Friday 23 February 2007

Zero tolerance for poor standards

Again I’ve been inspired by an article found on the web site of the Adam Smith Institute. Go to their web site ( and take a look at “Around the World in 80 ideas” for a series of bright ideas. If you don’t have internet access write to me and I’ll post it to you.

This time it’s a discussion of the so-called “zero tolerance” approach to crime that was pioneered in New York and went a long way towards bringing down crime levels there. According to the ASI article immediately after being employed the new NY Police Commissioner, William J Bratton, did a number of things. He “flattened the command structure, devolved control to local precinct commanders, upgraded the crime management information and took the view that the petty offences that occurred in full view on the streets contributed towards the climate of lawlessness in New York and should no longer be ignored”.

This approach has been copied all over the world and while some have criticised it for picking on people for committing petty crimes it has nevertheless been remarkably effective. It is loosely based on the “broken windows” theory that suggests that even minor environmental issues like litter and broken windows as well as minor crimes create a “climate of lawlessness” that just leads to growing crime.

Put simply the principle behind “zero tolerance” is that combating the so-called trivial offences reduces the general acceptability of all crimes. The gradual reduction in minor offences sent a message to the criminal elements of the community that crimes of all levels were no longer acceptable. This may all sound a bit simplistic but it has shown itself to be a pretty effective approach. It wasn’t the only cause but crime did go down in New York and in many other places where it was adopted.

Incidentally I really think we could do with a dose of this here in Botswana. Every day we see trivial offences that we have grown used to. Litter being thrown around, petty vandalism, public transport driving standards that are shameful and what do the authorities do about it? Wouldn’t it be wonderful to witness a Police Constable dragging a litter lout or a combi driver to the local Police Station for an hour of lectures and a fine? I would pay money to watch that. There’s an idea. They could charge us a nominal fee to laugh at minor offenders being lectured by a stroppy Police Sergeant. It would be better than most programs on TV these days.

Anyway, back to zero tolerance.

When you examine it closely the real reasons why the approach worked were quite simple.

There was a return to old-fashioned community policing. Police officers were taken out of cars and put back on foot so they could interact with the communities within which they operated. Instead of seeming distant from their customers, the public, police officers became members of the community again, people that the public could relate to.

Radical decentralisation. Basic decisions were taken by local commanders who were given power to decide for themselves how, within the rules, they should police their precinct.

Better information. Details of crime rates were analysed closely so that the people at the top had an accurate picture of the situation. Then they could plan policing more effectively, making sure the right resources were in the right place at the right time.

So why am I on about crime this week? Isn’t this column meant to be about customer service?

Yes, but the thing that struck me is that exactly the same principles apply in customer service. The three solutions above can all be used without modification if you run a chain of restaurants, a supermarket or a bank.

Start with Community Management. Get your managers out there on the shop floor, out of their offices to where the customers are. Get them visible to your customers; make them stand out of the crowd.

Then start decentralising. Your managers can only do a great job on the shop floor if they have the power to make decisions while they are there. If they are good enough to be in charge aren’t they good enough to offer a refund or a replacement to a customer who has been disappointed? Aren’t they qualified to modify your rigid procedures and regulations when circumstances demand it?

Then begin analysing your performance. This is where things get a little difficult though. The trick though is not to do it internally. Analysing your own performance doesn’t work. It’s a bit like asking a student to mark his or her own examination paper. No matter how honest the student might be it is impossible to be perfectly unbiased. Get outsiders to do it, people who know how to measure service in ways that actually mean something. It is not as simple as asking your customers to fill in one of those silly little bits of paper some restaurants give you after your meal, it’s a lot more complicated. Get in touch with us if you want some free advice on how to do this.

Finally, the last thing that I think can be learned from the “zero tolerance” idea is that nothing is too trivial to overlook. There is a lot to be said for delivering customer service “from the bottom up”. Yes, of course your Head Office should worry about strategies, mission statements and all that management nonsense but it is all completely worthless if the tables are dirty, you have run out of ketchup and the staff are miserable. The little things matter most when it comes to customer service and if you are tolerant of minor failures why should anyone care about the big ones?

Zero tolerance for trivial problems may just help transform your entire organisation into a winner!

This week’s stars!

  • Multichoice for fixing a problem with good humour.
  • Bruce and the team at Pick N Pay yet again for treating our recent worthy cause like a Queen.

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