Are your windows broken?

Stephen Hickmore


The ‘Broken Window’ theory was first suggested in 1982 by two criminologists in the USA; namely James Wilson and George Kelling.


The theory reads; something as small and seemingly insignificant as a broken window sends a negative symbol to those that pass it each day, indicating that the owner of the building doesn’t care enough. The result is more broken windows. Before long, a negative perception of the building and the area is formed leading to more and more urban decay and crime. Sound familiar? We’ve seen this in many of our South African cities.


In the 1980’s, New York took the bull by the horns and started fixing small things like graffiti on subway trains. The authorities cracked down on minor transgressions like Jaywalking and squeegee guys at intersections. The result: after a few years there was a major reduction in crime and a significant improvement in people’s lives. In Manhattan, the residents started developing their own zero-tolerance attitude and began fixing their own small things. The positivity and momentum of the scheme was contagious.


The principle of Broken Window has the same effect on our business lives. If we slowly let standards slip our customers will, over time, begin to form a negative impression of us. Along with our customers, our most valuable employees will seek opportunity elsewhere. Our, once upbeat and glossy business will start to experience more complaints and less revenue. The ultimate result being the demise and death of a once loved establishment.

Where to start? Think about what your customer experiences when first locking eyes on your restaurant? Is the sign faded? Are there dirty plates on empty tables? Are the staff frowning and miserable? Are the menus dog-eared? Is the chef shouting in the kitchen? Are the rest-rooms clean? The customer observes all this before they decide to walk in. Your food could be great but, what is this passer-by’s perception?


If you aren’t obsessed with the details in your business, there will be a competitor who is. Your customer’s perception is paramount. Allow too many broken windows and you will lose your loyal clients to a brighter, shinier competitor. Your customer will simply walk past.

  • Are you going above and beyond the call of duty to meet your customers’ expectations?

  • Are you living up to the brand promise? Is your advertised product what you promise it to be?

  • Are you just hiding the cracks in the window or fixing them?

  • Are you prepared to fire any staff member who consistently delivers bad service?

  • What unique habit, service or product do you offer that places you above your competitor?


What have banks, cell phone corporations and many on-line travel companies have in common? Terrible customer service! Try phoning the help line. One must go through that ritual of pressing numbers to indicate which department you want, then you punch in your ID and wait to be put through to a call centre agent only to hear … ‘Your call is important to us … you’re number 65 in the queue’ Nothing shouts ‘I don’t care about your call’ more than a 10-minute wait only to encounter a person reading from a script with little knowledge or motivation to solve your problem and no authority to escalate it further. This is a Broken Window on a vast scale. Will these organisations wake up? I don’t think they will until there’s a competitor that’s brave enough to spend time and money on an authentic and personal service.


Sometimes we stop noticing the small things that are broken. For example; I have a rusted gutter in front of my office that has been decaying for several months now. I’ve stopped seeing the urgency of the problem. Yep, I will get it fixed eventually. I think my garden office is lovely, but what impression do I give to anyone coming to visit my business? Old and rusty perhaps, seen better days? I’d better get the gutter fixed and fast!


Spelling mistakes on menus, a coffee stain on a waiter’s shirt, an abrupt and disinterested person answering your phone, a dirty glass or an inflexible attitude. These are all broken windows.


Attention to detail demonstrates competence and a company that cares about their customer. The Broken Window Management Theory isn’t rocket science. Once all employees, managers and owners are signed up with a mad obsession for fixing everything that is broken, you’ll stay ahead of the competition and survive one of the toughest trading periods we have ever experienced.


Stay safe and fix your windows!


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