James Wilson and George Kelling, two brilliant social psychologists, published their “broken windows theory of urban decay” in 1982, in which they proved that small signs of disorder in a community such as a simple broken window in a housing project or retail storefront that goes unfixed could encourage more negative behavior. A broken window sends a signal that the owner of the building isn’t paying attention or doesn’t care; and further, no one in the community is watching or cares. So, if a window in a building is broken and left unrepaired, it’s likely all the rest of the windows will soon be broken. During Rudolf Giuliani’s first term as mayor of New York City, he hired police commissioner, William Bratton, who applied the ‘broken windows theory of urban decay’ and instituted a zero tolerance policy on small crimes such as graffiti on subways, subway fare evasion, and harassing drivers for money at traffic lights. Within several years, Mayor Giuliani was credited for major improvements in the city’s quality of life and reducing the rates of violent crimes.

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The “broken window theory” is as relevant to business as it is to urban communities. The restaurant that does not clean its bathrooms often or thoroughly sends a powerful signal to the customer that maybe the kitchen is dirty and the food is unhealthy. Or the plumbing company that sends a plumber to a customer’s home wearing an inappropriate t-shirt or no uniform, who fails to put booties on their shoes when entering the customer’s home sends the same powerful signal that management is not watching and does not care about the details and probably does not care about me, the customer. In either case, there is something broken. The company is not meeting or exceeding the needs of the customer and there is high risk of falling behind or falling out of business.

On the flip side, the restaurateur who pro actively works to prevent “broken windows” by cleaning the bathrooms every 30 minutes or the plumbing company that has the plumber wear clean uniforms and booties on service calls, sends an equally powerful message to the customer. And there is evidence that the strongest signal may be sent when companies reactively and immediately respond to metaphorical “broken windows” – think Nordstrom customer service. The company is signaling in real-time how much they care about their customers.

Business, regardless of the industry, is a “broken window” waiting to happen. When was the last time you worked on the “broken windows” of your business? If you need assistance identifying and fixing your “broken windows,” the UGA SBDC has 17 offices throughout the state that can help you.

(Source: Andy Fried, Consultant, UGA SBDC at Kennesaw State University)