What your business has in common with Disney
Whether it’s hiring right-fit employees or creating a solid company culture, delivering outstanding customer service isn’t limited to magic kingdoms.
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Dennis Snow’s customer-service abilities were honed over 20 years with the Walt Disney World Company. There, he developed his passion for service excellence and the experience he brings to the worldwide speaking and consulting he does today.
Based on his two decades with Walt Disney World, along with many years of consulting with organizations around the world, Snow will provide a “how-to” program for delivering outstanding customer experiences as the keynote presenter at the ninth annual In Business Expo & Conference, which is set for Oct. 16 at the Alliant Energy Center.
Snow began his Disney career in 1979 as a front-line attractions operator.
“I grew up in South Burlington Vermont,” Snow recalls. “While on a summer break from the University of Vermont, I thought I’d see if I could get a job working at Walt Disney World for the summer. I’d visited as a kid and thought it would be pretty great to work there. So, I drove my beat up Oldsmobile to Orlando, and was hired to work at an attraction called 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. What started out as a three-month job turned into 20 years, including management in the parks, the Disney University, and the Disney Institute.”
Snow launched a division of the Disney Institute responsible for consulting with some of the world’s largest companies, including ExxonMobil, AT&T, General Motors, and Coca Cola. During this time, he presented to audiences in diverse locations around the world, such as South Africa, Australia, Mexico, England, and Argentina. This division quickly became the fastest growing venture of the Disney Institute and experienced repeat business of nearly 100 percent.
He also spent several years with the Disney University, teaching corporate philosophy and business practices to cast members and the leadership team. While there, he coordinated the Disney Traditions program, which is universally recognized as a benchmark in corporate training. In his last year with Walt Disney World, his leadership performance was ranked in the top 3 percent of the company’s leadership team.
“When I was hired, there was only one park at Walt Disney World — the Magic Kingdom,” says Snow. “By the time I left, we had the Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Disney’s Hollywood Studios, and Disney’s Animal Kingdom. During that time the cast expanded from around 10,000 employees (cast members) to over 70,000. That kind of expansion required a dramatically increased focus on recruiting and hiring great people, as well as consistent and ongoing training to reinforce the Disney culture.
“As a manager in the parks, this entailed lots of communication, coaching, and recognition to reinforce the culture,” Snow continues. “I also had the opportunity to manage the training function at the Disney University, which was responsible for all new-hire onboarding and management training. The scope of all of this kept increasing, but the fundamentals remained the same — keep the place clean, keep it friendly, and make it a magical experience for guests. Every cast member understood their role in the show.”
Sticking to those fundamentals at theme parks around the world proved to be a necessity for Disney, Snow says, in order to maintain its standards as the company grew.
“I would say the biggest challenge was, and continues to be, hiring the numbers of people it takes to operate the place,” comments Snow. “It’s important to hire people who are a right fit for the Disney culture, so they recruit and interview lots of applicants in order to select those right-fit cast members. Early on, Disney could count on simply hiring from the local community. Because of expansion, they now search literally the entire world for right-fit talent. You can imagine how challenging that can be.”
Snow notes it wasn’t always smooth sailing for the company in its recruiting, however, and those instances only reaffirmed the importance for businesses to hire candidates who fit the corporate culture of the company. “I would have to point to the few times we scrimped on new-hire onboarding in order to get people into jobs quickly, such as when opening a new major project. It quickly became apparent that without proper onboarding, those newly hired cast members weren’t properly prepared to deliver the expected Disney experience.”
That wasn’t the only important lesson Snow learned during his two decades at Disney. Another was that it is vital to identify what you want the customer experience to be and then weave the outcome into everything that impacts employees.
“The fundamentals of the Disney culture are woven into the hiring process (casting), new hire onboarding (Disney Traditions), ongoing training, accountability processes, etc.,” notes Snow. “I’m often asked how long Disney training lasts. The answer, of course, is that it’s ongoing. From the moment you say, ‘I think I’d like to work here,’ to the moment you leave at the end of your Disney career, everything in between is training because the culture is constantly reinforced.”
Says Snow, a crucial aspect of the experience mindset is being present. “It’s easy to fall into robotic performance as you board guests onto rides, serve them hamburgers, or answer the same questions thousands of times. Disney cast members are trained to be present and treat each guest as special.
“That can be something as simple as offering to take a family photo so the family’s ‘designated photographer’ can be in the photo, too, to noticing a child dressed as a Disney princess and calling her by her princess name, to replacing a dropped ice cream cone,” continues Snow. “Cast members are trained to look for opportunities to create magical moments.”