by Diana Smith
with Melissa Stratman
Twenty-five years ago, New York City was in a state of steep decline. Graffiti defaced buildings, drunken transients urinated in the streets and petty thieves regularly hopped turnstiles to avoid paying a 50-cent subway fare. Yet, a new theory of police work championed by then mayor Rudy Guiliani and former police chief William J. Bratton changed all that.
How did the theory of “broken windows” transform the “Big Apple” from the “Rotten Apple,” and how can it work for you?
Little Cracks, Big Problems
Even something as small and seemingly harmless as a broken window sends a signal.
The theory of broken windows in criminal justice terms was introduced in The Atlantic Monthly by criminologists James Wilson and George Kelling in 1982. Their idea was that by clamping down on “broken windows”—petty, two-bit crimes such as graffiti and purse-snatching, a decline in major crime—murder, rape and robbery—would occur. At the time, the idea seemed crazy. How could a citation for jaywalking result in a decreased murder rate?
Absurd, naysayers said. Yet, the broken window theory explains, even something as small and seemingly harmless as a broken window sends a signal. If the window doesn’t get fixed, the owner doesn’t care or isn’t paying attention. In that case, perhaps more serious infractions such as theft or violent crime might be tolerated here as well. In short, even small misdeeds create an atmosphere of neglect, which in turn leads to more serious crime.
The authors suggested that focusing on smaller misdemeanors and repairing crime-ridden neighborhoods would impact the perceptions of those who lived there Wilson and Kelling felt that by putting more officers on foot patrol out in neighborhoods, the perception of safety by those living in the neighborhoods would change, whether or not the actual crime rate decreased.
Back to New York. To stem the tidal wave of crime in the early 1980s, Guiliani and Bratton declared war on minor offenses and launched all-out assault on petty thieves, spray-paint toting graffiti-mongers and other assorted minor law-breakers. The message was clear—there would be zero tolerance for any criminal activity. The results were nothing short of spectacular. Today, New York City’s reputation has been restored, and the city is considered a safe cultural, business and entertainment haven for residents and tourists alike.
The experiment readily proved that taking action on small things, the “broken windows,” began to reflect positive perceptions. By paying attention to details and repairing broken windows and other signs of decay immediately, the decline was slowed and even reversed. More importantly, the image of health was projected. The lesson learned? Insignificant problems, left unanswered, create the impression that no one cares and anything will be tolerated.
You Really Should Cry Over Spilled Milk
Savvy businesses can learn multiple lessons from the Broken Windows theory. Every manager must always be on the look out for broken windows – even cracked ones – and move swiftly to repair them before customers come away with the impression that no one cares here.
Michael Levine, a noted public relations whiz and media expert, has counseled movie stars to corporations. In his book, Broken Windows, Broken Business, he explores a multitude of “broken windows” in real-life businesses. From K-Mart to United Airlines, he addresses the danger of unknowingly sending the signal that no one really cares and anything will be tolerated.
The most important thing for any business owner or manager to do is to recognize broken windows immediately and fix them.
If the receptionist is rude, why do you have any reason to believe that everyone else is going to be helpful?
- If the tables at a restaurant are dirty, customers start to wonder about the cleanliness of the kitchen too.
- If the fitting rooms are a mess, what are the odds that the customer is going to get good service?
- If the receptionist is rude, why do you, as a customer have any reason to believe that everyone else is going to be helpful?
In business, these broken windows can be a death knell. With today’s stiff competition and miniscule customer service, clients quickly will find a reason to take their business elsewhere.
Yet, smart businesses, including upstart airline jetBlue and noted retailer, Nordstrom’s, are watching for broken windows while doing everything they can to dazzle the customer. Consider the Nordstrom’s shopping experience. Not only do they have stellar sales support and customer service, but they feature a piano wafting pleasant selections by the escalators. The job of the pianist is to add another level of pleasure and satisfaction to the shopper’s experience. No tip jar is in sight. The pianist isn’t there looking for more of your money, but rather, Nordstrom’s wants to communicate that the company is willing to give you an enhanced experience for no additional cost. How refreshing!
Ikea is another great example. Ikea stores have children’s play areas where you can drop off your children while you shop. Kids have fun and are supervised. What a brilliant business strategy! Any parent who has ever shopped with a child will tell you what a stressful experience that can be! Ikea wisely noted that parents are much more likely to browse, shop and make purchases when their children are having a positive experience too.
When patients get a rude reception or are transferred multiple times, these are broken windows.
Health Care: Dirty Bathrooms Don’t Signal Quality and Compassion
Now, consider health care. Perhaps in no other situation will a person be more stressed. In need of medical attention, a patient calls a clinic. The phone rings and rings. Eventually, the caller gets to an automated menu which has poor sound quality, but attempts to make a choice. Then, a person answers and barks out some “Hello, this is …” spiel which is not clear at all.
When patients get a rude reception or are transferred multiple times, these are broken windows.
The greeting wasn’t voiced to communicate a warm welcome with clarity and confidence; it was said by rote to fulfill a requirement. So, already the caller has a horrible experience (and impression!), and health care hasn’t even been accessed yet. When patients get a rude reception or are transferred multiple times, these are broken windows.
Not surprisingly, patients get the distinct feeling that they’re not wanted. It’s no great leap to wonder what the care will be like once finally inside the door.
According to Levine, these broken windows can be interpreted as saying that the entire rest of your experience here will be disorganized, rushed and unsatisfactory, just like the first phone call. If they have a choice, patients will find another clinic.
Studies show that after a bad experience, most customers won’t take the time to call back and battle through the poor service just to report it to management. After all, what are the odds that someone higher up even cares if this is the way things are on the first interaction? For the unhappy customer, it’s easier to tell people about the negative experience and then not show up or call again.
For many health care organizations, their physical facility can be a very serious broken window. While the windows are not literally broken, they may as well be. When halls are dirty and dark, cotton balls and papers litter the floor, wallpaper is peeling and the chairs are broken and dirty, what do you think a patient surmises? Exactly—that their care will be subpar, too. It’s a broken window.
Patient bathrooms in many health care facilities are more troubling than a bad diagnosis. When I visit any clinic, I always check out the patient bathrooms—they say so much about the pride of the place. And most of what they say, frankly, isn’t good! Patient bathrooms are typically outdated, lacking in toilet paper and paper towels. Floors are dirty and wet; odors pervade and the lighting is awful. It’s no wonder staff doesn’t want to use them. Well, patients don’t want to use them, either. A dirty bathroom communicates that the facility doesn’t care enough. It communicates that we don’t care and worse, that we don’t really believe hygiene is as important as we say. It’s a broken window.
People Who Need People
What ever happened to courtesy and customer service? Today, it is seemingly out of style. The truth is, people are often the most significant broken window in business, particularly in public health care.
Employees are allowed to have a laissez-faire attitude toward customers and it’s accepted…and, worse yet it infects others. What incentive do good employees have to work fastidiously when they see those around them not pulling the oars? None. In fact, it simply encourages them to stop trying to challenge themselves at work and start seeing it as a place to idle while getting paid. Levine calls them “disengaged employees.” Turns out, it doesn’t take many disengaged employees before the customers notice. In fact, one is often enough.
Incompetent staff is retained for a variety of reasons, one being that our firing processes are so cumbersome.
In the service industries, our tendency to forgive is “more than rational,” according to Levine.
Incompetent staff is retained for a variety of reasons, one being that our firing processes are so cumbersome. The incompetence gets moved around in what Levine refers to as the “Dance of the Lemons.” This simply ensures that no one area can excel, and it guarantees that the organization achieves nowhere near the standard it wants.
In health care, we often don’t demand performance because we sometimes care too much for individual employee situations. Yet, we compromise the entire standards of the organization doing so. Jack Welch, the well-respected CEO of General Electric, refers to this as false kindness. When we, as employers, allow an individual’s personal situation to take on more importance than the success of our business, that is a broken window. Obviously, employees are people and subject to “human frailty.” But employees should be good enough to be rewarded, or they should be let go. Period. It’s not enough to just exist at work; you must contribute, excel and help the organization reach its goals.
Some businesses, like airlines, have broken windows everywhere. Surly ticket agents, poor or no food and uncomfortable, crowded seating overwhelm even the most positive people. As customers, we run from one company to another, looking for the one that may treat us the best, but none really dazzle us. Basically, because of a lack of options, the airlines have us over a barrel. You can be confident that won’t last forever.
For health care safety net organizations, sometimes it’s the same way: we don’t really have to treat customers so well. We have them over a barrel. They’re not going anywhere else any time soon. Is that any reason to ask them to tolerate our broken windows?
Levine writes that we should treat each customer as if he/she is the only one. Make your clinic so free of broken windows that patients will want to come to you even when they don’t have to.
Pay attention to details and correct problems immediately especially the small ones. (Go check that toilet paper now.) Constant vigilance and repair of your broken windows is the key to your success!