The Broken Windows Customer Experience

There’s an apartment building along my regular running route. It’s a large brick building with a pretty plain appearance. There’s a sign above the main entrance that says “Executive Manor.” From the outside it’s hard to imagine what’s inside. But for me, the outward appearance doesn’t quite jive with the image the name creates in my mind. I should probably mention that the sign is yellowing, water stained, and has a large crack splitting it in half. It’s been that way for years.

The Broken Windows Customer Experience
Every time I run by that building I think of the Broken Windows Theory. In 1969 a Stanford psychologist left cars that appeared to be disabled in two different neighborhoods in the US as part of an experiment. The first neighborhood had a history of petty crime and vandalism. Predictably, that car was stripped of everything of value within 24 hours. The other car, however, was left in what would widely be considered a safe, upscale neighborhood. For more than a week that car went untouched. Things got interesting however when the experimenter himself damaged the car. Once the car had the appearance of neglect, it wasn’t long before “well-dressed, clean-cut, seemingly respectable individuals” were observed further vandalizing the vehicle. This experiment got a lot of attention at the time and eventually formed the basis for many socio-economic and criminology policies and strategies.

The main takeaways from the study are that problems should be addressed while they are small and that apathy breeds more apathy. In the case of the apartment building, I always wondered what the inside looks like. The apartments could rival anything in the city in terms of luxury. But how many people will never step foot inside because of how the outside looks?

Unfortunately, examples of broken windows in the physical world are plentiful. But they also exist in the software world, albeit in slightly subtler forms. They can show up behind the scenes as poor coding practices or technical debt and in more visible ways like usability issues or inconsistent user interfaces.

If the owners of the Executive Manor building care so little about the appearance of their sign, what can we infer about the care and maintenance of parts of the building we can’t see? Likewise, the attention to detail, or lack of it, in your software product communicates your brand standards to customers. All the little things add up to the overall customer experience. People do notice. If your Website or software looks outdated, will your customers assume that the technology is outdated as well? Can it be trusted with their personal and/or payment information?

One concept we discuss often here at ITX when crafting customer solutions is the idea of a loyalty ladder. In a nutshell, this is your customer’s journey across different thresholds with your product or brand. It starts with the first indicators of trust (subscribing to a newsletter, purchasing a product, etc), moving up to loyalty (deciding to do business with you again), and finally reaching advocacy (making a recommendation to others).

While you sometimes hear stories of a single instance of exceptional customer service creating a brand advocate, the reality is the more reliable and sustainable way to move customers along the ladder to advocacy is through small but regular and positive micro interactions with your product or brand. It’s these micro interactions, or the little details, that create a memorable customer experience and set your brand apart from your competition. As an example, my wife and I returned from our honeymoon to a bottle of champagne from our landlords. It was a small gesture from them but forever memorable for us.

Be thoughtful and intentional even in routine situations like asking for personal information from customers and when writing the copy in transactional emails for order receipts and newsletter subscription confirmations. These are the types of small but regular interactions your customers have with your company and are opportunities to impress. Being memorable in these small moments is especially important if they’re not entirely positive for the customer, such as when one of your Website visitors is looking for something and reaches a 404 page. A thoughtful 404 page with a search box or links to relevant suggested pages is more helpful and memorable than the standard “File Not Found” text.

Focusing on this level of detail does require a significant amount of time and energy but it represents a worthwhile investment in your customers’ experience. It’s likely that your competition is already making this investment. Nearly 25% of Fortune 100 companies and 10% of Fortune 500 companies have Chief Customer Officers in their C-suite who are responsible for the customer experience.1

Every brand that has created a truly positive and memorable experience for its customers has done so by paying attention to things their competition has not. What you don’t want is to be remembered for your “broken windows”.

1. Trevail, Charles. “It’s Time to Rethink the Chief Customer Officer Role”.,

Originally published on the ITX blog at