Behind the Scenes of Disney's Legendary Customer Service
Tom Angermeier
October 21, 2020

This week, Tom Angermeier, former Entertainment Manager at Walt Disney World, talks about the magic of the characters, the importance of valuing the customer, and Disney's famous attention to detail.

Podcast Article

Disney’s Legendary Guest Experience: 4 Ways to Wow Your Clients

Some of the best and most vivid memories of my childhood were going to Disneyland with my family. I visited almost every year of my life up until going to college. The happy music playing in the background, the colorfully-themed sections of the park, the futuristic Monorail circling in the vista, and Mickey, Minnie, Donald Duck, Pluto, and Goofy roaming around, always ready to delight - it was an overwhelming, yet wonderfully satisfying sensory experience for me as a kid. I can still recall the catchy Swisskapolka tune that would play on the pipe organ while exploring the Swiss Family Robinson Treehouse. 

There is a reason Disneyland is called the happiest place on earth. The Disney guest experience has become legendary. Our imagination is the star of the show and every cast member (employee) collectively supports the experience to make our experience memorable.

Internationalizing the Experience Takes Work

What I was never aware of, though, was the intentional and creative effort that went into providing an amazing guest encounter. It’s a strategy that Disney uses over and over, always asking, “How can we win with every one of our guests … today?” It’s a question we also ask at Your Creative People and want to get it right.

Tom Angermeier, former entertainment manager at Walt Disney World, spent 20 years of his career paying attention to all of the little things that went into making each and every guest feel that magical experience. He even played several Disney characters (can you guess which ones?).

In your business, you might think it would be impossible to provide the level of service that Disneyland or Disney World gives to its guests. Lack of people. Lack of resources. Lack of opportunity. It is typically the same three roadblocks. But what if I told you there are four key strategies that can help you dramatically improve how you win with your audience? And what if I also told you that these are not high-cost strategies but rather shifts in mindset? Would you be interested?

1. Service is about managing expectations

The truth is that we are only disappointed when our expectations about a person or event are different than what we had anticipated. Our customers are no different. This is true whether you sell a product or a service. Tom helped imagine the interactions between the Disney characters and their guests within the park. There could be a disappointment if kids were not able to meet their favorite character. How did he manage the expectations of his guests?

"You don't want to say, 'In five minutes, Mickey is going to be leaving.' You start out with 'Folks, in 5 minutes, Minnie Mouse is coming out to see you, and Mickey will be taking a break.' So you tell them what you're giving them first, then you give them the sugar before you have to give them the medicine. They're more receptive to that. If you say, 'In 5 minutes Mickey is leaving,' that's it. They're done listening."

Providing top-tier customer service begins with anticipating the needs of your customers in order to assure them that you have a roadmap for their success. In other words, you are managing what to expect in their relationship with you. 

2. Guest recovery wins the day

How do you preserve a magical experience even when guest expectations are not met? Your staff may be at fault or the situation could be something completely outside your control. So what do you do? Make excuses? Help your guests understand why it is not your fault? Our former Disney World executive uses what he calls “guest recovery.” For example, a little boy has been standing in line waiting for his ice cream. He gets it, walks out the door, and his long-awaited scoop falls on the ground. How would Tom handle this situation?    

"I could be standing across the street and see that happen and go up to you and say, 'You’ve got to stay right here. What kind (of ice cream) was it?' I go behind the counter and tell Guest Recovery that someone dropped their ice cream. It doesn’t matter why he dropped it or if he got mad and threw it down. It doesn’t matter. That's part of the reason you're going to recover because you're going to turn the situation around.

"It's going to cost the company $.50 or $.75 to replace that ice cream cone. That child is going to be happy. You're going to go, 'Wow, this could never happen anywhere else.' It doesn't cost that much in the long run, but you get so much benefit."

3. The little things make the big difference

You might be in an industry where your customers have several other options other than your company from which to choose. How do you set yourself apart when others are offering the same product or service? How do you differentiate yourself and keep your clients coming back?.

Be obsessed about the little things. 

If you have ever been to Disney World, you know the grounds are immaculately landscaped and everything looks fresh. Tom recounts how even the smallest of details was planned and executed for the satisfaction of the guests:

"They never let the flowers get spent. They will rip out the old and put in the new overnight. This is something that amazed me every year. In Tomorrowland Terrace, there is a rooftop and they would bring in these mums, these cascading plants, that they would put on top of this terrace a week or so before Thanksgiving weekend. And I would see them up there and it would just be this green cascading over the roof. But they would always be at maximum bloom for Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. I don't know how they did it. Tuesday they'd be green, Wednesday they'd be green, and I thought, 'They’re not going to make it.' So they’ve timed that - that’s the attention to detail they have."

It is the little practices of excellence that will set you apart in a world of sameness with your client base. 

4. No one is more important than your customer

It is easy to say that the customer is the most important part of any business - and that is a true statement. I can recall specific instances where I truly felt I was valued as a customer and was important to them. It was not necessarily any one action; rather, it was a mindset where the sum total of my customer experience left me feeling very much cared for. How did Disney apply this to real life in their company? Tom looks at the customer experience as removing distractions:

"You are treated like an individual. You are not treated like a herd of cattle. You are personal. This is a magical experience and you remove all the other distractions and focus on the one person. No one is more important than you right now. We do not want you to think this is just an employee performing a job or getting a paycheck. We want you to think this person is here for you and that you are the most important person to them."

The Takeaways: How You Can Think Differently

Products or services often appear identical to the customer. A widget is a widget is a widget. But what is differentiating you among your competitors? Customers are looking for a reason to commit, to be loyal, to have a relationship with a company. Are you giving them good enough reasons to do that? 

What Tom Angermeier did over his career for his Disney guests was not merely follow a posted list of rules for engagement. Rather, it was his ethos, his guiding beliefs for the experience of every guest who entered the Magic Kingdom that they leave having had a magical experience.

Do you have a clear strategy for creating that magical experience for your guests when they walk through your door or call in to your company? If you are not sure where to start, begin by asking these critical questions:

  • At every touch point with a customer, how would they describe their experience with you? Do they believe you value their success?
  • What one small detail could you include in an aspect of your service that would set you apart and create a loyal customer for you?
  • What guest recovery ideas could you implement in your processes for when there is something less than a magical experience? How would you recover?

The ideas presented by Tom Angermeier on this episode of our Thinking Differently podcast are neither expensive nor time intensive. But they are intentional, planned, and strategic. Manage expectations. Recover poor experiences. Be about the little things. Treat your customers as unique individuals who want to tell others about delightful experiences. Every part of his guest experience was implemented with care for the individual person. How could you do the same for your guests today?

If you would like to listen to the entire interview, here is a link to Thinking Differently: Behind the Scenes of Disney’s Legendary Customer Service.

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About the host
Justin Murphy
justin murphy

Justin specializes in creative branding on the web and in print. He has over seventeen years of experience in the industry. Justin's job involves leading client brand initiatives and overseeing creative.

Justin also has experience adjunct teaching on subjects like branding, marketing, entrepreneurship, and web design on the MBA and university undergraduate levels. He also has been a requested conference and event speaker.

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