The Disney Customer Experience

A few years back I was fortunate enough to participate in an overseas study tour for the Australian financial services organisation I was working for at the time. The tour took 20 people from service and product backgrounds across the USA to study best practice service organisations. The tour was seniority agnostic, which resulted in a great mix of people from all different backgrounds and experience and aimed to influence the touries around both what really good customer service looked like.

The range of businesses we visited was diverse, everything from AIG in Kansas to an Indian Casino in California, and while all provided excellent insights, the one stop that really stood out to me was Disney World in Orlando, Florida.

Disney are legendary for their commitment to customer service, and while I had read a bit on ‘The Disney Way’ and Walt Disney’s thoughts on experience based differentiation, it wasn’t until I was in the park (and then behind the scenes) that I grasped the incredible customer experience culture that has been designed and gets delivered every day. Disney’s people don’t try to deliver great customer service, they just don’t know how to do it any differently. So how did they get this good? How does an organisation 150,000 build an maintain a world class customer service culture? Here were my take outs

Gain buy-in from all levels

Often we talk about the need for buy in from senior management to achieve turn around in customer experience. That’s great, but having your CEO say “I want to treat out customers better” is only half of it, unless you’ve got to troops singing the same song, your never going to get anywhere. Disney ‘cast members’ aren’t employees in the traditional sense of the term, but actors delivering grand theater. Whether you’re Snow White, or the dude who cleans the bins (being a custodian is an extremely sort after role by the way – you get maximum customer interaction being out in the park, picking up hamburger wrappers), you’re there to make people happy. Customer Experience is everyone’s job, and everyone from Bob Iger down truly wants to see the best possible experience delivered.

Eliminate non-conformance

Doesn’t sound very ‘fun’ does it. More North Korea than Orlando, Florida, but in a nutshell, Disney strives to ensure people and process are the same across park, state, and country. This allows them to design, develop, and then implement the best possible way of doing things, and then gradually refine this over the course of decades.

When Disney delivers a new process they spend a great deal of time thinking about where the changes impact and influence all current experiences. They might have development plans for an amazing ride, but if it doesn’t firmly fit into the experience for the remainder of the park, it’ll never get past the concept stage. The results in slow, gradual innovation, but a consistent approach that ensures all customer experiences closely match park visitors mental model of what a trip to Disney looks like.

The approach to people recruitment, training and development is much the same. Everyone knows Disney men aren’t allowed to have facial hair. Many claim this as a draconian measure by management aimed at arbitrary forced subservience from its people, but the reality is much different. By designing rigorous grooming and personal standards policies you weed out non-conformers right at the start of the HR process, and design your team around a certain persona. This makes gaining buy-in to other ways of doing things much easier later on in the cast members career.

Put the customer at the center of everything

To often in business someone comes up with a great idea, then we grab a bunch of really smart people from all different areas to sit in a room, discuss it, but some prototypes, refine the design, test, and release to market. More often than not, we’ll also wait right until the first customer complaint before we get any actual customer feedback on what we’ve done. Disney start with the customer in everything they do, then throughout the design phase they continue to request, and implement customer feedback right up to, and following changes or implementation new innovation. Feedback in gained through customer councils, post park visit follow-ups, survey, and tradition complaint and feedback channels. This shift away from experience design by default, to an end-to-end customer centric view ensure that evidence, not assumptions, are the basis for any decisions.


The same rules that work at Disney can apply to any industry where “people happiness” can be created. Whether you’re  delivering someone a new car, helping them buy their first home, to supplying power so they can watch Big Brother that night. By believing-in and understanding the benefits of customer-centric design, getting everyone on the same page, and centering everything the organisation does on the customer, it won’t matter if your job is telling people what time the 3pm parade is, or helping customers who can’t make their credit card payment you can build products, people and processes to wow your customers.

One Response to “The Disney Customer Experience”
  1. Agreed with buy in at every level. It has to be part of the brand and company DNA through and through.

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