The Customer Confidential Podcast

At Disney, the Show Must Go On

Former Disney executive Lee Cockerell shares what it takes to maintain high-quality service at the company's theme parks and resorts, anticipate customers' needs and spread that signature Disney magic.


At Disney, the Show Must Go On

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Imagine that 20 million people depend on you to create a magical vacation experience for their family every year. Imagine leading 40,000 employees operating four theme parks and 20 resort hotels spread over an area larger than the city of San Francisco. On top of that, imagine running multiple shopping and entertainment districts, water parks, golf courses and the ESPN sports complex. That was Lee Cockerell’s job for over a decade. He was EVP of operations for Walt Disney World in Orlando. Just the logistical challenges of that role would overwhelm most leaders.

But the logistics aren’t really what interests me. And Lee, who retired a few years ago, mastered the logistics and complexity winningly. Much more fascinating is the question of how Lee and his team so consistently—day in and day out for years on end—created the kind of experiences that left customers so delighted they just couldn’t wait to visit again and tell their friends.

And that’s the key to Disney’s success: repeat business and word of mouth. About 70% of Disney’s visitors on any given day have been there before. The average customer comes back every three years for life. Walt Disney World’s economics depend on that repeat business. “That’s why we focus on trying to make the experience so good that they want to come back to us over and over,” says Lee.

Lee is my guest on the latest Net Promoter System podcast. He told me that Disney gathers data on customers’ experience at a level most companies can only dream about. It surveys 2 million guests a year on the Internet. It has teams armed with iPads roaming the park, interviewing guests while they’re still in the middle of the experience. It tracks how guests flow through its transportation system, hotels, restaurants, shops, shows and rides. And it uses this data to fuel its guest experience innovation pipeline for the resort.

Customers told Disney, for example, they wanted more certainty about what they would spend on food in the parks. So Disney introduced a meal plan for the resort, now used by more than 50% of guests. Customers didn’t know they wanted free transportation to and from the airport, but Disney’s research suggested that getting to and from the airport with kids and luggage in tow was a common source of anxiety. Once the company put an airport transportation system in place, complete with end-to-end baggage handling that takes guests’ bags from airport baggage claim to hotel room and back, the company’s hotel occupancy rate rose 10%.

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Some of these innovations have direct payoffs. Even though the meal plan offers a great deal for guests, for instance, it increased food revenue because meal plan guests eat almost all their meals at Disney restaurants. Other innovations might seem like pure expense, such as the decision to install Wi-Fi capacity throughout the Disney properties. But it’s all driven by a desire to make the customer experience so seamless and unforgettable that it creates enthusiastic promoters of Walt Disney World.

Ultimately, of course, the key to such an experience lies with tens of thousands of employees—cast members, in Disney parlance. On that front, Disney shows a remarkable combination of what In Search of Excellence authors Tom Peters and Bob Waterman once called loose-tight principles, and what we at Bain call “leading by letting go.”

On the one hand, Disney expects every cast member to look the part, play the part and “act happy” every minute of every working day. “Cinderella can’t have a tattoo on her neck, and Mickey can’t smoke,” Lee points out. “We’re putting on a show, and that show’s got to be the same every single day.” On the other hand, Disney gives individual cast members a great deal of authority to solve any problem they encounter. A little girl gets wet in a rain shower? “The cast member has the authority to give her a [new] dress at no charge, or to replace her Mickey Mouse doll or to get her a new ice cream cone.”

Lee discusses all this and more on the podcast—including what it takes for other companies to emulate Disney’s world-class practices. You can listen to the discussion on iTunes or through the player above. Click here to browse more Net Promoter System podcasts.

 Net Promoter®, Net Promoter System®, Net Promoter Score® and NPS® are registered trademarks of Bain & Company, Inc., Fred Reichheld and Satmetrix Systems, Inc.


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