What time is the 3 o’clock parade? Disney’s Approach to Quality Customer Service

If you were a man wearing a Mickey Mouse costume for eight hours under a blisteringly hot Florida sun, you would expect to be forgiven for snapping when the hundredth person came up to you and asked: "What time is the 3 o’clock parade?"

Yet at Disney World’s Magic Kingdom theme park, Mickey, Goofy, Cinderella and indeed any "cast member" (the term Disney uses to describe its staff) is expected to respond politely to such a seemingly inane question.

And respond politely, they do, at least as far as I can see. With a white gloved wave and a jolly lilt in his high pitched voice, the sweaty Mickey explains when the guests can expect to see the parade go by and even offers suggestions on the best place to view it.

It can leave those of us accustomed to surly service regardless of how reasonable our request may have been wondering if Disney has come up with a secret regime that somehow brainwashes its employees into happy, jolly automatons?

"We make sure our cast members understand what’s behind the question," explains Disney facilitator Alicia Matheson.

The customer isn’t really asking the time for the parade, she says. What they want to know is where should they watch it? At what time will the parade pass by the area where the customer is now?

So everyone, from the ice cream seller to the man in the Goofy costume, is expected to read into the question that a customer is asking, and go "above and beyond" to answer not only the literal question but also the intention behind it.

Matheson was leading a workshop on Disney’s approach to Quality Service in Orlando, Florida. It’s one of several corporate training courses that the Disney Institute – a training division of the company better known for its animated cartoons and theme parks - offers on everything from corporate leadership through to business excellence. The course included a site visit to the Magic Kingdom, headquarters of Cinderella’s castle, to understand the "business behind the magic" as the workshop manual puts it.

Visitors to Disney World in Florida are ushered in through the main gates and greeted by a giant Mickey Mouse head created out of flowers on an embankment in front of them – purple ears, white face, yellow nose. Above the floral rodent a slogan: "Let the memories begin."

Memories - that’s what Disney has been selling since it was founded in the 1920s.

As we wander down "Main Street USA", pumping happy music envelops us. A parade of dancing animals, enormously tall neon-clad men on stilts, and waving women done up in period costumes whirl past our group.

It may verge vaguely on the bizarre - a whirly burly of bright colors, throbbing tunes, and animated beasts - but this is no Mickey Mouse business. "The goal is to create a sustainable competitive advantage. It is important that each time you visit Disney you have a consistently excellent experience," says Matheson.

And the company takes a practical approach to the booming business of happiness: "Keep it clean…Keep it friendly…Make it a fun place to be."

The streets of Main Street USA are spotless with hanging baskets filled to overflowing with petunias in full bloom. The smell of popcorn and sweet candy fills the air and shops offer instant gratification for any consumer need – from sunscreen to jewelry to snacks.

And that’s one of the keys to success at Disney, anticipating the needs of customers and then executing brilliantly.

"Price, quality, and special features of a product" are important, according to the Disney Institute training manual, but they "are not enough to ensure repeat business" because "people don’t just buy things – they buy expectations about performance and service."

So what does a company that gave us animated rodents to teach us about customer service and creating a "consistently excellence experience"? Here are a few of the takeaways from the workshop:

Really understand your customer and give them more than they want

Who are they? What drives them? Where do they come from? And what you do with that information once you have it?

Disney for instance, knows the following details about their customers: New York is where most visitors to the Florida theme park come from. Family size of four is the average. Most spend 2-3 years saving to come to Disney and many will only come once in their life. The average length of stay is 6-7 days. So what do they do with this information?

They hire a lot of their "cast members" from New York (people relate well to people like them). Rides are set up to comfortably accommodate families of four. And given the amount of time that families spend saving to visit the park, Disney recognizes how important it is for guests to have a good experience.

Make life easy for your customers (so they'll buy more)

What are the services you can offer customers that will make them happier and more likely to spend more money with you?

Disney has devised a system – the "fast track ticket" – to reduce the amount of time that customers have to spend queuing for rides. The fast track ticket essentially gives customers an approximate time to arrive for the ride so that they can spend their time elsewhere in the park. Customers are happy because they don’t spend the whole day standing in a line up, and Disney is happy because customers have more time to browse in the shops and make purchases.

Additionally, they offer to either take a customer’s purchases directly to their hotel (if staying at a Disney Resort hotel) or to a pick up point at the theme park. This means that customers don’t have to carry bags around all day – not only convenient for customers but also making it more likely that they’ll make more purchases.

Help your customers help you deliver what they want

What are the small changes in your business that you can make right now that would make life easier for your customers and make life easier for you to deliver good service to them?

The right systems and well-thought approaches go a long way to achieving this. For instance, Disney customers expect cleanliness. In fantasyland there can be wicked witches but no litter. So Disney has a garbage can every 27 steps after conducting a study that found this was the maximum length of time that people were willing to hold onto waste before dumping it on the ground. Customers have readily available garbage cans and Disney can easily maintain the cleanliness for which it is famous.


Translate the vision and the brand to all levels of the organization

Do your employees understand how they contribute to the big picture?

"We have over 2000 roles, but only one purpose," says Matheson. "And when people understand their purpose they do things differently."

Disney’s laundry service – which handles around 240,000 pound per day at one single resort – is a case in point. According to a Disney Institute "Talking Point", the amount of laundry that the Walt Disney World Resort days in one day, it would take an individual 44 years to process the same amount assuming that you were washing and drying one load of laundry every day.

That's a lot of wash. And according to Matheson, the laundry service used to have an extremely high labour turnover - up to 75% of staff annually. To rectify this, Disney began a program to help laundry staff members understand how laundry was critical to the overall success of the business – guests don’t appreciate dirty linens.

"We cross train everyone to give them not only the opportunity for flexibility and advancement" explained Ken Miratsky, operations manager, quoted in a Laundry Today (yes there is a trade publication for everything!) article on ‘The Happiest Laundry on Earth’. "But also to understand the importance of everyone else's job here in the plant - to feel the meaning of teamwork. After six months or so in the training program, we take them out to the resorts so they can go into the guest rooms and see the towels and sheets they just produced, ready and waiting for the guests. It gives meaning to the work."

By clearly linking how their individual job tied in directly to overall business success, Disney was able to reduce that rate of staff churn to 7% within two years and today it’s down to 3% according to Matheson.

"There’s no menial job," she says. "If every job doesn’t tie back to the overall goals and objectives, then why do you have it?"

Even Cinderella needs a smoke break

But everyone needs a little bit of downtime and beneath Disney World there is a series of interconnected tunnels that run beneath the length and width of the park. It’s an enormous staff room where "cast members" come to escape from the happy craziness that resides above ground.

Down there, the whine of a forklift and 1990’s pop music injects a cadence of reality to fantasyland. Indeed, we could be in any industrial office block with its long corridors of bare concrete walls and floors, exposed piping running the length of the ceiling, and fluorescent lights casting an orange glow. The only reminder that we’re at Disney are the various posters on notice boards: "I go above and beyond when I anticipate needs and offer assistance," suggests Mickey helpfully on one.

"The employees need somewhere they can come and just relax," says Matheson and I’m happy to hear that even Disney Cast Members need some relief from time to time – proof positive that they're human.

"If you see Cinderella on a smoke break, don’t be alarmed – it’s perfectly normal," Matheson adds. "Just don’t tell the children."