Lessons in customer service from Disney

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I spent last weekend with my 3½-year-old granddaughter from Chicago on her first visit to Walt Disney World in Orlando, and every time I go there (countless family visits over many years) I’m reminded of what makes being there so “magical” — total customer service.

Disney’s success holds good lessons for every marine dealer — make that every business. Perhaps I’m more aware of it because I attended several programs by the Disney Institute years ago during the annual Marine Dealer Conference & Expo. And it was all reinforced with last weekend’s visit.

At the heart of the Disney corporate culture is the knowledge that keeping customers coming back is the highest priority. And it works — over 70 percent of Disney World’s annual attendance comes from repeat visitors.

In the marine industry we put a lot of emphasis on acquiring new customers, and that’s very important. But it’s how the existing customer is treated when he or she first becomes a customer that determines the future. At Disney it’s understood that customers will compare their degree of satisfaction to any other entity that may satisfy them more. So Disney’s objective (as should be every dealer’s) is to set the bar above any comparison!

If there’s a single characteristic of the Disney culture that outshines even the incredible imagination of the facilities, it’s the employees (called cast members). The way customers (called guests) are treated at every turn clearly demonstrates Disney’s training of the staff, regardless of their job position. For example, we were always greeted with a smile, even from a lady clearing a trash container.

My granddaughter, like so many of the little girls there, wore her Belle dress from “Beauty and the Beast.” Every cast member we came in contact with greeted her with a “hello, princess.” She was beaming — me, too. There’s no doubt all the cast members understand that treating customers well is the Disney culture. And building a customer-centered culture always begins with leadership.

But what about the times when something goes wrong? “I’m sorry, but there’s nothing I can do.” Sound familiar? We’ve all heard that as customers from a business after a service failure, contends Bruce Jones, senior programming director at the Disney Institute. It’s certainly aggravating and it can really kill any future relationship.

But look at this from the opposite perspective — as the service provider. “Even when great service is built into your organization’s foundation, it can sometimes fail,” says Jones. “At Disney we recognize the service failure may not always be our fault, but once it happens it is our problem. Emotions can run high. Customers are likely to care as much or more about how they are treated as about the outcome of the matter. This is why it is crucial to see the person, not just the issue.”

What if you simply cannot say yes to what the customer wants? Although every situation is different, there will be times when you cannot (or should not) give customers what they’re asking for. You have to say no. How do you preserve customer relationships in those situations?

At Disney it’s understood that the heart of service recovery is pursuing the reconciliation of the relationship, not just resolving the issue. “When you must deliver a “no” message,” says Jones, “an opportunity for preserving, even strengthening, the customer relationship has just presented itself.”

Here are two components that can help accomplish that:

First, explain the reason for the decision. Customers are generally more accepting when they understand the reason behind it. Without an explanation, the customer may perceive you as insensitive or as hiding behind a policy.

Second, provide an offsetting consideration for the customer’s disappointment. Remember, at this point it’s about saving the relationship with your customer, and an angry customer doesn’t want to hear words such as “it’s our policy.”

With the right training and empowering employees with guidelines for recovery, this becomes an opportunity to offer some recompense and turn negatives into wins for your customers and your business.

The Disney Institute offers a variety of professional development programs, ranging from one-day to multiple-day sessions. You can find more information at Quality Service.

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