Magic. Mystique. WOW. Among the upper echelon of the service industry, these words (and their numerous synonyms) announce legendary guest experiences. Whether its a Disney Cast Member in the Magic Kingdom requesting an autograph from a petite, preschool-aged princess or a Gentleman at the front desk of a Ritz-Carlton hotel offering a toast of champagne to arriving newlyweds, the goal of any experience creator is to build personalized engagements - and lifelong memories - as co-producers with the guests they served.
In organizations like Orlando's Walt Disney World Resort, it is easy to imagine the complexity of the operation and difficult to comprehend the degree of personalization offered to an astronomical volume of guests. Consider this in context: at Walt Disney World, more than 66,000 Cast Members holding 3,800 job classifications serve over 30 million visitors annually. The experience challenge is present across many companies around the world as they seek to drive cultures of quality service, but Disney stands out as a popularly-regarded champion. This post is the first in a series that will explore experience experts, like Disney, as we understand how each employs cultural service cues - company-specific service interaction guidelines - as models for excellence. Now, as Mickey Mouse might say, let's get on with the show!
Back to Basics
From the day Walt Disney inaugurated Disneyland Park in July of 1955, the company has led the service industry with its founder's firm belief that "quality will out." It seems only fitting that the entertainment giant that is The Walt Disney Company defines quality service in terms as simple as its long-standing mission and service theme, "We create happiness;" at Disney, quality service means "exceeding your guests' expectations and paying attention to detail."
How does Disney manage to drive unique experiences for the average guest at one of its five megaresorts, eleven theme parks, thirty-four resort hotels, and four cruise ships (among countless other assets)? And, considering that the average guest experiences upwards of 60 unique touchpoints with Cast Members during their stay, how does Disney deliver such personalized service?
The key is actually a set of keys ... four of them! Dick Nunis, Walt's protege and an early park executive, created the base of the company's service philosophies in what are today referred to as the Four Keys Basics: safety, courtesy, show, and efficiency. From day one, all Disney Cast Members are instilled with these four words as their service standards when interacting with guests and making empowered decisions on behalf of the company.
Memorized by each Cast Member, these service cues empower Disney employees to act out the story of their operations while exceeding guest expectations through personalized interactions.
Order of Operations
In making decisions, Cast Members are taught to reflect on the Four Keys Basics to ensure total compliance. The intuition is refined by the fact that the keys are actually ordered in priority.
Safety, the first key, is the chief mission of the operations: guests are generally not conscious of their safety in Disney parks because the standard for well-being is long-standing; if the condition of safety was not in effect, guests would otherwise be unable to enjoy Disney's myriad experiences. Cast Members are familiar with the mantra "SafeD begins with me," an ever-present backstage (areas out of the view of guests) reminder to live out the first key.
Courtesy, the second key, is the driver of respectful interactions between Cast Members and guests. While safety always comes first, cast members must actively engage guests with excited smiles and warm words. Other traditions of courtesy include the famous "Disney point," which involves cast members using two extended fingers or full open palms to direct guests (in the event the cast member is not able to personally escort guests to their destination); this practice was adopted to overcome foreign cultural taboos regarding one-finger pointing. Another practice of accommodation is the use of language pins attached to Disney cast member name tags (themselves tools of courtesy that allow guests to know employees assisting them on a first-name basis): Disney currently offers language services in over 30 languages (from Welsh to Zulu), with each denoted by a pin worn on the name badge of fluent Cast Members to inform guests of their ability to act as translators.
The third key, show, is perhaps most directly related to Disney's founding as a cartoon entertainment powerhouse. Storytelling, after all, is the company's greatest legacy. From the stoic butlers and maids grimly greeting guests at the Haunted Mansion to the perfect princesses who meet admiring guests daily, each Cast Member is made aware of their part in the overall show and is required to maintain the integrity of the story being told. After Walt Disney saw a cowboy strolling through Tomorrowland in Disneyland's early days, he pledged to correct that obvious anachronism in his future projects: the Utilidor (an abbreviation for "utility corridor") runs underneath the public level of Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom Park as a solution to this problem by allowing costumed Cast Members to navigate the park quickly without disrupting the consistency of the show happening onstage (areas accessible to or viewable by guests). Costumes (uniforms) visibly enable Cast Members to play their parts, while themed language guides them in communicating their stories: at Disney's Coronado Springs Resort, which is designed to resemble Mexico and the American Southwest, arriving guests are greeted by front desk agents with an inviting "¡Hola!;" at Disney's Grand Floridian Resort & Spa, the Victorian-themed flagship resort, guests are wished a "Grand day!" at the end of each service interaction. So long as the service environment and interaction are safe and courteous, maintaining Disney's show is essential in supporting the willful suspension of disbelief (the voluntary respite from reality and acceptance of fantasy) on the part of guests enjoying each experience. This promotional advertisement, featured in Disney's "Where Dreams Come True" campaign beginning in 2006, offers further examples of the relevance of the show key in making magic for Disney guests:
The final key, efficiency, reminds Cast Members that the time guests have to enjoy their vacations is limited and also that Disney is in the business (the cost-sensitive business, at that) of creating experiences. Interactions are abbreviated at the discretion of the guest, allowing Cast Members to offer as much assistance as the guest requests while keeping an eye on time. Cast Members resolving poor guest experiences are encouraged, as well, to offer like-for-like solutions: if a young guest drops his ice cream while enjoying a parade on Main Street, U.S.A., a witnessing Cast Member is encouraged to go to the nearest ice cream vendor, obtain an identical cold treat, and present it to the guest free of charge (this prevents the guest from having to wait in line and pay twice for something that has little cost burden for the company while simultaneously exceeding guest expectations). Monetary discounts or refunds are very rarely offered to guests as compensation for problems (and are only offered by service managers) due to preference for facilitating positive experiences to regain guest trust and loyalty.
Leading the Way
In nearly every training exercise conducted by Cast Members, the Four Keys Basics are reviewed in the context of the content at hand. Disney University, in addition to driving operational skills, has the mission of instilling in Cast Members Disney's tradition of excellence. It is therefore obvious that Cast Members are first introduced to the Four Keys Basics as new hires during their company on-boarding orientation, aptly called "Traditions."
Cast Members also have opportunities to be recognized by guests, peers, and managers using "Four Keys Fanatic" cards, certificates presented to Cast Members for outstanding performances using any or all of the Four Keys. These recognitions are added to employee records and are frequently used during performance appraisals and promotional assessments.
While also subject to the Four Keys Basics, managers at Disney - referred to as Leaders - also subscribe to the three Disney Leader Basics:
These additive basics, upon which Leaders' performance evaluations are based, help to drive consistent service delivery across the organization in a sense more in line with common organizational management strategies (à la the efficiency key).
Making More Magic
Conclusively, it is easy to understand how Disney's uncomplicated cultural service cues reinforce its legendary memory-making operations. The Four Keys Basics, along with their associated tools and tactics, enable frontline service providers to compound on Disney's magic storytelling while supporting business interests. Regardless of continuous changes occurring within Walt Disney Parks & Resorts, such as the recent introduction of My Disney Experience and MyMagic+ (technology-enabled re-imaginings of guest service systems), the Four Keys Basics will persist as the foundation for Disney's service excellence. As Walt himself was fond of saying, "You can design and create, and build the most wonderful place in the world. But it takes people to make the dream a reality."
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