Broken Windows, Broken Business

Contributor:  Allan Hoving
Posted:  10/01/2010  12:00:00 AM EDT
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The Broken Windows theory is a theory of criminology advanced in 1982 by social scientists James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling. The theory noted that if you went into a neighborhood and saw a broken window or graffiti or it was unclean, it would send a signal to people that the bad guys were in charge and then much worse crime would quickly ensue, explained Michael Levine, author of the 2005 book Broken Windows, Broken Business. It was the theory behind the transformation of New York City under Mayor Giuliani.

"I took that theory of criminology and I brought it over into business," added Levine, who is also the founder of the Hollywood entertainment PR firm LCO. "For example, if you go on an airline and you pull that tray table down and you see a food stain on it, it sends a signal to your brain that perhaps the maintenance of the engines isn't being done properly." Levine recently discussed the book and its relevance five years after publication. What follows is an edited transcript.

Your book was critically acclaimed and remains a bestseller around the world. Why does the message of Broken Windows, Broken Business still resonate?

Because it's still the little things that matter. The human brain has a logical side and an emotional side, and they're constantly doing battle with each other all the time. And about 88 percent of the time, emotion wins. Except when humans are hungry, angry, lonely or tired; then emotion wins 100 percent of the time. Since Americans are increasingly hungry, angry, lonely and tired, I thought it was important to note that consumers make decisions largely based on little things -- little, innocuous things that seemingly have no massive import but they do have a radically massive import to consumers.

And now we hear a lot about how businesses also need to treat their employees as customers.

Yes, that's a very important point. Everyone who owns a business should know that you have external customers and you have internal customers. Your employees are your internal customers. That does not mean you should not hold them to a very high standard or accept mediocrity. But again, it's the little things that matter: If the carpets at your company are stained, you're sending a signal to the people who work for you that your best days are behind you.

So your book really has lessons for the human resources and operations functions of an organization. Does it also have relevance in the digital era of online interaction, where instant global communication can have an enormous impact on your business?

We're living in a nation in which most people have everything they need except time and peace of mind. In that environment, convenience becomes king -- making interactions with your business convenient for customers is vitally important. They don't want to push buttons or wait 33 minutes on hold while they're told "your business is very important to us"; they want to talk to a real person that speaks English in America.

Little details matter a lot. Now the good news is that you can fix those little details and it will have a tremendous impact. The bad news is that fixing them is a lot of hard work, and Americans in the early part of the 21st century don't like hard work. That's a challenge. We have to get back to the things that made us great in the first place. Otherwise, we're going to get beat by our friends in India and China and the former Soviet Union. We used to be a hard working, enterprising, personally responsible nation. We've turned our back on many of those things, and we are paying the price.

It's tough medicine. I'm still very concerned about America's customer service approach because I think that often businesses say one thing and do another.

It's a sobering message, but as you've said, there's still hope the trend can be reversed.

Yes, business owners can reclaim their place in international markets. We know what to do. The things I said in the Broken Windows, Broken Business book are not brilliant. They're just common sense: Pay attention to small details and treat your customers well.

Allan Hoving Contributor:   Allan Hoving

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