What We Can Learn from Disney Customer Service

Have you experienced the art of Disney Customer Service? 70% of Disney’s first-time visitors return to the theme park. Do you think that this is just because of the fun rollercoasters and Mickey Mouse costumes? Or because of the remarkable experiences and high-quality service that they provide their customers with? I’m going to go with the latter.

I recently finished the book, Be Our Guest: Perfecting the Art of Customer Service by the Disney Institute and Theodore Kinni. Even though it was published nearly two decades ago, insights from the book remain relevant to this day. In this blog post, I’d like to share with you exactly what those insights are.

15 Things to Learn from Disney Customer Service

So with that, here are the 15 things that Disney can teach every company about customer service. 

1. Create an Internal Language and Culture

According to the book, “Words create images and corresponding assumptions in people’s minds.” And “the very words that are used to describe customers, work, employees, and so on suggest the way in which cast members will be expected to approach their roles.”

For that reason, Disney uses a whole different vocabulary within their organization. Employees are referred to as “cast members” and “customers” are called “guests.” This helps to remind the entire Disney staff of the purpose that they are meant to fulfill and the importance of serving.

At SUCCESS agency, we do something similar. Internally, we refer to our clients as “investors,” because they are investing their resources in us; we are a financial investment for them. This helps to remind us every day just how important our jobs are.

Disney is also focused on creating a “performance culture,” which are “sets of location-specific behaviors, mannerisms, terms, and values that direct and enhance an employee’s role in a specific business unit.” Because Disney is such a massive organization, it’s not enough to create just one culture for the entire organization. So Disney creates various local cultures within the organization. In other words, different parts of the company set their own values and goals, which are most relevant to them.

Takeaway: Think about the language that your organization is using, because the words that we use on an everyday basis have a huge impact on the way that we see things and as a result, our performance and results. And depending on how big your company is, don’t just let one culture define the entire organization. Intentional thought should be given to performance cultures for the various departments and locations, as well.

2. Observe

Walt refused to build an administration building for management at Disneyland. His response? “I don’t want you guys sitting behind desks. I want you out in the park, watching what people are doing and finding out how you can make the place more enjoyable for them.”

And when cast members started to leave the park to grab lunch, Walt told them to instead eat on park grounds so they could continually observe guests—and figure out how to make things better.

Walt would even disguise himself and walk around the park incognito. He once rode the Jungle Boat ride and found that the ride had taken 4.5 minutes instead of the 7 minutes that it should take—so he made the boat pilots wear stopwatches to get the timing exactly right. He later came back and took the ride several times to make sure that the “show” and timing was just how it should be.

Disney staff not only observes, but they also actively seek to find out how they can better serve their guests. To that end, they have face-to-face surveys with guests and “listening posts” to answer any guest problems. They hold focus groups and send out guest letters and emails to find out what guests are satisfied with and what they are dissatisfied with. They do everything they possibly can to find out more about their customers and how to improve upon things.

Takeaway: Get everyone at your organization to continuously observe how things are being done and what can be done better. No one single person should be in charge of that; it’s everyone’s job.

3. Know Your Customers

On that note, one of the worst things you can do as an organization is to assume that you know what your customers want.

Disney is aware of this and for that reason, they are guided by a “compass.” One of the things on that compass is “guestology,” which is the study of their guests. Guestology aims to determine needs (what do guests need when they come to Disney?); wants (what do people want when they come to Disney?); stereotypes (what do customers think of Disney?); and emotions (what feelings do customers have when they come into contact with Disney?). Note that needs are not the same as wants. As the book notes, when people come to Disney, they need a vacation. They want life-long memories with family or friends. Guests may expect certain things when they come to Disney (stereotypes). And they will experience a mix of emotions while they are there: excitement (while riding the rides), happiness and probably frustration or impatience (while waiting in the long lines).

Disney found out that their guests want three things: access (so not to be blocked by voicemail, restrictions and scheduling difficulties); respect; and information communication (to be well informed).

Takeaway: Whatever they may be, knowing the needs, wants, stereotypes and emotions that your customers have with your organization can help you to better serve them. Take the time to find out what it is that your customers want—and then give it to them.

4. Define a Common Purpose – and Stand by It

Disney’s common purpose is “a living theme, not just a sentence on a plaque, and it serves three critical needs: it clearly defines the organization’s mission, it communicates a message internally, and it creates an image of the organization.”

Takeaway: What is the common purpose of your company? More importantly, does everyone stand by it and let it guide them each and every day? If not, how can you expect your customers to really respect you and your business if you don’t practice what you preach?

5. Define and Prioritize Your Quality Standards

Disney’s common purpose is fulfilled through their quality standards, which they have defined (and prioritized) as the following: safety, courtesy, show and capacity (or efficiency). The prioritization part is very important. Otherwise, what happens when situations arise that conflict with one another? The book gives the example of someone in a wheelchair who is trying to get on the bus but is struggling. What do you do in this situation, since safety and efficiency are both quality standards? Well, since safety comes first, you make sure that the person gets safely on the bus before continuing (even if efficiency is sacrificed in the end).

Next, you’ll need to define the primary service-delivery systems or methods by which quality service is implemented. For Disney, that is cast, setting and process. Some delivery systems are better aligned with certain standards, and those are referred to in the book as “headliners.”

Takeaway: What are the things that are most important to your company? In other words, what standards do you need to abide by in order to fulfill your company purpose? And then, how will those standards be implemented? Finally, make sure that everyone you work with is fully aware of those quality standards and how they should be prioritized, as well as their delivery systems.

6. Always Improve Process

At SUCCESS agency, one of our internal mottos is always improving process. We always try to question what we are currently doing, the way that we are doing it and how it can maybe be done better.

As Disney recommends, you should study your customers. What do they complain about? What issues do they encounter on a regular basis? The answers to these questions are “combustion statements” or hints at the process issues that you should be addressing.

The book mentions four of the most typically universal “combustion points” or issues with service-process: customer flow, employee-to-customer communication, customers with special needs and poor process design. Every business should be paying close attention to these combustion points and making sure that there are processes implemented to avoid any issues.

Takeaway: Don’t assume that your processes are fine the way they are. Think about what combustion points might exist in your organization and then figure out how you can best address them.

7. Hire Correctly

How can you provide excellent customer service if you don’t have the right people on board? If you hire unhappy employees, chances are, you’re not going to provide the greatest customer service.

That’s why Disney takes hiring so seriously (in case you forgot, courtesy ranked second, behind safety, on their quality standards). They make it a point to hire friendly people. Moreover, they create high expectations from the get-go, with “casting centers” (or hiring facilities) that are representative of Disney. As soon as people walk into that casting center for their interview, they are wowed. That sets the stage for what’s to come and sends the message to applicants that the hiring process is something that they don’t take lightly.

Once hired, there are several orientations that take place, which teach cast members everything they need to know about Disney and how to do their job. By the time cast members finish with orientation, they are ready to provide the level of customer service excellence that Disney expects from them.

Takeaway: Be smart in who you hire. Create high expectations from the start—that way, if someone is not a good fit for your organization, they are more likely to be weeded out before getting hired. Provide training and orientation for your employees once they are hired. At the very least, make sure that they are well aware of your expectations, goals and values.

8. Keep Your Team Members Informed 

Disney also does a great job at keeping its cast members informed on a regular basis.

The Walt Disney World Library and Research Center is designed exclusively for cast members to learn more about Disney. They also send out location-specific site information to the cast members that it’s relevant to. For example, they send out a Bus Bulletin, which is a bi-weekly newspaper for cast members that work in bus-transportation.

As one Disney visitor, Carmine Gallo, said, “One Disneyland employee I talked to even knew the times of a show at another end of the park and how long the show would last. Most employees at other businesses are not trained to communicate. They are trained to take your money and that’s it—the exact opposite of the Disney customer service experience.”

Takeaway: Knowledge is power. Rather than just assuming that your employees are in the loop about everything taking place within your company, keep them informed, whether it’s through company-wide newsletters or bulletin boards that post regular updates. The more that your employees know about your organization, the greater bond they will feel with it, the more knowledgeable they will become, and the better able they will be to serve your customers.

9. Keep Customers Informed

At the end of the day, customers just want to be informed. The other day, I had a hair appointment, and the salon called me to ask if I could come in at 2PM instead of 1:30, since they were running a bit late. Rather than keep me waiting after I already got there, they had the courtesy to phone me ahead of time to let me know that things were running a bit behind, which I appreciated.

In similar fashion, Disney does everything they can to keep their guests in the loop. They even have Tip Boards which help guests to plan out their days by providing them with estimated wait times of the rides. And they always overestimate so that the guests are pleasantly surprised when the wait is shorter.

Takeaway: Give your customers regular updates on things. The trick is to let them know before they even have to ask. And if you are giving your customer an ETA on something, remember that it’s always better to overestimate than to underestimate.

10. Cater to Each Individual and Culture

Not every customer is the same. So why should they be treated as such?

Disney knows this and determines the “service attention processes” or “processes that serve guests whose needs cannot be satisfied by existing processes.”

For Disney, there are three groups of people who have greater needs: international guests, children and guests with disabilities. In order to cater to international guests, like Brazilians, Disney offers translation services. For children, they offer “discovery booklets,” which can be filled with stickers as the children hop around from place to place. And guests with disabilities are given passes so that, upon seeing the pass, cast members will become immediately aware of what kind of disability that individual has.

Disney found that the Chinese culture was uncomfortable with how friendly the staff was, so for Hong Kong Disneyland, they altered the behavior of cast members to cater more to the guests and be more respectful of their culture.

Takeaway: Determine if you have any groups of customers with needs that demand a bit more attention. Then, find out how you can best meet those needs.

11. Create a Magical Experience

Disney is all about creating experiences. But not just any experience. They create magic. Anything less is unacceptable.

As is mentioned in Be Our Guest, every single company out there is customer-facing: “everyone needs to know how to create service magic.”

Furthermore, “…we are in a new age of competition that they called the Experience Economy. Goods and services are simply props to engage the customers in this new era. Customers want memorable experiences, and companies must become stagers of experiences.”

Disney claims that its cast members are “onstage” whenever they are in front of guests and “offstage” whenever they are out of guests’ sight. This is because they create a show for their guests, which starts the minute the guests set foot on park grounds and only ends when they leave. When cast members are “onstage,” they have got to look the part and be ready to create that show.

Disney also knows that experience includes the setting and objects within that setting. It’s every single little detail, from the landscaping, lighting and design to the smells, music and general ambiance.

Disney also recommends taking advantage of in-between areas, like parking lots and waiting rooms, since customers generally have low expectations of these areas. I went to a doctor’s appointment recently and in the waiting room, there was a refrigerator with bottles of water, a coffee machine where I could make a variety of different coffee drinks (and tea), and comfortable seating. I had to wait about 40 minutes, but didn’t really mind because the waiting area made for such a pleasant experience.

Takeaway: Think about what you can do to create magic for your customers. And pay close attention to the details.

12. Make a Not-so-Great Experience Just a Little Better

Unfortunately, not every interaction that a customer has with your company is going to be fun. The same is even true of a theme park like Disney. One of the most tedious things about going to Disney is waiting in the lines. Sometimes, guests might even wait hours for just one ride. Disney makes this experience just a little bit better by entertaining guests while they are in line. They also provide something called FASTPASS, which allows guests to reserve spots in line and significantly reduce their wait time.

Takeaway: What types of negative experiences do customers have with your company? For an e-commerce company, maybe it’s something simple like filling out the credit card information at checkout. Make this process as easy and painless as possible.

Or maybe customers get frustrated waiting on the phone to speak with a customer service representative. If you can’t eliminate the wait time, then at least make the experience a bit better for the customer. Offer to give them a call back, so they don’t have to sit on hold for however long. Think of little ways that you can make those bad experiences even just a little bit better.

13. Exceed Expectations

Another thing that Disney succeeds at is going above and beyond to exceed customer expectations. For instance, the book talks about how, if a guest is asking a cast member for directions, instead of pointing to where something is, they will walk the guest there. If people look like they want their picture taken, the friendly cast members will offer to take their picture, before they even have to ask. When little things like this happen over and over again, they add up to create a very positive experience for the guest.

Takeaway: Don’t just do the bare minimum for your customers. Think like Disney and think about the ways that you can go above and beyond for them. That’s what’s going to make people come back again and again.

14. Pay Attention to Detail

To say that Walt Disney was a stickler for detail is an understatement. He was obsessive about getting everything just right and encouraged everyone who worked at Disney to approach things the same way. He even succeeded in creating an ambient sound system throughout the park, so the sound levels would be the same everywhere. A simple sound system just wasn’t enough for him.

Park designers also determined the exact distance that an average person would carry a piece of trash before tossing it aside. Based on what they found, they then spaced out the trash cans to be that exact distance from one another.

Here’s another example: Each of Disney’s hotel doors have one peephole for adults and another one for children.

Thanks to Walt’s influence, Disney focuses on all those little details that are probably not even consciously noticed by guests, but add to the overall experience and help to exceed expectations.

Takeaway: Remember that it’s the little things that add up and make all the difference.

15. Never Stop Growing

As the book mentions, “Whereas you might achieve a goal or complete a strategy, you cannot fulfill a purpose; it is like a guiding star on the horizon—forever pursued but never reached…the very fact that purpose can never be fully realized means that an organization can never stop simulating change and progress.”

“Always growing” is another one of our internal mottos at SUCCESS agency. We believe in it so strongly that each one of us on the team is paid to devote 10 hours a month to Intentional Learning, or deliberate learning that helps us move closer to achieving our career goals.

Takeaway: Growth is a never-ending process. And it’s essential to progress. Ensure that your organization—and everyone in it—never stops growing.