Walt Disney World calls its workers, from actors in Goofy outfits to laundry workers, “cast members” to make them feel part of the show. There’s a garbage can every 25 steps, so litter will be tossed not dropped. There’s a polite way to answer one of the park’s most asked questions: “What time is the 3 o’clock parade?”
These nuggets are part of corporate customer service training offered by Disney Institute, a Florida-based unit of the Walt Disney Co. that has coached thousands of executives and front-line workers from other companies and organizations since 1986. Customers have included Delta Air Lines, IBM, General Motors, Chrysler and even the Internal Revenue Service and cigarette maker Phillip Morris Inc.
Now the Institute has taken another client: Miami International Airport, which many travelers will tell you needs customer service training like an airplane needs wings. Surveys rank its service among the nation’s worst.
The airport’s terminal operations employees are taking classes taught by Institute instructors, learning leadership practices, team building, staff relations and communication skills — many formulated by Walt Disney himself.
“Walt clearly put us on a path toward things like quality, great guest service, creativity and innovation,” said Bruce Jones, programming director for Disney Institute. “You would see that reflected in the topics that Disney Institute still delivers today.”
Part of Disney’s lure is the feelings generated by its films and theme parks — magic and wonderment for children, escapism for adults. Disney takes great pride in ensuring a fun time and repeat business, mainly by emphasizing customer service and attention to detail while trying not to appear too sterile or robotic.
That reputation was built on years of practice, but it doesn’t make Disney perfect and unapproachable, Jones said.
“Many organizations think they’re different from Disney, and therefore can’t learn from an entertainment or a parks and resorts business,” Jones said. “But then when they get here and work with us a little bit, they find out ... these principles and similarities are transferrable across industries, across cultures, and across different sizes and shapes of organizations.
“Just think of the airport business. The reality is both businesses have millions of people each year waiting in line for a ride.”
Disney World and the airport have more in common, including dealing with ground transportation, parking and retail sales. So, it made sense for the airport to seek out Disney Institute.
“They understand how to minimize the inconvenience and maximize the entertainment value,” airline industry analyst Bob Mann said of Disney. “It’s a reasonably good move” for the airport to hire Disney.
Miami International Airport is a gateway to and from the Caribbean and Latin America. About 32.5 million passengers passed through the airport in 2006, including more than 14 million international passengers.
But among 18 U.S. airports with 30 million or more passengers per year, only three airports performed worse in J.D. Power and Associates’ 2007 North America Airport Satisfaction Study. Miami received below average scores in accessibility, check-in, security check, baggage claim and overall satisfaction; average scores in terminal facilities and food and beverage; and above average in retail services.
“The customer service needs to improve,” said Sarah Abate, who oversees commercial services at the airport and took a training class. “Passengers need to understand that Miami is a friendly airport, and we are passenger friendly. Now, people don’t get that, or the perception from the passenger is not the same as what we are trying to convey.”
Disney started the Institute after it realized it was getting questions from other companies about its customer service. After offering some behind-the-scenes educational tours, the Institute developed its first professional development program 21 years ago.
Many principles taught by Disney Institute are created and tested through research and data collection, including visitor surveys. Trainers average 10 years with Disney.
Early in the training, a handful of Miami airport managers visited the Magic Kingdom, where they were shown examples on how paying attention to detail and removing barriers were integral in making guests happy and keeping them informed.
For example, Disney houses its lockers and wheelchairs to the right of the park’s entrance, because studies have shown more people go to the right than the left when they arrive. Cast members wear colorful Polo-type shirts to easily identify them — a strategy that will be employed by the airport. Store windows on Main Street U.S.A. have names of valuable employees, a reward for service and to inspire loyalty.
A Disney study showed that people who were given hard candy with a wrapper at a theme park took an average of about 27 steps before tossing the wrapper on the ground. Hence the spacing of the garbage cans, which are strangely inconspicuous.
Airport trainees learned the mantra: “It’s not my fault, but it is my problem.”
“I love that. I’m going to print that and put it in my office,” Abate said.
These ideas seem simple but still caught the attention of most airport employees at the training sessions — although some were seen talking during the presentations. Dickie Davis, division director of terminal operations, said there are plans to, like Disney, clearly display the name of each employee on new name tags, rather than the current hard-to-read security badges.
By the end of September, about 400 airport workers and vendors will have attended classes, and leaders will then train those who work under them. (The training does not currently include airlines, TSA or customs workers.) Full-day classes are about $28,000 apiece, Davis said. Four have taken place, and at least eight more are scheduled, with some of those half-day classes.
But how does one answer questions like “What time is the 3 o’clock parade?” and their ilk? Trainer Joel Strack says answers can be sarcastic, angering the customer, or employees can search for the embedded question while also reaffirming the obvious:
“The parade will start on time at 3 p.m. in Frontierland, but it will be at Main Street U.S.A. at about 3:20. You can line up right here under the shade if you want to. Thanks.”