What the broken windows theory teaches us about improving customer experience

6th Feb 2019

What is the broken windows theory and why should it be part of any customer service representative training?

The broken windows theory, originally meant to prevent crime escalation in Newark, may be attributed to Philip Zimbardo, who, in 1969, decided to demonstrate that an unrepaired broken window was a signal that no one cares, and so breaking more windows would cost nothing.

Through experiments, Zimbardo proved that leaving an element visibly damaged and unrepaired (a window on a building or a car, for example) was a signal that other things around it could also be damaged without consequences. The experiment led to conclude that once communal barriers are lowered by actions that seem to signal that "no one cares", a snowball effect quickly occurs.

As a result, Zimbardo and other social scientists after him conclude that an effective action against crime involves taking care of small vandalism as well as more serious crimes to prevent escalation.

The exact same theory can be applied to customer care: while we tend to focus on larger problems and bigger challenges, issues often considered as minor can have a terrible impact on the overall customer experience and build up into something much larger impacting the entire organisation.

Make sure the basics of customer service are covered

Your contact centre is the forefront of your company – it is what your customers see, experience and remember.

Customer care is an essential element of the customer experience and minor details can easily snowball into something much larger. Knowing that 82% of customers stopped doing business with a company after a bad experience gives some perspective as for the importance of a seamless customer experience.

Broken windows theory

As a company, we tend to focus on fixing the big issues, leaving the small ones aside. Unfortunately, even small irritants can have a critical impact and push a customer to stop doing business with you. For example, a contact centre would first look at better handling or reducing the total volume of incoming messages through strategies of self-service, deflection, recruiting, etc.

Considering the broken windows theory, a better approach would be to fix the small problems that lead to that bigger issue. A message left unanswered leads to customer frustration and more heated messages. A slow response leads to multiple messages on alternative channels and a virtual increase of volumes. A problem that requires multiple interactions to be solved increases the handling time and impacts productivity.

All these issues, minor when considered independently, have a snowball effect leading to much bigger ones. Worse: once it is considered “ok” to leave a message unanswered because there are bigger priorities, the effect is amplified and other barriers start falling.

Adapt your organisation and build a customer-centric culture

To prevent this from happening, The broken windows theory should be part of any customer service representative training. Creating a customer-centric culture implies involving employees at every level to identify and solve problems as they occur. Look at your processes and KPIs and remove anything that stands in the way of outstanding customer service.

For example, giving your team very high targets in terms of AHT (Average Handling Time) may push them to end each conversation as fast as possible instead of focusing on satisfying the customer to ultimately impact overall satisfaction. This approach also increases reiteration (customers coming back for a similar issue because it wasn’t solved in the first place) and therefore increase volumes, backlog and hurts your productivity.

If you were to take a different approach and focus on each interaction with a FCR (First Contact Resolution) goal, your agent’s objective would no longer be to end the conversation as quickly as possible but to keep the conversation going until the customer is entirely satisfied. You would then create an environment where leaving a customer not entirely satisfied at the end of a conversation is not acceptable. This change of strategy does hurt the AHT but strongly improves customer satisfaction, reduces reiteration, and therefore volumes and backlog.This strategy ultimately improves the quality of messages and conversations, and in turns, positively impacts the agent’s experience.

Broken windows theory 2

Changing the focus works as a virtuous spiral as soon as you put the customer back at the heart of your strategy and focus on solving small issues along with the bigger picture.

Another great example of a concrete application of this theory is the contact centre organisation itself.

More often than not, when transitioning from a call centre (phone-centric) to a contact center (digital centric), companies tend to replicate the organisation, the KPIs, the processes, the trainings, etc. That is a holistic view of the big picture aiming to streamline everything, ignoring all the small imperfections that have huge snowball effects.

For example, phone agents have very different skills from digital agents. Their recruitment, training and tasks should be very different as you may be excellent at speaking and soothing customers with your voice but have poor writing skills and vice-versa. Similarly, call centres allow only one phone conversation at a time, but digital contact centre agents can handle multiple conversations at once, mixing digital asynchronous interactions with synchronous ones and reducing idle time.

Taking these differences into consideration allows to take a true omni-digital approach where agents are no longer bound to a single channel but can delight customers based on the nature of their enquiry and offer them a consistent experience across channels. This is possible when you look at the small issues and create an environment where people care about the little details and try to fix problems at the source.


Leaving a broken window unrepaired creates an environment where it is alright to break things that can quickly escalate and become problematic.

The prerequisite to a positive customer experience is to create a customer-centric environment where every stakeholder cares for details and focuses on solving problems every step of the way to avoid snowball effect.

Before focusing on deploying new strategies or implementing complex journeys, always go back to the basics, asking what your customers really want and focusing on solving basic needs and problems.

Once you have this culture in place, you need to spread it across the organisation, and look at solutions mixing internal collaborative communication with external ones to close the loop.

Replies (2)

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By baileyarnidot
08th Feb 2019 10:53

great) me liked this!

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06th Mar 2019 09:52

The exact same theory can be applied to customer care: we tend to focus on larger problems and bigger
issues often considered as minor can have a terrible impact on the overall customer experience

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