Customers and Service First: Customer Service Lessons Learned from Disney

karan powellHave you ever had a customer service experience where the person serving you or working with you made you feel like you were the most important person in the world? Where you felt that addressing your concerns or meeting your needs was the only thing they had to accomplish? There are companies that pride themselves in claiming quality of customer service. We can all think of such companies across various sectors. Surveys indicate those organizations that are recognized as the best and they include companies like Apple, GE, Southwest, and Google. While Disney is not listed in this comparison of business products, Disney, in my book, leads in customer service in multiple ways.

Having just returned from a Disney cruise, I am intimately aware of Disney care and the experience of being “their guest,” as Lumière sings in a song from Beauty and the Beast. My recent Disney cruise is the experience I will focus on in this post and since this is not my first cruise with Disney, I am confident in these reflections as every cruise has provided the same quality experience. I am reflecting on this experience not so much to tell a Disney story, but rather in an effort to identify what contributes to this experience and discuss how/whether this experience can be translated to higher education and our experience in serving students.

What contributes to the experience? What did Disney do? From the first interaction (registering for the cruise) to the disembarkation and delivery to the airport at the end of the cruise, Disney was always ready and attentive. They attended to every detail and ensured that I knew the details as well by providing timely and essential communication and a portal where I could explore and find information when I needed it. Their call center/help desk was as readily accessible and helpful. Throughout the cruise, every interaction with “the cast” made us feel important, no matter what the type of work/role the cast member performed. This included the housekeeping, stewards, the dining room team, the captain, the cruise director, the various cast members performing throughout the day/evening, and the maintenance crew.

Everyone was ready to help at any time and greeted us with a smile at all hours of the day/night. Their goal was that we would have a “magical experience!” They were, as a team, totally mission-focused! Never mind that they had just wrapped up a cruise a couple of hours before we boarded the ship, and once we docked, they would take another cruise out that evening. We felt important and as if we were the only cruise they were doing as a whole and, as individuals, made to feel we were the only ones on the ship. The last day of the cruise, and also a few days later, Disney sent out forms and emails for feedback on the experience. They once again wanted to ensure we had a “magical experience!”

So what principles do I, as a leader, take away from this experience regarding quality customer service? What does an organization need to do? While there are many principles I observed, here are some highlights:

  • Create, promote and reward a culture of customer focus and care
  • Be mission-focused and ensure mission includes quality customer focus and care
  • Communicate and provide easily accessible, relevant, and up-to-date information
  • Smile, greet customers, and listen to them always ensuring every interaction with individuals/groups leaves them feeling important
  • Obtain feedback and use it to effect change for the moment and/or the future

So what does this mean for higher education and service to students? The principles I identify do apply to higher education.

  • Some in higher education would say that we educate students; they are not customers. What do customers do? They request a service; they experience the service and they pay for the service. What do students do? They apply to attend and obtain an education; we provide the education; they pay for the education. Students are customers because they make a choice.
  • Customer service on a cruise like Disney is multi-faceted, including registration, payment plans, services provided on the cruise (meals, housekeeping, entertainment, port adventures, ship maintenance, passenger safety and well-being, shopping, etc.). Customer service on campuses is also multi-faceted (admissions, teaching/learning in the classroom, student organizations and activities, financial aid, etc.). What if every service/every interaction with a student was student success-focused first—no matter what the interaction? What if every student felt important and listened to, no matter what the issue or question (and yes, this means even during student complaints)? What difference would this create on the campus?
  • Customer service on the cruise is mission-driven – to ensure every customer has a “magical experience!” This means the team/the cast has to work closely together to provide this experience. What if we as educators and administrators worked as a team, answering questions, solving problems, not passing the phone to another department or unit nor “passing the buck or blame?” What if we in higher education worked together to foster the mission of service to students and to one another so that we can serve students better?

The Disney cruise reminds me that creating a climate and culture on our campus is similar to creating a climate or culture on the ship. It is up to us as leaders to do this work, to build it, to reward it. I look forward to reinforcing with the team at APUS that everyone is “our guest”—prospects, current students, alumni, and one another as team members. Doing so can and I hope will make a difference! Thank you, Disney, for this reminder!



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