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The Extraordinary Customer Service of Disney World

By Zoengo Mar 18, 2013 3393 Words

A Strategy for Service— Disney Style
Rick Johnson

The organization's customer service philosophy was established over 35 years ago by its founder. Today, every aspect of the resorts and theme parks is geared to serve—and satisfy—its "guests. "

Rick Johnson is Manager of Business Programs for Walt Disney World Seminar Productions in Orlando, Florida—a part of the Disney University. He instructs executives in the "Disney Approach" through business and management seminars.

any organizations are striving to improve the level of quality ser­ vice through the per­ formance of their employees. Some have recognized the importance of corporate culture and environment in the process. Our com­ pany strongly believes that the culture, the environment, and the performance of people lie at the heart of a successful quality service program. Guests at the Walt Disney World Resort, located a few miles southwest of Orlando, Florida, typically comment on three main aspects of the quality of ser­ vice: the cleanliness of the place, the show itself, and the friendliness of the employees. These reactions are com­ piled through comments, surveys, focus groups, and letters. Together, they reflect the original business philosophy of Walt Disney, who summed it up by saying: • "Quality will out! • Give the people everything you can give them; • Keep the place as clean as you can keep it; • Keep it friendly; • Make it a fun place to be."

While this philosophy applies to a place of entertainment and family vaca­ tion fun, it applies as well to any service-oriented organization. What brings this philosophy to life at the Walt Disney World Resort is a well-struc­ tured, complex, and fast-moving organi­ zation of people. Committed to a single goal of creating happiness for customers (called guests), the Disney people live in a corporate culture—a way of life—that places the guests' enjoyment above all else. After a visit here, which includes the Magic Kingdom Park, EPCOT Center, the Disney-MGM Studios Theme Park, resorts, and recreational facilities, many are prompted to ask, "How does Disney get over 32,000 employees (called cast members) to perform more than 1,400 different jobs (called roles) and deliver quality service with a smile? How do they do this for millions of guests, 365 days a year, often in 98° heat and 100% humidity? How do they maintain a quality service standard that many say is unmatched anywhere?" The secret to the Disney approach is that there is no secret. Disney demon­ strates that high levels of quality service can be attained by developing, refining, and living a business strategy based on



hard work, attention to detail, and ex­ ceeding customer expectations. The first challenge in developing such a strategy is to define a company's busi­ ness. Disney strives to provide quality entertainment in its theme parks. It also serves food, sells merchandise, operates resorts, runs transportation systems, and provides recreational facilities along with a myriad of other guest and support services. More important, the company recognizes that the common thread run­ ning through it all is the ability to make guests happy. If guests are happy, they'll return. Repeat visitation is the name of the game. In fact, most of the guests who will visit the resort this year have visited before. Disney recognizes that it has a loyal audience with high expectations. Many people travel great distances to spend time there. Disney understands that it can't disappoint a guest, even once; if it does, the guest may never return. It's this understanding that defines Disney service as "guest-driven." Actually, what appears to be a com­ plicated service strategy is in reality an easily understood formula. Each cast member serves each guest in a series of "magic moments" that add up to the overall experience. With each cast mem­ ber, Disney knows its name and image are on the line; the show is that fragile. Disney knows that guests remember the best and the worst experiences; the rest fall into a standard. To raise that standard, Disney works hard to recognize and reward those cast members who are doing it right. Cast members who are not meeting the stan­ dard are coached and, as a last resort, disciplined. Disney strives for perfection, knowing they'll never be perfect, but that they'll reach a higher standard for the effort. So part of the strategy is based on the realization that quality ser­ vice can be attained only through the dedicated efforts of people (the perfor­ mance of the cast) in creating happiness for the guests.

The Culture Is the Key
The answer to how Disney does it is the corporate culture, or "the way we do things around here." While "corporate culture" is certainly a buzzword these days, it is a useful term in explaining how the company's quality strategy works. The organization defines quality ser­ vice as a series of behaviors exhibited by cast members in the presence of guests. These behaviors include smiling, making eye contact, using pleasant phrases, per­ forming their role functions, and imple­ menting the many other details that add up to the "personal touch" in the eyes of guests. At the core of the Disney philosophy is the belief that people (both guests and cast members) are products of their environment. To the degree that an envi­ ronment can be controlled, the appro­ priate reactions of people within that environment can be predicted. Disney, therefore, strives to control, within good business sense, as much of the environment at the resort as possi­ ble. Both the experience of the guest, as well as the experience of the cast, although adhering to different stan­ dards, are orchestrated to be as positive as possible. The company's philosophy of guest service was established by Walt Disney with the opening of Disneyland on July 17, 1955. He was committed to provid­ ing "good show" through themed entertainment. In essence, Walt took his greatest film creations and translated them into a form of three-dimensional reality. He took a theater audience and lifted them onto the stage, surrounded them with sets and props, and had them interact with actors and actresses (the cast mem­ bers). In a way, he put the guests in the middle of the action, engaging all five senses and enabling them to experience the show scene-by-scene in a preplanned sequence.



"In order to exceed guest needs and expectations, the Walt Disney World team works hard at 'guestology,' the study of the g u e s t . "

Disney views its show as a live perfor­ mance and the physical setting as a movie set. Everything must be carefully designed and constructed to bring home the feeling of theme and service to the guest . . . in a word, quality. Each day, the set must be perfect, restored to its shiny luster so guests can "shoot the movie through their eyes." The concept of show business is ex­ tended throughout the culture and helps in attaining the "buy in" of the cast. From the beginning, an employee is not hired for a job but, rather, cast for a role in the show. Cast members wear costumes, not uniforms. They play before an audience of guests, not a crowd of customers. When they are in a guest environment, they are "onstage"; when they are in an employee environ­ ment, they are "backstage." This vernacular communicates to cast members that they are in show business. They are not necessarily to be them­ selves when on stage, but rather to play a role. The role calls for an "aggres­ sively friendly" approach, one that in­ corporates smiles, enthusiasm, sincerity, high energy, and concern for the happi­ ness of the guest. In short, a cast member is a host or hostess. The culture at the resort continues to evolve and change. Its purpose, however, remains the same: to support the cast in exceeding the needs and expectations of the guests.

Know Your Audience
In order to exceed guest needs and ex­ pectations, the Walt Disney World team works hard at "guestology," the study of the guest. The goal is to understand who the guests are and what they want. Armed with this information, Disney considers the guest perspective in every business decision. A Research and Statistics Department conducts over 200 external surveys a year. In a unique organizational setup,

Research and Statistics reports to the Finance Division. In turn, Finance func­ tions as a team player, finding solutions and alternatives to the potential prob­ lems that Research and Statistics may discover. Finance, however, does not function as a defensive keeper of the funds. Disney is constantly keeping track of guest information such as the following: demographics, evaluation of current marketing strategies, attraction evalua­ tions, payment preferences, price sen­ sitivity, and the economy. Perhaps the survey considered most important is the price/value survey taken as guests are exiting the theme parks. Walt Disney stressed its importance when he said: "Let's only be concerned about two things: number one, have they had a good time? Number two, have they re­ ceived their value, because people will pay for quality." Guest Letters departments of both the Parks and Resorts Divisions receive tens of thousands of letters and guest com­ ment forms annually. Their goal is to respond to each one as quickly as possi­ ble. To close the information loop and provide invaluable feedback to opera­ tional management, guest comment reports, which condense the essence of all guest comments, are generated and distributed weekly to management. These reports are classified by location and list all compliments and complaints. This process allows complaints to be dealt with quickly to prevent reoccurrences. Another information-gathering tool is the use of focus groups. These are con­ ducted by the Marketing department at the resort to gather qualitative informa­ tion concerning the open-ended impres­ sions of guests and their reactions to future projects. An extensive, internal shopping service is also provided to management for objectively monitoring operating systems and cast member performance. An Industrial Engineering department continues the guestology process by con-



stantly evaluating the resort's operating systems and ensuring they are kept to established service standards. Daily in­ spections, show-quality reports, waittime studies, maintenance punchlists, and utilization studies all contribute to a safe and efficient operation between guest and operating systems. Perhaps the most important feedback system in terms of the continuous re­ finement of the "show" is "management by walking around," in which managers observe and talk to guests and cast members at the point of service delivery. While top executives commit many hours to this process, it is the line supervisors who spend 60% to 70% of their time where the business is, each employee serving each guest one at a time. It's these firsthand experiences that develop a sense of the need to react quickly to restore service when things go wrong.

Corporate Strategic Objectives
• Sustain Disney as a premier entertainment company • Achieve a 20% earnings growth annually over anyrolling five-year period • Achieve 20% or greater return on stockholders' equity • Maintain and build the integrity of the Disney name and franchise • Preserve basic Disney values

"Michael Eisner continually challenges leant Disney with questions like, 'Where's the Disney difference?' and 'What makes it Disney?'"

Disney doesn't stop with guestology; uniqueness is also an important part of the Disney strategy. Michael Eisner, the company's Chairman of the Board and CEO, likes to get involved in the creative process to a surprising level of detail. He continually challenges Team Disney with questions like, "Where's the Disney difference?" and "What makes it Disney? " He does this in a constant ef­ fort to find and create whatever is both unique and compatible with the welldefined Disney culture (Exhibit 1 lists the company's strategic objectives.)

Empowering the Cast
The process of empowerment begins with strong creative leadership provided by leaders who can create a descriptive vision of the future; "sell the vision" to each member of the cast, getting them excited about it; and follow through to ensure that each milestone is reached in a timely manner. Empowering the cast begins at the top with a strong commit­ ment and willingness to set the example. The Disney show requires a lot of hard work and discipline from everyone. To make it work, the people involved have to want to do it. The autocratic method doesn't work for Disney nor has the company been successful because it has written everything down and struc­ tured the process to the finest detail.

With the potential to generate so much data concerning its guests, Disney has learned to focus on what matters the most in successfully delivering qual­ ity service. The company quantifies data, for example, and includes it in pro formas on future projects, which include guest satisfaction and value factors. Through the process of guestology, it is fair to say that guests are helping to design the future Walt Disney World Resort.



A strategic planning team assists man­ agement with the development of 5- and 10-year strategic plans that are updated annually in conjunction with the cor­ porate executive team. In addition, the operating management at the resort develops an annual capital budget and operating plan. Together, these tools are essential in helping to keep Disney on track through the development of the company's goals and objectives. Once given the assignments, individ­ uals responsible for them are provided the necessary resources and authority. This empowerment also holds them ac­ countable for completion of the project. The purpose of such a strategic plan is to create direction and accountability. Empowerment is the key to getting everyone to "buy in" to the plan. In Disney's view, empowerment is an active process that encourages the cast to get involved, taking the strategic plan from the boardroom to the point of action on Main Street U.S.A. in the Magic King­ dom Park.

"Disney would submit that it is possible to create so much quality that the guest cannot sense it." Disney has discovered a positive ap­ proach to the continual sharing of the vision for the future in a way that creates excitement among cast members. They are committed to an ongoing ef­ fort to remember the "traditions of the past," those things that have brought Disney to where it is today. Disney uses company history to its advantage, telling cast members that 68 years of Disney history, along with the Disney name and image, are on the line with each of them. As cast members, they can choose to reinforce or tear

down that image with each guest they come into contact with. The reality of Disney's business, and perhaps that of everyone in the service industry, is that success depends on each cast member making the right decision and providing the right behavior for each guest situation. Empowerment of the Disney cast be­ gins with a service theme of "creating happiness" for people. Disney then pro­ vides extensive training, ongoing com­ munication, and dependable support systems to help the cast make the right decisions in each guest encounter. Em­ powering over 32,000 cast members re­ quires that Disney establish a framework that supports all the members in their decision making. Four prioritized "keys" do this: safety, courtesy, show, and efficiency. These words are designed to help facilitate decision making in the day-to-day oper­ ation, particularly when a cast member is confronted with a situation he or she has not previously encountered. In other words, Disney tells its cast that the only time courtesy can be sacrificed is in the interest of safety. The safety of the guest is the first priority and must be built into everything cast members do. "Show" is the term for theming or the implied message of the whole experience. Show will be sacri­ ficed only in the interest of safety or courtesy to guests. Each term also forms the basis on which the company mea­ sures quality service as well, a measure­ ment that is included in the cast member review process. Creating the appropriate balance be­ tween "good show" and the business goals of a company is always a chal­ lenge. Is it possible to have too much quality? Disney would submit that it is possible to create so much quality that the guest cannot sense it. After all, who determines quality? Ultimately, the guest determines what is quality, on the basis of previous experience and expectations. It is Disney's belief that quality needs to be where the guest can touch, feel, or



sense it. (Real gold leaf is used on the carousel horses, for example.) There are limits to quality, and a line must be drawn for each organization. At Disney, that line goes beyond the expectations of most of the guests, but not too far beyond. Disney is in the business of creating illusions.

Delivering Quality Service
When most executives think of the de­ livery of quality service, they normally think of a smiling, courteous employee. Equally important are the numerous support systems that enable the em­ ployee to perform the assigned function and maintain a positive attitude. If a specific attraction is inoperable, Disney is then not supporting the em­ ployee who must advise hundreds of guests of this fact. Support systems can be as mundane as a telephone, a stapler, or user-friendly computers. They also in­ clude procedures that must work for (not against) the employee in the de­ livery of quality service. From the beginning, the resort was designed to incorporate strong support systems; these include the resort's own telephone and energy services com­ panies, as well as attractions designed for reliability and show appeal. Support teams such as horticulture, art and design, human resources, central shops, and maintenance assist line man­ agement by providing services which free them to concentrate on their as­ signed role. They would not be able to spend as much time coaching employees and obtaining feedback were it not for the direct placement of support teams and systems. In the delivery of quality service, there are two parts to every cast mem­ ber's role: the mechanical and the per­ sonal touch. The mechanical is the job function which an employee has been assigned to do, that is, to serve food, sell merchandise, drive a monorail, or

help people on or off an attraction. This part of the role must be done cor­ rectly in a manner that exceeds guests' expectations. This is not, however, the most important part of the role to be performed. The personal touch is the eye-to-eye contact, the smiles, the pleasant, courte­ ous tone, the sincere caring that comes through the transaction. This is the competitive edge that companies strive for in the service business. Disney has found it can't force the personal touch. To obtain it, the company must go for the emotions in people to get them to "buy in" and play their role in the show. It is also important that management sets the example. Management members have the greatest influence on the tone of the work environment. To the degree that management is positive, supportive, and places emphasis on the right things, fellow cast members will emulate its behavior. As an example, a system known as "cross-utilization" is in place during the resort's peak times when, for a short in­ terval, demand outstrips the number of available employees. As part of crossutilization, members of management and support teams put their paperwork aside and work short shifts in custodial, food service locations, or in any number of on-stage positions. In this way, guests are served, cast members are supported during a busy period, and management and support personnel gain a renewed respect and empathy for the frontline cast member. The Disney approach is more than just the corporate culture—it's a way of life for the organization. This approach is simply one of hard work focused on guest service and mutual appreciation among the members of the team. While it may sound too simple to work, its simplicity is preferred so that all mem­ bers of the team will not only under­ stand the mission and strategy, but most important, will carry it out. ■

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