Fixing broken windows at your credit union

On a recent visit to one of my favorite retail offices, a few things caught my attention. A burnt-out bulb needed to be replaced, magazines in the waiting area had pen marks and ripped pages, and there was a sticky residue on the cluttered counter that I hope was the remnants of a kid’s sticker. My visit was to a credit union.

This, coupled with my current work evaluating credit union website design and usability practices (one of my emerging passions since joining Filene), got me thinking of the “Broken window theory”, first introduced by social scientists James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling in their 1982 article in The Atlantic. Later referenced in Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference. And later tested with field experiments by Kees Keizer in The Spreading of Disorder study.

They argue the significance of the link between disorder and crime. The “broken window” is a symbol of unaccountability. If one window in a building is broken and left unfixed, they reasoned, it is likely that the rest of the windows will be broken soon, too. This would lead to more disorderly behavior, consequently ending in crime.

One of the most cited examples of this theory is the New York police department’s campaign to focus on fighting signs of disorder (like graffiti or litter) and petty crime in the early 90’s to reduce larger crimes. Combined with other measures, their approach worked. New York saw a considerable reduction in crime rates. Since then, many other cities across the United States and Europe have implemented this approach of meticulously dealing with and policing small problems to prevent major issues down the road.

What can credit unions learn from this theory? Put yourself in your members’ shoes. What might they be thinking when they find out one of your broken windows?

The service I received on my recent credit union visit was great, as usual. But I have to admit I was a little leery about what was happening behind the scenes. If these easy fix items were not being addressed, what might be happening behind that employee entrance door that isn’t visible to visitors?

In a digital setting, broken windows take the shape of broken links, heavily written content pages, circular references to the same page, inaccurate information, and others “broken” elements. These little things create frustration and lead to channel thrashing, where a member attempted to self-serve but had to resort to placing a call or visiting a branch, or even abandoning the task, due to a few broken windows. Channel thrashing leads to lower member satisfaction and higher member effort, (both important member service metrics).

In the same way a broken window in New York City can lead to undesired behavior and worse consequences, our service, operational execution, and design flaws, can lead members to undesired behaviors: frustration, dissatisfaction, and lower trust. The most damaging consequences come in the shape of complaints about the experience to their social circle, lost business, and loss of trust.

How can credit unions spot and repair broken windows in a digital setting? Here are a few recommendations:

  • Functionality should always win over esthetics. We all love the look and feel of a new website, but it becomes meaningless if the site doesn’t offer member centered design. Sites like Wikipedia, Craigslist, and even Amazon are great examples due to their easy to navigate design. If a website re-design isn’t in your budget, create a strategy that enhances functionality. Be ruthless about policing and addressing those broken windows.
  • Do something. Many credit unions find the omni-channel strategy overwhelming. We plan and budget for a website redesign or an even bigger member journey strategy and stop making iterative changes that can make the site stronger today. The gift of the digital age is the ability to get started making small changes today.
  • User observation. The best way to understand how people use your site is by (you guessed it!) observing them using and navigating your site first. Professionally conducted Live Observational Research (LOR) can offer the insights you are looking for and provide a thorough analysis to guide you in the right direction. Continue to observe your users regularly. It doesn’t always have to be in a LOR setting, you should conduct your own observations in smaller settings to test for usability.
  • Instill a culture of testing. If you are introducing a new tech solution and all the elements are not ironed out completely, the poor initial experience can have long-term effects. If for example, your credit union launches Apple pay or Samsung pay options, but members experience a hold-up, they will move to the next card in their wallet. Chances are they will not go through the effort to try your card again and now that other card became their primary smart phone card. When it comes to new tech, you often only get one chance.
  • Pay close attention to channel thrashers for insights. Capture their feedback and use them as case studies to gain awareness on hold-ups, bottlenecks, and broken windows. By the way, they might be open to test new self-service solutions in the future. Use this tactic to re-engage them into their preferred channel.
  • Increase your digital IQ by joining a community of credit unions committed to learning more about digital trends, Search Engine Optimization strategies, and implications of new technology for your credit union and your members. Filene Research Institute offers solutions tied to all the recommendations listed above through our Digital Strategies services. We would be glad to hear more about your digital journey and offer advice to make the most of your site.

The approach suggested by Wilson and Kelling to meticulously dealing with and policing the small problems to deter and prevent major issues down the road, translates well to the service industry. If credit unions pay special attention to avoid small flaws in design and service, then we will be better poised to deliver a functional experience that lowers member effort. And that is time and energy well spent.

Elry Armaza

Elry Armaza

Elry Armaza is Chief Transformation Officer at Community Financial Credit Union. Web: Details