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Customer Service and the Disney Myth

(Reprinted with permission from the Winning at Work newsletter)

The Disney MythWhenever there’s talk about outstanding customer service, the names that inevitably comes up are Disney World and Disneyland. For good reason – they are shining examples of the success an organization can achieve by focusing on customer experience. Because of this, they are often held up as aspirational models for organizations who would like to replicate Disney’s success in their own industries.

The giant myth, however, is that Disney’s success can be replicated by simply studying and implementing their practices. A great many companies have tried, but very few, if any, see the kind of transformation they were hoping for.

The reasons for this are twofold. First, unlike most companies, Disney’s model was based on customer experience from the very beginning. As Walt Disney said to his original investors, “The idea of Disneyland is a simple one. It will be a place for people to find happiness and knowledge.” That is how the parks began, and the roots from which they continue to grow. It is very different to grow organically from an original organizational vision than it is to transform an organization to a new vision.

The second reason is that Disney’s practices are only a small part of their success model. The important part, the critical part, is what happens at the very top of the organization.

Disney is successful because, from the CEO on down, they believe that the better the customer experience they deliver, the more successful they will be. Customer experience isn’t a thing. It’s not a division or a KPI. It’s their primary mission, and is the primary standard by which they make all decisions. Disney doesn’t just invest a little into customer experience, they invest everything. This cult-like fanaticism to deliver outstanding customer experience begins with the executive office, and from there seeps down through the organization.

When companies try and reinvent themselves as a customer-centric organizations, the tier that is rarely asked to transform is the executive level. Instead, the companies focus primarily on improving the customer touchpoints. The result is like trying to plant the only the visible part of an oak tree, without including the supporting root system. There is nothing to give the tree ongoing nourishment to grow and flourish, and nothing to prevent it from blowing over at the first gust of wind.

It’s a lesson we all can learn from. Most of us already understand that to thrive in today’s hyper-competitive world, an organization needs to be focused on continuously improving customer experience. It requires training, process improvement, scrutiny of policies, and diligence in hiring and onboarding. But in today’s world, those are simply the table stakes. They alone will not turn you into a Disney-esque customer service organization. To reach that level, you need a powerful, passionate, clear vision from the top, and unwavering disciples who fervently believe the dream.

That, of course, is the hard part – getting everyone at the top to be true disciples. Most prefer to watch the bandwagon from the sidelines, rather than jump on and drive things. As Disney himself said, “I could never convince the financiers that Disneyland was feasible, because dreams offer too little collateral.”

It’s a daunting challenge, but if you can get everyone sharing the same dream, everything else begins to fall into place.

“The world’s greatest leaders in business and society are characterized by a clear vision of what could be, and a relentless pursuit in getting there.”  – Shaun Belding

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