manhattan hotel, but they were clean, the girls said. The ones at other chains ‘I try to avoid,’ one told me. The help at In-and-Out was accommodating and friendly, where others were slow and surly, the girls thought.”

Speaking of attention to detail, the name of the restaurant is spelled In-N-Out Burgers.

DRIFTING THESIS. “Try finding a can of New Coke on the shelves today. This was a broken window of epic proportions. It wasn’t a tiny thing gone wrong—it was an enormous elephantine thing gone hideously wrong, a disaster that made the Titanic look like a rowboat with a leaky hull.”

Sorry, no. Broken windows are small things, like graffiti and subway fare evasion—not murder. New Coke was a strategic error. “A broken window of epic proportions” is an oxymoron—it misses the point of broken windows theory.

The best part of this book is the premise: attention to small details is as important to business as it is to law enforcement. But while the broken windows crime theory is based on rigorous research, this book is mainly repetitious conjecture and anecdotes.

Levine, Michael. Broken Windows, Broken Business: How the Smallest Remedies Reap the Biggest Rewards. New York: Business Plus, 2006. Buy from

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