Customer experience will always be present in whatever industry you may be in, and its impact on your business always comes in a big scale. The President of Snow & Associates, Dennis Snow, joins Jesse Cole in this episode to talk about customer service and the role it plays in your success. Using twenty years of his experience with Walt Disney World, Dennis shares the best practices he’s learned in improving your relationship with your people and providing customers with exceptional service. Learn how to create the best working environment for your people and how to empower them with something as simple as your presence.
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Customer Experience: The Key To A Successful Business With Dennis Snow
We are bringing some Disney traditions and magic with the author of Lessons from the Mouse and Unleashing Excellence, the man, the myth and the man that once played Captain Nemo. Dennis Snow, welcome.
Thank you so much. I’m honored that you’ve invited me. I’m excited that we’re finally able to meet, at least virtually.
I know. It’s been a while. I sent you the first letter after reading Lessons from the Mouse and the impact it’s had on us and in our team. You have the experience, twenty years working with Disney, sharing it for twenty years. I want to think differently and go into the whole route of Disney and how they do everything. I’d like to go back to you, Dennis. When you first got hired, nineteen years old, tell me about the hiring process, walking back there and how it happened.
It was going to be a three-month job. My plan was to work at Disney for three months on a break from college. I came down and you go through what’s called the casting process. That’s a carefully chosen word because they want you to realize you’re not being hired for a bunch of tasks. You’re being cast for a role in the show. The tasks are part of that show but it’s bigger. You go through an intensive interview process and for the onstage positions. There are certain things that they’re looking for, that approachability, that natural gift of being able to connect with people, share stories and those kinds of things. They’re looking for that. You go through the casting process. You go to what’s called the casting center, which is a much bigger deal than it was back in 1979 where there are videos and statues and all kinds of stuff in there, but the philosophy is the same. They’re trying to find people who are wired to focus on the guest experience. Disney calls their customers guests. That’s what they’re looking for.
It was a three-month job. It was a part-time position to start with.
That was the plan. It was not even part-time. It was a temporary position during a peak period. There was a definite end time to it. I fell in love with the place. What was going to be a three-month job turned out to be a twenty-year career. I was fortunate enough to be hired to work at an attraction called 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Captain Nemo. Most people start working on the front lines at Disney, whether it’s in a food and beverage location, attractions. That’s still the best job I’ve ever had, by the way, driving those submarines that don’t go underwater. It’s still the best job I’ve ever had. After that, they put you through what’s called Disney Traditions, which is the onboarding process. I don’t know if you want to get to that later. You wanted me to describe that?
We could dive in now. For us, we hire 150 part-time staff. Many people hire part-time. The process that you went through, what did they want to find out? How do they ask questions?
It’s evolved over time since then. It’s evolved but it is an open-ended question circus. They’re throwing these open-ended questions out to you. At nineteen, I didn’t have a lot of experience to look back on. I was a waiter. I was a dishwasher in a restaurant before that. They would ask you to tell stories. They would ask you to share what you did if a customer got upset. How did you handle that? Why do you want to work here? What do you know about Disney? What energizes you about work? What they’re looking for is that authenticity.
They’re not looking for a single personality. They’re looking for people who authentically want to deal with other people that want to interact with other people. That isn’t one personality. There are a lot of different ways to do that. That’s what they’re looking for. Since that time, they worked with the Gallup organization and other organizations and studying their best cast members in the different roles. The people who you would say, “If we could clone these folks.” They’re studying what they do, asking questions, and designing their interview process on the responses from those superstar cast members in those roles. It’s become more and more refined.
I’m fascinated. What did they find? What I’ve learned is that with these types of positions, extroverts, people that have energy that can communicate and talk. Did they find something similar? Did they find something different? I’m fascinated by what they were looking for.
Keep in mind over time, they’ve studied different roles within the organization, but what they have found is the authenticity. The genuine authenticity of, “I want to help other people. I want to be part of this organization.” Their focus is on making people happy, people who are willing to deal with challenging situations. You know from your business, not everything always goes the way you want it to. The quicker that’s being handled by people that are out there on the front line, the better. They’re looking for people who can think quickly on their feet. It’s not so much about personality as much as it is about the authenticity. There were cast members that I worked with who were energetic. Others were more reserved, but every one of them, you could tell they genuinely cared.
They genuinely wanted to do the right thing. They showed up to work on time. They did the things they were supposed to do. That’s what they were looking for. One of the things they do, which I thought is a brilliant idea, is before you even get interviewed, they show you a video of what it means to work here because most people, they’ve been there as a guest. Let’s go backstage and talk about the realities of the place. We work while others play. When you first join the organization, your schedule is going to be crazy. The appearance guidelines, they go into all of this. The numbers may have changed a bit, I don’t know, but it’ll be close. They found out about 15% of applicants screened themselves out before they even interview. That covers pay and all of the other things, too. A certain amount of people said, “This isn’t for me.”
That video is sent by Disney. That’s on their website. That’s before they apply?We all have a role to play, and none of these roles are easy. Click To Tweet
They go to the casting center and they watch the video before they get interviewed.
This is fascinating from Disney. It’s a great takeaway. Look at your best people, whether it’s frontline, it’s full-time, find out what they have, maybe interview them or talk to them. Find out the traits that they have and then ask questions that can find out do these people have those traits.
Not that you’re going to hear the exact words from each applicant, but you’re hearing the themes that you heard from your superstars. What does it take to get your best performance? What does it take to get your best performance from a leader? Those kinds of things. How your strongest people would respond to that type of question is going to give you an idea of, “Is this person going to be right?” Another thing that they do is, the people who do the interviews are all former frontline cast members. They don’t get it right 100% of the time, but they can tell quickly if this person is going to be right or not.
I’m sure some of the superstars that are doing the interviews, it’s not the people that produce the average. This is good, Dennis. One thing that we do, we do undercover fan where all of us go undercover as a fan to experience the ballpark. We’re also doing frontline fan, where every one of us, our full-time, goes and works a position on the frontline for a day, whether it’s at a cash register, serving ice cream, serving beer. That’s done at Disney.
For your readers, that is worth its weight in gold, what you do there. If every company would do that because we do this at Disney, it’s a program called cross-utilization. During peak periods, anybody in backstage positions would be scheduled for at least one on-stage shift, including all management, whether it’s bussing tables, loading people on a track. They would put us anywhere we couldn’t hurt anybody, sweeping the street. It did a few things. First of all, it reconnected you with what we’re all about. It’s not about this spreadsheet or this computer program. It’s about this that’s happening out in the park. It definitely reconnected you with that.
It also reminded you about how hard those jobs are. I’ll never forget one time my assignment was scooping ice cream on the ice cream parlor on Main Street, USA. I had no idea how hard that job was because my arm was exhausted. In about an hour, I had a claw. It reconnects you back with how hard those jobs were. It gives you a new appreciation for it. That was one of those things that I thought was a powerful program. Program isn’t the right word. It’s a powerful approach to reconnecting everybody back to what the real business was and acknowledge that we all had a role to play and none of these roles are easy.
The terminology for Disney is guests. We use fans for everything. Even our people, we look at them as fans. Everything is fans. When was the last time you served a fan? You get up and you become an executive. When was the last time you serve them and you’re saying, “We want you to be like this, animated, not automated?” They want you to be like this, but you haven’t done it. That’s important for leadership to give permission to your people on how they act by demonstrating yourself. There are a lot of reasons why I wear a crazy yellow tuxedo. One of them is to give permission for people to have fun. Do not take them seriously. If you’re an owner that’s sitting up in their box, watching a baseball game, having the finest food while everyone else is working, what does that show your people?
That was another thing that was required when I was working in the parks. The best title that I have ever had is I was the supervisor of Fantasyland. Can you imagine? It’s the best title I’ve ever had. In those supervisory positions, management positions in the parks, we were required to spend at least 70% of our time out there in our area of responsibility. The idea was to be interacting with the guest, interacting with the cast members, helping out where it’s needed, coaching as needed, encouraging as needed, all of those things. It wasn’t about sitting up in the ivory tower and making pronouncements. It was about being out there with the park. That went back to Walt Disney’s philosophy. When they built Disneyland, one of the things that were on the books that they had talked about was building some nice offices for management. Walt’s statement was, “I don’t want management sitting in offices. I want them out in the park. We’re not going to build these nice offices. I want you out in the park.” That’s gone on from there.
Going back to the Walt, obviously, he went from getting the job, going through the interviews, and some of the approaches that Disney takes, Disney Traditions. You helped run a little bit of Disney Traditions.
I’m part of the program for a while.
I’m fascinated by this because I feel like a lot of companies hire someone but you don’t get to know what day one was like and how it opened. Tell us a little bit about Disney Traditions and how that’s taught and how companies can utilize it.
The onboarding process in any company is something that that cast member, employee, team member is going to remember forever. They’re going to remember the first day forever. Whether it was lousy or whether it was fabulous, they’re going to remember. The first thing that you do when you join the company, before you ever set foot out in the park or whatever your job location is, you go to the Disney University and you go through Disney Traditions. Disney Traditions is a two-day program. One day is focused on the heritage and the traditions. The second day is a little more operational.
Day one, that’s where the magic is because they go into things like where all this came from because many people joining the organization, they don’t know who Walt Disney was. They’ve heard the name. They know he was a person, but they don’t know the legacies, the challenges, the creativity, and all of those things. The first day is spent focusing on the traditions. Where all this came from? It’s inspirational and talking about some of the innovations and the amazing things that Walt Disney and his team created. If any of those had failed along the way, the company may not exist now.
How is that taught? Obviously, Walt, knowing his story, he mortgaged his life, mortgaged his house, mortgage everything to make it work. Me and my wife have some familiarity with that. How is it taught? Is it videos? Is it lectures? Are there pamphlets?
It’s a combination. Frontline cast members who are chosen carefully for what they call the Disney Traditions Assistance. It’s people who have been out there on the job, they are the instructors. We’ll use lecture. It doesn’t feel like a lecture. It feels like a conversation. A lot of videos, obviously, because we want to bring Walt to life, show what that was all about and the history of the company and some of the innovations. Interactive discussion with teams. Talking about how this applies and the job that you’re going to have. It’s a combination of all of those things, lecture, video, interaction. I went through it in 1979 and it feels like it was yesterday. I remember the whole thing. I remember the guy who taught the program. This is the key leadership point that comes out of Disney Traditions.
Here you have this nineteen-year-old kid from Vermont who thought this was going to be a three-month job, “I’m going to have a great time. I’m going to Disney World. I’m going to have fun. Three months, goodbye.” They went through all of these things and what was expected too about your role in the show of this. I had this legacy on my shoulders, where I knew that every interaction that I had with a guest, that legacy was on the line. I believe our people should carry legacies. There should be a little bit of a burden on their shoulders that says, “I can’t screw this up. Look at everything that went into making this happen. I can’t be the one that screws this up.” I came out of that inspired, focused on, “This is a special place.”
The second day was all about some of the operational things that you had to take care of, doing CPR and some of those things that you have to do. After that, you went out for your on-the-job training. I went to 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. I had a trainer who was carefully chosen, the best of the best. I remember Jeff. I can picture him. I can picture the whole thing. His job was to connect what I learned in Traditions to driving the submarines at 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. I was a seamless approach to onboarding a new person into the organization. It worked well.
Knowing what I know of you, I’m sure, you’ve got to be relentless in keeping the message in front of people all the time. One of the questions I get asked about every program I do is people will say, “How long is the training at Disney?” I always say, “It starts when you say, ‘I’d like to have a job here.’” When you go through the hiring process, you’re treated as a guest. It’s a carefully orchestrated thing. It’s a Disney thing. You then go through that traditions program. You go through the on-the-job training. You’re having team meetings. You’re having management updates. You’re seeing posters on the walls. You’re seeing videos in the cafeteria. It’s around you all the time.
You said training there but earlier you said coaching and teaching. We don’t use the word training. We feel dogs are trained. People want to be coached and mentored. The whole mindset of training is like you get your training wheels and then they come off. Training, you do and then you’re done. Coaching, teaching continues. It sounds like that’s part of the language that’s used at Disney.
You’re right on the coaching part. One of the things in the programs that I do, especially with leadership groups, one of the things I spent a lot of time focusing on is the role of a leader as a coach because coaching is real-time training. If something happens, there’s a situation, there’s an issue that somebody could have handled better, which happens. The sooner you address that issue and connect it back to the purpose of the organization, what your purpose is and connect what happened back to that purpose and what corrections need to be made and those kinds of things, that’s real-time training. That’s as good as training gets. They’re challenged by it.
One of the most powerful things that leaders need to be doing is looking for opportunities to coach. The other side of that too, which is part of coaching, is recognition. When you see that person that steps up and handles a challenging issue or at least attempts, gives their best shot, to handle a challenging issue rather than ignoring it, living the values, one of the most powerful things we can do as a leader in those case is to say, “How you handled that was amazing.” That’s who we are. That beats any prize, any certificate that you might give somebody. I’m not against prizes. I’m not belittling prizes, but I always said, “Never let the prize become the thing. Emotion is the thing.” A prize can represent the recognition, but it’s the emotion of the recognition that’s critical. To me, that’s part of coaching.
When I was at World of Disney in Disney Springs, the biggest retail store, and I was asking the numbers and they said, “Sometimes we have as many 500 cast members and 30,000 people.” I’m like, “What?” The numbers are staggering. I saw one of the supervisors, the leaders, the managers, and I observed him for a little bit. I was watching him. I noticed something and I went up to him. I said, “What is your job here?” He goes, “You see all these people that come in here, those aren’t my guests. You see the people over here, these are my guests.” He goes, “Those are my guests. I’m watching them to see how I can help coach and lead and help them in situations.” He was watching each cast member, not as a judgment but like, “How can I serve them?” I was like, “Wow.” Imagine if every leader looked solely to serve their people as their guest. It was fascinating.
Another thing that’s connected with that when you’re in the park, next time you come down and I know you come down to Disney a lot, watch for the people who are obviously in management, the people who are dressed in plainclothes. Most of them will have, what they call nabby-grabbers in their hands. The device used to pick up trash off the ground. That’s everybody’s job. It doesn’t matter if you’re in custodial. It doesn’t matter if you’re Captain Nemo. It doesn’t matter if you’re the vice president of marketing. You see a piece of trash on the ground. It’s your job to go over and pick it up and throw it away.
Everyone is a janitor.
You’ll see the management people walking around with these nabby-grabbers and they’re picking up cups out of planters and all that. The number one compliment Disney World gets is how clean it is. That’s the number one compliment. It’s how clean it is. I also look at the message that that communicates to that frontline cast member, especially that brand new frontline cast member. When they see this well-dressed person picking stuff the out of a planter and asking the trainer, “Who’s that?” “That’s our manager,” or “That’s the vice president of the park.” That’s a powerful coaching moment to see that. One of my all-time favorite photographs of Walt Disney, and I know you’re also a Walt Disney fan, there’s a great photo of Walt Disney picking up trash at Disneyland. I don’t know if this is the case, but what I like to imagine is that brand new cast member being trained, looking over and saying to the trainer, “Who’s that?” “That’s Walt Disney. Look at what he’s doing. He’s picking up trash out there.”
I want to get into the wows and the fun and being animated and not automated. I do have one more question about Disney University and the coaching that goes on. You said in the book, “Research showed employee knowledge was a priority at Disney.” Making sure people knew how to answer questions and preparing for questions, the question behind the question. How is that taught? I want to know how you do that.
They teach it in a fun way. They talk about the questions that people are going to ask because people are out of their comfort zone. You know this and we all dealt with it, the classic question at Disney is, “What time is the 3:00 parade?” When they’re teaching that Traditions program and somebody said, “What time is the 3:00 parade?” Everybody laughs. Let’s go a little bit deeper. Let’s talk about what’s being asked. In this case, what’s being asked is, “What time does the 3:00 parade get to this particular location?” That makes sense.
I would be standing there in my Captain Nemo costume. It’s a sailor suit. They prepare this. Guests will come up and say, “Do you work here?” In the back of your mind, you’re thinking, “I’m a grown man.” What they’re asking is, “Can you help me?” Some of them ask in a funny way, “Do you work here?” What they’re asking is, “Can you help me?” During that Traditions program, they talk about the question that you’re asked 100 times a day, that guest is asking for the first time and you need to treat it with respect. You need to treat it with enthusiasm. I’m sure your people they get, “Where’s the restroom?”
“What time does the game start?” We get asked all the time, but if the question, “What time should I show up? Where should I be?”
That’s the real question. It’s educating people on those types of scenarios because you’re going to deal with them.
It’s someone’s first time asking that question. Our president and my wife always share, “Every game is someone’s first game.” They’re coming in here, you might get asked a question 100 times, but it’s their first time seeing the Bananas, you better be ready to treat it like it’s their first time.
It may be a one-time thing for that fan. That was the other thing that they stressed with us. When I first joined Disney, a ticket to get in the park was $7.50. It’s not $7.50 anymore. People save for years in some cases. This may be the only time in their whole life that they come. That’s another thing that they reinforce with their people is you come here every day. You know where everything is. You know the behind the scenes. For this person, they may have saved for years and this may be a one-shot deal for them. We need to treat every guest like a VIP.
It’s almost putting the legacy on too, a little bit. We should probably, much of 1/1,000th degree, but we have people come from all over the world to come to one game. That’s why every night we go through the crowd and say, “Who’s the furthest from home?” We don’t just do it to show the crowd, we show our people. From Japan, Indonesia, Guatemala, all coming to a game so that our staff knows this is bigger than just a baseball game and you’re putting that legacy on them.
You bring up an excellent point right there. It’s bigger than a baseball game. I know you agree with this. One of the things that they stressed with us and they continue to stress is Disney is not selling rides. They’re selling an experience. From the moment you start planning your trip to the moment you leave, everything in between, that’s the product. The rides are part of it just like baseball. There are a lot of other moving elements and that’s all part of the product. Usually, if something goes wrong, it’s not about that thing. It’s not about the game. It’s not about the ride. It’s something around that went wrong that ticks people off. You have to look at that bigger picture of what is it we’re providing that differentiates us from every other option that they have out there.
This is dangerous, two big Disney fans are talking. You were talking about the experience there. One big takeaway for our whole team when we went to Disney was people plan. They get their Fast Passes. They plan their whole day, “We’re going to show this.” What we walked away is that baseball is not a spectator sport anymore. How can we go into people weeks before and say, “Let’s plan, we go to this show in the outfield, we go to this show in the plaza?” We have this and plan an experience based on baseball or our show where it’s not just watching. That’s what made Disney people want to stay for twelve hours. It wasn’t just the rides. It was everything else. Your experience is right on. We got to keep rolling, Dennis.
I want to share a couple of quick stories that I had from little wows. I was at Big Kahuna when I was eight years old. At Typhoon Lagoon, I was chosen as the kid that would go in early, go down all the rides. I had my perfect spot. I had free food. It was an amazing experience. My book came out, Find Your Yellow Tux. Of course, we did a world book tour at Epcot. We went to each little country with our book taking pictures. What was funny, it was great. We’re pulling in to park and my wife was pregnant at the time with our son. I was wearing a yellow tuxedo. The woman looked at us and smiled and then gave us a magic pass for free parking and I was like, “Wow.” It was a $20 parking but like, “What a great start.” Little wow, like the Big Kahuna. Talk to me about the little wows. I’d love some more examples of things that Disney does.
The point that I make in my presentations and workshops is the big wows are wonderful and we can do them. Everybody has legendary stories of big wows that they’ve done, which are great. When we can do the big wows, we should because legends are made of those. What I stress is the magic is in the little wows because little wows add up. You think about somebody coming to a game, you think about somebody go into a restaurant, you think about somebody go into Disney World, there are multiple touchpoints that are involved in that experience. If there’s that little moment, add enough of those little touchpoints, it adds up to, “These folks are amazing.” We’re that. It was a series of little things.
The lady giving you the pass to park, she had to be empowered to be able to do that.If that was the only thing that happened that day, that was nice, big deal, but then you have cast members who approach you. When they see that lost look on your faceand they come over to you versus waiting for you to come to them. I can tell, “You’re in your yellow suit and you’re lost right now. Can I help you?” That’s a little moment of wow. When they come over and say, “I love what you’re wearing. Tell me about that.” That’s a little moment of wow.
I have a six-year-old granddaughter. When we go out to Disney, the whole Disney Princess thing, it’s a huge deal. She always dresses up as one of her favorite princesses. She’s got a million princess outfits. The cast members all call her by her princess name, “Jasmine, I can’t believe you’re here. You look so you look beautiful, Cinderella.” When you see a guest who’s getting ready to take a photograph of their family you go and to say, “Let me take the photo for you so that you can be in the photo also.” A little thing.When you can do a big wow, you should because legends are made of those. Click To Tweet
At the end of the day, if there were enough of those little moments involved, it was like, “This place is amazing.” People don’t take the time to analyze those moments, but they matter because they add up. When I’m working with clients, I say, “What are those little things that don’t cost a dime and maybe don’t even take any more time?” It doesn’t take any more time to comment on somebody’s t-shirt that they’re wearing or where they’re from, their favorite team. It doesn’t take any more time to do that, but it was a moment of wow.
Some example, you mentioned Epcot, they had citations for fun or smile citations. What are some of those other little things that people were empowered to do? Do you remember any?
The security, they carry these citations where they can give out a citation for people having more fun than the law allows, doing a U-turn with a stroller. These are security guards. Everybody thinks that’s great, “Dad got arrested at Disney.” Those kinds of things are little touches. One of the examples I use in Lessons from the Mouse, a child drops their ice cream cone. That is one of those moments that is tears. For that child, the world has come to an end. They drop their ice cream cone. As a cast member, “What flavor do you like? Let me go get you another ice cream cone.” Immediately handling it. No strings attached. No calling a supervisor. If something happens and you spill something on your shirt, “I’m going to spend the rest of the day with this stain on my shirt.” “Let me give you a new t-shirt, on the house.”
Take care of the people.
Disney is going to be okay. They’re going to be able to eat that cost. They’re going to be alright. Those are the types of things. I will tell you, that’s not an easy thing to get new cast members to get comfortable with is that sense of empowerment. You can do this.
They feel like, “Is this stealing? Is this breaking a rule?” Whenever you take care of a customer, that is good, do it.
Most of them are coming from jobs where they weren’t able to do that.
To get into practical here, I’m guessing the people at parking, the people have different setups, they have a certain amount of free magic passes that they can maybe give a day or month, is it that they have some with them? How is it?
It depends on the job, like the parking ticket thing. There’s no hard and fast rule across the organization on that. The best thing that companies can do is to sit down at least once a quarter with your team, whatever your sphere of influence is, your department. Nothing else on the agenda other than what do we find frustrates our customers, our guests, our clients. What do we find frustrates them and what can we do about it? What would be a little moment of wow that we could provide? Once a day, if each one of us could give a free parking pass to a guest for whatever reason, those are the types of things that we as management, we probably wouldn’t have thought of. Our frontline people, they’re dealing with these issues every day. They know what makes people upset. They know what makes people smile. You’re not going to be able to implement all of them, obviously, but to take some of those best ideas and say, “Let’s make those parts of the regular operation.” That’s what they do. Part of the answer to the question is it’s not rocket science. It’s all situational, it’s figuring out, “What can we do? What can we do to create these moments of wow?”
Make a better experience. You talked about the lines of Disney and the Tower of Terror and how they made it into an experience. We’re constantly looking at our lines. We had comedians as potential to be comics right next to a line joking with the people. Look at how do you make lines find a frustration point. How do you make it an experience? All of that.
That reminds me of something that happened when 9/11 occurred. Obviously, all flights were canceled. I was in San Diego at the time. When they started reopening flights, I got a flight on Southwest Airlines back to the US. You can imagine there were huge lines. One of the things that Southwest Airlines did was they hired magicians, jugglers, and performers to entertain people while they were waiting in line. Some people said, “That wasn’t appropriate during a serious time.” I applauded the fact that somebody even thought of that.
To add fun.
During a tough time, somebody said, “You know what we ought to do?” Somebody else said, “Let’s do that.” I thought that was a fabulous idea.
Adding fun is such a big point. You talked about that in the book, creating fun. I get asked that question all the time. It’s a tough subject to talk about because there are no clear answers. You mentioned things about contests. How many customers can you get to smile in an hour? Did Disney have any other fun contest to get people? I was on the Jungle Cruise and I was having so much fun watching how they interacted with us. What does that look like?
That comes down to the onboarding and training, getting people looking for those types of things. The Jungle Cruise as an example, there’s a script that talks about the different places along but there’s a lot of places for ad-libbing that people can bring in. Sometimes those ad-libs are not appropriate and that’s where the coaching part comes in. The cast members on The Jungle Cruise, the skippers, are encouraged to weave in some of those ad-libs.
When you go through the training process, that’s one of the things that your trainer is talking about. They’re talking about, “Here’s a place for you. Here’s what I do.” Some people might say this. You’re going to come up with your ad libs along the way, but it’s part of the culture to weave those things in. I can’t say they hand you a card that says, “Do this.” It’s more of an absorbing of the culture as you progress through your career of what I can do, what things might not be appropriate, those kinds of things.
I want to go to a few more quick things. Be animated and not automated, that is such a quick, simple way to teach people on how to add some flair, some fun. One example you gave was, have a magical day, something that’s done by Disney. Are there any other examples on how to be animated better?
Yes. One of the things too that I remember when I was working on the attractions that they taught was when you’re boarding people on the attractions, you’re counting. When I was boarding people on the submarine, they held 40 people. When you’re the person loading, you’re counting 40 people. That’s the task. Count 40 people to get on that sub. You’ve got to stay focused because at 41 people, you got a situation. Forty people, that’s how many can go on. At the same time, there was no reason when somebody walked by and a child had their Mickey Mouse ears on. They get their stitched on them.
They walk by and I’m still counting. I say, “Bobby, how are you?” I would freak the kid out, “How did he know who I was?” The parents think you’re wonderful. They know exactly how you did it. Boarding people on a ride, somebody is dressed up in one of the Disney Princess costumes, call her by name. It didn’t slow down the process but you’re being animated rather than automated. How you answer the telephone. What I find is usually when somebody gets a job where they’re answering phones, their first few calls are animated and it’s new. “I got the job.” Listen to those phone calls a week later and how they’re answering their 600th call.
One of the things with contact centers and Disney does and most contact centers do is they record calls. They can play that back for an employee and say, “Let’s listen to the way you answered the call and how you responded.” Yes, you answered the call, you gave the correct information, but I didn’t feel welcome. What are some things that you could do to amp that up? They know immediately what they need to do to amp that up. At Disney, we call that put a smile in your voice when you’re on the telephone. That was one of the classes they even had at the Disney University called put a smile on your voice. How do you do that?
They even had mirrors that people in the contact centers would have in their cubicles and it would say, “Put a smile on your face.” They would see themselves in the mirror. You knew if you’re smiling or not. Put a smile in your voice. Those are the things that bring out the animated because when you answer the same questions over and over, when you’re doing the same repetitive motions over and over again, it’s easy to fall into a routine. That goes back to the thing that you touched on earlier, those routine jobs, if you have some fun with it. Sometimes my goal was to make somebody laugh. If somebody walked by, “What’s your favorite Disney movie?” They would chuckle. It didn’t cost anything. It didn’t take any more time, but it was a moment of authenticity, a moment of fun.
It’s simple. It’s important, the teaching of this and how it’s recognized, the good behaviors. I think about people serving burgers. We have all you can eat food. They serve thousands of burgers. We go through 10,000 pieces of meat, “Here’s your burger.” I want to challenge our team. How can you serve it in a fun way? How can you present the burger in a fun way, like it’s the best thing that someone has ever had in their entire life?
It’s simple things like saying, “What’s the best thing that’s happened to you at the game? What’s been your favorite part of the game so far? How many games have you been to this season?” Those little moments make it huge and it makes it more fun for you as a team member.
You could ask at first, “Have you got your picture with the breakdancing first base coach yet?” We could find out who that kid is and then the breakdancing coach comes in, “Can I get my picture with you?” It makes it a special experience that’s like, “Wow.” It’s paying attention, which I absolutely love. I know we’re coming to an end, but the one thing that was important in your book that came to the end but it talks about making life easier for your cast members and how serving them and setting up a situation for them that’s treating them as a great guest. You talked about having places they can buy stamps, cash checks, but the interactions that you have, that’s forgotten by a lot of companies. When someone comes in, they go to work. Can you share maybe a little bit about what Disney did and how we can get better at treating our people like great guests?
The philosophy was treating people with respect and recognizing how hard those jobs are and engaging your people and how do we get better at what we do. That idea that I talked about earlier, periodically bringing your team together and having the discussion about what can we do to get better at what we do? How can we eliminate or alleviate frustrations? How can we create those moments of wow? Share a story. At the beginning of a team meeting, one of the things that they were always encouraged to do was get somebody to share a wow story, something that they did, something they saw another cast member do.
When you’re part of a team and you hear something that somebody else did, the thing that could go on in your mind is, “I could do that. I hadn’t thought of that before.” That’s where things start taking off. Some housekeeper at Disney had to be the first one to say, “You know what I’m going to do it with the stuffed characters that the kids leave in the room while they’re off in the park? I’m going to tuck them into the bed. I’m going to position them playing with a deck of cards or with some milk and cookies or something like that.” Somebody had to be the first one to do that, but it would have stopped there if they didn’t encourage people to share these ideas and share these stories.You're not going to solve every issue and every problem, but if you solve a few of them, that goes a long way. Click To Tweet
As managers, what we need to be doing is getting our people engaged and making it a better organization. It’s not just about going through the motions. It needs to be real. It can’t be, “What are your ideas?” You do nothing with it. You asked for their ideas. It can’t be that. That’ll go south quickly. It has to be getting people focused on how do we get better and that goes a long way and telling people that you do value their opinion. When you’re out there at Disney in the park or whatever the job may be, those moments of encouragement of saying, “It is hot out here. Are you’re doing okay? Are you drinking your water? Are you taking those hydration breaks?” Those kinds of things, have your manager or your vice president to show that they’re thinking about you.
We don’t realize that. As leaders, we often don’t realize the impact that those little touches have. We go over to somebody and say, “Are you doing all right? I know it’s a hot day. It’s been a long day. You’re doing okay? Anything you need?” I don’t think we realize the impact that that has. I go back to that point I made earlier about managers being expected to spend 70% of their time out there in their work area, that’s a big part of it. Supporting your people, chipping in where you can. It’s a busy day in one of the restaurants, getting behind the counter and helping to serve those hamburgers, those kinds of things. When people see that their boss is back there and can’t do it as well as they can, they’re laughing at your attempts but still, “She’s back here and she’s helping out.” That’s a powerful message.
If you want your guests or your customers to have a Disney experience, you need to give a Disney experience to your cast members, to your people. It’s taking care of them but understanding the frustrations, mapping it for them on how they come in. What are those things that you can make it easier for them? Do you know what frustrates your people in a given day? How do you make that better?
You’re not going to solve every issue. You’re not going to solve every problem, but if you solve a few of them, that goes a long way. When I was in my first management position, I was getting ready to give my first verbal reprimand to a cast member that had a bad attendance record. That was the problem. I was excited because I was finally giving a reprimand rather than getting a reprimand. It was for attendance. I was rolling over what I was going to say and it was going to be brutal. I’ll be honest, it was going to be brutal because attendance was my big thing. I couldn’t take bad attendance records.
The person was coming up to the office and my manager, my boss, a guy by the name of Bruce Fox, he saw that I was getting ready and he said, “You’re getting ready for your first reprimand.” I said, “I’m going to let him have it.” This was 1981 and I remember like it was yesterday. He said, “No matter what you have to do, if you have to coach somebody, if you have to reprimand somebody, even if you have to fire somebody, when they walk out of that door, you make sure they walk out with their dignity.” Those words have stayed with me ever since. I don’t know if I’ve always been successful at it, but I sure tried to make sure that regardless of the circumstance, it was important as a leader to make sure that person retains their dignity.
When they walk out, what are they thinking? How is that experience? Is it helping them be better or is it going to make them mad at you? That’s a tough situation.
It’s tough. I still had to give the reprimand, but the way I did it was a 180-degree turn.
A great reprimand can show that you care about that person.
It’s coaching. It goes back to coaching and not reprimanding.
Let’s finish with some rapid-fire here. This has been enlightening. A quick win. If someone here wants to start delivering a Disney experience, what sort of a leader that can go out now and try to do better for his team or for his guests or customers?
Coach your folks on this phrase. Everything speaks. Every detail from the tone of your voice to the appearance of your attire to the way the place looks, everything speaks. What are the things that are saying what we want them to say? What are the things that say what we don’t want them to say and what can we do about it? You can do that. Everything speaks. Let’s take a look at what we’re doing and fix what’s wrong.
We want people to say that our game is the most fun they’ve ever had at a baseball game. How is your tone? How is the expression? How do you greet them? Everything speaks. I’ll flip the script. You’re the host of Business Done Differently. You can ask me one question.
How did you decide that the experience was going to be the thing that was going to make you different? That had to be a tough decision. How did you decide that that was the approach that you were going to take?
The question that I heard many years ago from Tony Robbins is, “What business are you in, but what business are you really in?” Asking that to us and saying, “What can we be the best at?” We’re a low-level baseball team. We’ll never be the best baseball team in the world. Meeting tons of people in the community, they always said, “We don’t like baseball. We don’t love baseball. Our people wouldn’t like baseball. It’s too long. It’s too slow. It’s too boring.” We said, “Why don’t we make it all about entertainment?” We went all in the entertainment experience. What does entertainment mean, to provide enjoyment or to provide amusement? To pay attention to people. Every business is in the entertainment business. We said, “We can be the best.” We turned it into fun, players dancing, grandma dance teams, a breakdancing coach, a pep band. We kept saying, “What are those things to add to the experience?”
What I’m hearing that the readers can apply in that is what do we want to be known for. It looks to me like you have zeroed in on the magic answer. This is unscientific. I would guess 90% of organizations out there have never answered that question, what do you want to be known for?
It’s great and that’s it for the rapid-fire question. I don’t know if there is a spinoff from it, but if you want better answers in business, you got to ask better questions. Obviously, you asked, “What do you want to be known for?” You said, “What are people saying about you?” Is there another question that maybe gears toward that that any business could ask?
When I first start working with a consulting client, I say, “Come up with three things that you would want your customers to say about their experience with you.” For Disney, it was a magical experience. They paid attention to every detail. They made us feel special. Come up with three things that you want your customers to say about their experience with you. That’s your brand. That’s not your market, that’s your brand. The next part of that discussion is what needs to happen in order for them to say those three things about you? It all falls into place.
If you were to give advice to someone on how to stand out in business, what would you tell him?
Focus on the experience and not the product. From the first point of contact to the last point of contact, everything in between is what you’re selling. The product itself is a piece of it.
You gave the great story of your boss earlier about the reprimand, but is there any other amazing advice that you’ve received that’s helped you along the way?
I would say that the most important thing was recognizing how hard those jobs are that people do and to demonstrate that respect. That goes a long way and breaking down some of the barriers between management and the frontline is they understand that you respect what they do. The only way to demonstrate that is to demonstrate it through your words and through your actions. You have to focus on that every single day.
We’ll finish with a game here, Dennis. Truth and dare, which one would you like first?
I’ll take the truth.
What is something that has held you back in your career, whether as a speaker, author, working at Disney, but that you’ve worked to overcome?
I was shy in terms of getting up in front of people and speaking. I could do one-on-one with a guest, but in terms of public speaking, that was a real fear that I had. One of the things that I forced myself to do fairly early in my career is getting involved in speaking and training and those kinds of things. I went to the Disney University, where I was getting up and doing classes. At first, I was terrified of going through it. Now I’m a professional speaker, that’s what I do. Fear held me back. Fear of getting up in front of people, that was one of the things that held me back. That’s the truth.
You started to get your reps in and now you’re doing it professionally. Don’t think you’re getting away from the dare. Are you ready for this?
This is done in our stadium every night. It’s called a sing-off. We have 2,000 fans versus 2,000 fans. I play a song. When the song stops, you have to finish the song lyrics. This song is, let’s say, fitting for you. I’ve heard you talk about this before.
I know what you’re going to do.
“It’s a world of laughter, a world of tears. It’s a world of hopes, and a world of fears. There’s so much that we share, That it’s time we’re aware…”
It’s a small world. Now you know why they didn’t hire me as a singer. I did work at It’s a Small World and that was the longest six months of my life.
I hope this interview didn’t feel like the longest six months.
You are a wonderful interviewer. I can’t believe how much time has already gone by. This was so much fun. I don’t know if you’re going to have to trim this down or what.
It’s going to be perfect. I had to bring you back. The joy that, obviously, Disney has brought us and the joy that you brought me from the Lessons from the Mouse and what we’ve taught our staff, you’re making an impact.You've got to be relentless in keeping the message in front of people all the time. Click To Tweet
I appreciate that.
If there’s anything else you’d like to leave, you’ve given so much wisdom and I truly appreciate you, Dennis.
I appreciate the fun that you have brought to your organization. I have to believe it is a wonderful place to work.
About Dennis Snow
Dennis Snow’s customer service abilities were honed over 20 years with the Walt Disney World organization. There, he developed his passion for service excellence and the experience he brings to the worldwide speaking and consulting he does today.
He began his Disney career in 1979 as a front-line attractions operator. As he advanced through the company, Dennis managed various operating areas throughout the parks, learning and applying the skills it takes to run a world-class, service-driven organization.
Dennis launched a division of the Disney Institute responsible for consulting with some of the world’s largest companies including ExxonMobil, AT&T, and Coca Cola. During this time, he presented to audiences in diverse locations around the world, such as South Africa, Australia, Mexico, England and Argentina. This division quickly became the fastest growing venture of the Disney Institute and experienced repeat business of nearly 100%.
He also spent several years with the Disney University, teaching corporate philosophy and business practices to cast members and the leadership team. While there, he coordinated the Disney Traditions program which is universally recognized as a benchmark in corporate training. In his last year with Walt Disney World, Dennis’ leadership performance was ranked in the top 3% of the company’s leadership team.
Today, Dennis is a full-time speaker, trainer and consultant who helps organizations achieve goals related to customer service, employee development and leadership. Some of his clients include American Express, Johns Hopkins Medicine, and Verizon Wireless.
His articles appear in a number of industry publications and he is a featured customer service expert on several business news-talk radio shows. He is the author of two books, Unleashing Excellence: The Complete Guide to Ultimate Customer Service and Lessons From the Mouse: A Guide for Applying Disney World’s Secrets of Success to Your Organization, Your Career, and Your Life.
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