Sidewalks, groundhogs and accounting

A couple weeks ago, Puxatawney Phil saw his shadow. As the legend goes, this indicated that we’d have six more weeks of winter. Given the kind of winter we’ve had so far, I expect more shoveling before April and May get here. Yet we’re not here to discuss the weather, at least not specifically. As I’ve roamed Montana this winter, I’ve noticed a pattern that struck me and made me a bit curious. Is the condition of the sidewalk and parking lot in front of a business an indicator of how things are being run inside the building?

Have you have heard the theory that the condition of someone’s car is a reflection of their home and/or their life? You may have heard the same about someone with a messy desk. Whether it’s true or not, it’s an interesting parallel to the pattern that I referred to earlier. The pattern is that businesses that I know to be well-run, well-executed “tight ships” always seem to have parking lots that are cleaned up quickly after it snows – and the sidewalks in front of them in almost every case is routinely spotless, salted and kept free of ice.

I don’t have internal knowledge of all the businesses in this pattern – ie: the ones who fit and the ones who don’t, but it’s quite accurate among the ones that I have internal operations knowledge of.

Broken windows

Years ago, there was a book about crime called Broken Windows, which was based on an often argued theory that doing things like immediately fixing broken windows and removing graffiti soon as it appears sends a message to the community that the area is cared for and monitored, so the criminal element goes elsewhere. New York City applied this during its well-known (and successful) battle to reduce crime over the last couple of decades.

Crime is a complex thing when you’re looking at a large urban area. First impressions, however, are not. When you arrive at a business and notice broken windows, dirty bathrooms, dirty floors, messy work areas, a sketchy parking lot, etc – it’s difficult not to wonder how things are going in the back room. How well is that business run? What sort of initial and ongoing training to the employees receive? Are their books a mess? You may not care about how under control their accounting is, but if they can’t seem to do a good job of recording your payments, you’ll start caring.

All of these things can be indicators of bigger, deeper or widespread problems. You can’t necessarily assume – everyone has bad days or makes a mistake now and then. It’s tough to keep up with the snow when you get 48″ of snow in three days.

Why does it matter?

How businesses deal with these things tends to be an incredibly accurate indicator of what’s going on elsewhere in the company. Some have well-thought out plans for what happens on days when roads are all but impassible. For some, it doesn’t matter. For those who you need to go to the hospital, I’ll bet you’ll want them to have a snow “disaster plan” that makes sure the hospital is staffed regardless of the intensity of the weather.

You can see similar things when working with employees. It’s crystal clear which businesses invest in their staff and which ones leave them to learn by the seat of their pants. While experiential learning is often a good thing, training and reinforcement gives everyone the same foundation, and sets minimum standards within a company. Without those things, the customer-facing experience and work quality can differ substantially – the last thing you want.

Why is that important? Consistent experience is everything. People don’t want to worry about which version of your business they’re going to experience today. Why else would someone repeatedly visit the same franchise restaurant as they travel the country? They know they will have a consistent experience. They know how long it will take, what it will cost and what the food will be like – regardless of the class of fare that restaurant serves.

A consistent experience is critically important to customers. The expectation (and history) of a known-to-be-consistent experience is frequently the deciding factor when “all else is equal”, even when it isn’t.

Keeping that in mind – What kinds of signals does your business send?