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The Magic of Customer Experiences: A Competitive Advantage From Main Street to the Mouse

My college internship freshman year was at the most magical place on Earth, Walt Disney World.

Yes, that Disney World– the place that makes visitors from around the world choose Florida over Paris, New York, or the gorgeous Smokey Mountains. And while there’s tons of space for all global corporations to do better, what I can unequivocally attribute to Disney is that it has the deepest commitment to their customers’ experiences out of any other place I've ever seen. Their experience operations were even more impressive than most Michelin and Relais & Chateaux hotels I've worked in or visited because they were not only impressively committed to delivering the magic, but they do it at scale.


Quick side note to talk about scalability first: When we talk about working at scale or building your business for scale, we're referencing a business' ability to easily produce the same product or experience for a considerably large number of transactions or users.


Scalability almost certainly leverages technology to be able to meet a quickly growing demand with little or no new resources. However, scalability can also be processes, storage capabilities, or anything else you would need to produce the same product or experience if you suddenly received 100x your business.


If you had any doubt, about Disney's ability to create a phenomenal experience at scale, let's consider that Disney world welcomes over 58 million visitors to its Orlando parks every year. Of those astounding visitor numbers, over 70% of Disney's first time visitors will return to the park again. That's a higher customer retention rate than almost any other business out there. Perhaps there's quite a bit we can learn from the mouse.


Back in my college days, Disney World would have on any given day 5,000 fresh-eyed and busy-tailed college students supporting the 46 square mile campus. These students would come from all over the world, joining the mousekateers at different parts of the year, with hundred of new people funneling in and out every week.


Before you were able to dive in, you had to go to Disney University, which is Disney's very thorough school. We did a week of the normal orientation activities, but most of the onboarding time was dedicated to culture. I was so impressed by the magic that they were able to do, of mobilizing hundreds of people at a time to all march towards the same mission of magical experience. I left there feeling perplexed about how they were able to do that at such scale.


When I look back and I dissect my time at Disney, and particularly that first week where I was training, there's three things Disney did that were incredibly powerful:


1. Disney doesn't just tell you to create great experiences, they give explicit permission to go above and beyond for customers.


The training cast members encouraged us to use the tools at our disposal to elevate someone's experience. The team also provided examples of how we could leverage opportunities, which is especially helpful if you have team members who have never worked in such a customer-focused environment like this. Providing real examples begins to prime team members brain for what's possible, and allows them to think critically and seize the opportunity when they find new ways to add magic to the experience.


Having this authorization early in my career blossomed a hospitality muscle in me that I use as a lens in every other career opportunity.


2. Everyone, regardless of their role, is responsible for delivering an exceptional experience.


Working in kitchens, it's not an uncommon occurrence to feel a clear lineation between back of the house (kitchen staff) and front of the house (dining room staff.) A big part of the dynamic at play is that the dining room staff are a customer-facing role. As part of that responsibility, they are frequently given priority to other team members.

In the Disney environment, there wasn't a deprioritization of the non-guest-facing staff. Kitchen, maintenance, and supporting team member were expected to be equally responsible for delivering happiness. Although, it's often not considered so, it is true. In order to consistently deliver a magical experience, all touch points have to re-iterate the promise you've made.


An interaction with a ride engineer has to feel equally as special as an interaction with a character. Without that sort of buy-in from everyone, you risk tarnishing the user experience and deteriorating trust with your customers.


3. Invest in your systems, but still keep it human.


When Walt Disney was preparing to open Disneyland in California, he commissioned some research to figure out how to keep the parks clean. Data showed that on average we will walk 30 feet between the purchase of food and when we're ready to throw the garbage away. With that information, Disney created a policy that ensures all trash cans are within 30 feet of each other. Additionally, the trash cans have smart meters that tell park employees when they need to be changed– but that's still not enough.


But that's not enough. With 57,000 daily visitors, it's likely that some trash will find its way to the ground. So they build a human-supported solution called "the Disney scoop." The Disney scoop is a maneuver for any cast member to pick trash when they see it on the ground. It's a quick up, no fuss, no fumble, to toss it out. The scoop is an act that even clocked out team members participate as they're roaming the park to help keep the grounds clean.


This small move is not something that takes any individual much time, but with thousands of employees participating, the tough work of keeping the part spotless becomes democratized and makes it feasible to maintain such a large property in such a beautiful place. The good news is you don't have to be a billion dollar company to deliver an amazing experience. All it takes is a deliberate effort to dedicate resources to empower your team and the culture that allows them to do it. If you've been wanting to up your experience game, but don't quite know how, book an intro chat with me to see if a Potent Power Day would work for you.

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