Great Service Starts with Great Leadership

Before I left for vacation on Wednesday night, I could already foreshadow a post about my trip to Walt Disney World. I could feel the topic start to emerge in my mind before we ever left the Orlando International Airport, where we were greeted on the ground level by cast members waving us in the right direction with their Mickey Mouse hands. And when the cast member checking us into our hotel said “Good evening, Princesses!” I already had a title in mind. But none of these were the moments that really exemplified Disney’s leadership potential.

I was sitting in a quiet (well, relatively) sidestreet corner of Main Street just enjoying the ambiance one night when I heard yelling. There was a cast member, sprinting down the street shouting “Cinderella! Wait!” at the top of his lungs. He slowed to a jog and finally stopped at a little girl, no older than five, wearing a Cinderella dress and tiara. He kneeled next to her and pulled a pair of (plastic) glass slippers from behind his back and said “You left your glass slipper behind at the ball!” At this point, her mother tried to explain that she didn’t have Cinderella slippers and these couldn’t be hers. The cast member, of course, insisted that the glass slipper fit on her foot so these must have been Cinderella’s! In other words, they were hers now, and without the $20 price tag that comes with them in the merchandise stores. He then whipped out an autograph book and asked the little princess if she would mind signing it. During this whole ordeal, her face was absolutely lit up. She couldn’t believe he really thought she was Cinderella! And I’m sure she probably felt like it.

I know what you’re thinking – cute story about some Disney magic, but what does it have to do with leadership? Well, let’s take a step back and think about everything that had to happen to make this little girl’s magical moment happen.

First, and most importantly, cast members have to want to make these moments happen. It’s rare that you see a frowning face on a Disney cast member, except of course at the Haunted Mansion where they’re in character. If you think that’s just a coincidence, think again. It all starts with strategically hiring candidates who align with the Disney values. You can teach skills – anyone can ring up merchandise, sell you a hot dog, or clean your hotel room. What you can’t teach are the values that Disney cast members have to share that allow them to be enthusiastic about their jobs even when it’s 100 degrees outside and kids and parents alike are at their crankiest! The first piece of leadership that it took to make this magical moment happen is making hiring decisions that support the values and the culture of the organization, because that’s how you find cast members who want to make magic happen. There’s no commission system for magical moments, it doesn’t pad anyone’s paycheck to put that extra smile on someone’s face, but Disney hires people who care about more than that – they care about their Guests.

Part two is the culture of the organization. It has to be a culture that not only allows magical moments to happen, but actively supports them. If this cast member saw this little girl walking down the street, got this magical idea in his head, and then had to jump through hoops and bureaucratic red tape just to get authorization to give away a pair of plastic souvenir shoes (er, I mean glass slippers), this little girl could have gone back home across the country by the time it could have become a reality. Disney’s culture empowers their cast members and removes barriers of bureaucracy that keep most other would-be-comparable companies in their dust in terms of service.

For this one magical moment to take place, a whole lot of strategic leadership had to happen at much higher levels of the company. The emotional capital moments like these build are very difficult to measure, and would certainly be very easy for an executive to shun. Losing merchandise profits in favor o some immeasurable emotional benefit? Not a chance in most companies! But that’s why Disney is different, and that’s why this particular magical moment isn’t the only one, it’s one of thousands that happen every day.

Service is all about anticipating the wants and needs of your customers. No matter what you do, even if you are not employed in a defined service industry, you provide a service to someone – maybe even within your own company! Think about how you can better anticipate the wants and needs of your customers. How can you meet or exceed those needs? What’s standing in your way? What recommendations can you make to your senior leadership to remove those roadblocks that keep you from providing more magical service? And, most importantly, do you care enough about your customers to go to bat for them on this? Disney does, and it seems to have worked out pretty well for them. They’re only the largest entertainment conglomerate in the world, after all.


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