Broken Windows, Broken Business

By Staff Report

Feb. 7, 2008

Chapter 14: The Ultimate Broken Window

    If a customer in your bookstore notices that the wallpaper is a little faded, that’s a broken window. But it’s a broken window that is easily repaired: you can replace the wallpaper with a minimum of difficulty and an affordable expense (in most cases).

    What’s more important is that the customer in a bookstore probably won’t stop coming to the store because the wallpaper is faded. Yes, her image of the company might be a bit diminished, and she might indeed wonder if the books are dusted often enough, but if the titles that customer wants are in stock and the prices are acceptable to her, she will likely overlook the wallpaper unless and until another broken window makes itself known to her.

    That will not be true if the broken window occurs in customer service.

    I know, you’ve read it here before, but this point can’t possibly be stressed vehemently enough: 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.

    Think about it: You offer a product or service to the public or a segment of the public. Every member of that group has a right to expect that you will deliver that service or product to their satisfaction. It’s not an option; it’s a necessity, in order to have anything even resembling a successful business.

    In the case of customer service, we have the person who is meant to provide that service or product interacting directly with the public. This is the person who is the face of your business to the consumer. And if that encounter goes badly, especially because the person entrusted with delivering service doesn’t do so, it goes beyond worn carpets and loose neckties. It enters into the realm of deal breaker.

    It doesn’t take a huge amount of imagination to understand that a person who enters a business expecting something—anything—and not getting it will be disappointed. Take that idea a little further, and you’ll see that one bad customer service experience—one—can take a customer and turn him or her into a former customer in a heartbeat. No second chances.

    Think about this disturbing scenario: You go to a restaurant and order spaghetti; when your order comes, you find an insect crawling on your pasta. Here’s my question: Are you going to throw out the bug and eat the spaghetti, or are you going to insist that the entire plate be removed? Or will you leave the restaurant? And even when that is done, how likely are you to go to that restaurant again?


    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. Sales personnel are involved, clearly, in customer service— they serve the customer directly. But those who deliver the product, service it, and install it are also involved in customer service. The receptionist who answers the phone is a customer service employee. The people who drive your trucks, write your press releases, design your packaging, and pay your bills are all customer service employees. You are a customer service employee.

    This means you can’t afford to have any employee of your organization have a negative encounter with a consumer (and we should make it clear that every business has consumers, not just the ones that sell a product directly to the public). Each person in your employ is an ambassador representing your company in its relations with other nations, and every human being on this planet is another nation, by our definition.

    A good ambassador keeps in mind that the art of diplomacy is his first and best tool. Are some customers going to be unreasonable? Of course, some will. Does that mean an employee is justified in treating that person in a curt or irritated manner? Absolutely not.

    Every business deals with disgruntled customers, even those that work business-to-business. And in many cases, those customers will not understand the workings of your business and will therefore demand something that you really and truly can’t deliver. Many of these will be belligerent or unreasonable and will not approach your employee in a friendly, jovial, accepting manner.

    These are the very people to whom your employees must be most accommodating. An ambassador knows that the loudest, nastiest, least reasonable representative of another country is the one who can cause him the most trouble. That belligerent diplomat will go back to his capital, report that although he was making a most understandable demand, it was met with total ambivalence or, worse, outright contempt, and he will recommend that diplomatic relations with the other country be discontinued immediately.

    By the same token, a loud and unreasonable customer does not see herself that way. She sincerely believes that her complaint is justified and natural, that her needs, indeed, demand action, and fast action at that. She thinks that your employee, in denying her request, is the one being rigid and unhelpful.

    Furthermore, trying to dissuade a customer from complaining is counterproductive. The customer should be made to believe that the company agrees that her complaint is justified and is doing everything it can to correct the problem. Thanking the complainer for pointing out the broken window (real or imagined, in your estimation) is not a bad tactic. Think of the times that you have brought a problem to the attention of a company you have dealt with, as a colleague or a consumer. Which would you have preferred: being told you were wrong in your complaint or being appreciated for your observation and told specifically what would be done to rectify the problem?

    Every relationship has a seller and a buyer. Yes, every relationship. And this means that in every situation, someone wants something from the other, and someone is deciding whether or not to grant that request. In business, the lines are usually very well drawn, and we know very clearly who is selling and who is buying. But when problems arise and one of the parties decides a complaint must be made, everything changes.

    Keep in mind that a customer who is voicing a complaint is already in a state of mind you’d rather avoid. This person is likely to be irritated and could very well be agitated to the point of behavior that is not characteristic of the relationship as it has been established to this point. Voices might be raised. Unfamiliar words (or at least those that have not been used in the relationship up to this point) might be uttered.

    The key is not to respond in kind. Two angry people are going to get a lot less done than one angry person and one who is keeping a cool head. You can make points with all your customers by making sure you remain calm and collected in all dealings, especially when they don’t do the same. It demonstrates control and reiterates the point that you are taking the situation seriously and trying everything you can to help resolve it to their satisfaction.

    All of your employees need to have this idea drummed into their heads on a regular basis. It doesn’t matter how agitated and verbally abusive a customer might get, there is no excuse for returning that attitude in kind, and any employee who does so will be fired on the spot, no matter how justified the abrasive behavior may seem at the time. No exceptions, no second chances, no excuses. Fired. On the spot.

    Poor customer service is the ultimate broken window because customer service is the one thing that every business must deliver to its consumers. A breach of that trust, an employee whose actions indicate that he or she is not interested in the customer’s concerns, is as blatant and damaging a broken window as you can imagine. And a muddled chain of command is as bad as an obnoxious employee.

    I hope you’ve never had to spend any time in a hospital, but if you have, you probably understand the idea of poor customer service. Members of the support staff (that is, anyone except doctors) in a hospital know their jobs extremely well, I’m sure. They understand the routine, speak the language of medicine, and know the reasons that things work the way they do for patients.

    The problem is, the patient is not included in this particular information stream. Patients are generally worried about their health and might not be reacting to situations the way they normally react to stress when living their normal lives. They are, understandably, on edge. But patients also don’t understand the routine of hospital work: the time at which certain things are done, the jargon that surrounds virtually any aspect of health care, the reasons that doctors appear when they appear and leave the orders that they leave. Patients don’t live in the hospital for a good chunk of their lives, and so they don’t “get” the rules the way staff members, who have had years of experience, do.

    So when patients are told that things are the way they are and that they, the patients, must adhere to rules they don’t understand and have never encountered before, they are likely to be a little less calm and pleasant than they might in another situation.

    The problem is, I’ve yet to find a hospital where the staff understands this. Indeed, they seem to think that patients should know what they, the trained staff, know and that patients are simply being obtuse—or worse, stupid— when they ask questions or challenge a rule that to the staff is perfectly justified. There is less explaining and more complaining in hospitals than anywhere else on the planet, in my experience.

    Dr. Robert Kotler, a prominent Beverly Hills plastic surgeon, says his practice is run with the idea that the patient should be included in every aspect of care, and he makes it a top priority to hire support staff (nurses, receptionist, office manager and so on) who will empathize and understand a patient’s needs.

    “Before they get to see the doctor, patients deal with the office staff on the phone, in the office, and in the examining room,” he says. “If they have an experience that is unpleasant with one of those people, they’ll have a bad taste in their mouth before I walk into the room, and I might not be able to change that. It won’t matter how well I do my job if the people who run the office can’t validate the valet parking ticket. The patient will already have a bad impression of my practice.”

    Customer service relates to every aspect of business, and once it becomes a broken window, it is remarkably hard to repair. Remember the insect in the spaghetti? No matter how apologetic the restaurant owner might be, and how diligently he might ensure that the situation can never recur, how likely do you think it is that the customer will return for another chance?

    Now, it’s possible that you might gain more customers after the changes are implemented to increase customer satisfaction, but how many have you lost for life before that happens? Find out what your customers’ concerns are by mystery shopping yourself and asking the most disgruntled of your customers to mystery shop your business for you (turn an enemy into an ally) and give them some discount or free incentive to do so. Yes, you can do it yourself, and you should, but only in addition to the people who are going to be most critical and who don’t have the emotional attachment you have to your business and the people in it.

    Poor customer service is the ultimate broken window. Excellent customer service is the ultimate pristine, clear, clean window. Which would you rather have?

• A product failure or glitch in delivery creates bad will. Bad customer service loses you a customer for life.

    • All employees are customer service employees. Everyone in the company does something that affects the consumer’s experience with the company. Doing so without respect for the consumer is fatal.

    • Each employee is an ambassador for the company, in all dealings with other people. If the employee talks to a friend about the company, the employee is representing the company. Employees must know they are important “faces of the company” and must act accordingly.

    • Support staff matters. If you think an employee who doesn’t provide the core service of the company isn’t representing the company in all dealings with the public, you are asking for trouble.

    Source: (Warner Business Books, Hachette Book Group, 2005)

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