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Creating a Culture of Excellence at Your Company

Lessons from a longtime Disney executive on how to grow leadership and employees in the service mindset.
PTDA

Disney invests a lot of time and resources in its rides. The Tower of Terror at Disney World alone was a $100-million investment. But Disney isn’t selling its rides. Rides are commodities. They’re selling the Disney experience. In his Culture of Excellence presentation at PTDA’s recent Industry Summit, Dennis Snow, a former Disney executive turned business coach, recommended distributors take a similar approach. “In today’s market,” he said, “the experience has to be excellent and that always comes down to our people.”

If people feel they are being forced to provide excellent service, the concept is more of a passing “flavor of the month” than a real commitment. So how do distributors “enculturate” service excellence into their business? There are two foundations to company culture, Snow said:

  1. What do we want our customers to say about their experience with our company? He suggested business leaders come up with three statements to answer this question. Together, they form the company’s brand. For example, Disney wants its customers to leaving its parks saying the following about their experience: It was a magical experience. They paid attention to every detail. They made us feel special. A security guard at Disney World went viral recently when a parent posted a photo of him asking a little girl who was dressed as Cinderella to sign his autograph book. He created a magical experience for that girl by allowing her to be seen as the Cinderella in that moment. 
  2. We need employees to define culture in terms of behavior. What has to happen to make the statement, “They paid attention to every detail” come true for Disney? For starters, all employees at every level of the company know they are required to pick up trash anywhere they see it.

Training and Communication 

A company’s vision operationalizes its service culture. For that reason, distributors need to make sure the company vision is in front of everyone at all times, Snow recommended. It is then reinforced through training and communication. These two actions go hand in hand, but need to engage the employee’s heart to be effective, he added. “Too many times in business, we get very clinical and take the heart out of training and communication,” Snow said.

Effective training and communication ensure the employee:

  • Is proud of the organization. Snow encouraged distributors to share the legacy of the business, who founded it, where they came from. “I believe our people should carry legacies,” he said. “We need to share and reinforce stories about why we’re proud of the organization.”
  • Understand the true product. The true product is not the physical product itself, but rather what the company’s product allows the customer to do. For example, a Disney worker may have a task of sweeping the street, but their job is to create happiness. Often, this is done by incorporating the guests in the process, allowing young children to take over the sweeping equipment in some instances.
  • Knows what is expected. “Certain expectations are non-negotiable,” Snow said.  

Leaders will weave these three elements into everything they do and be relentless in reinforcing the company’s vision. In another example, he shared how one hospital’s vision of creating miracles was reinforced by playing a soft lullaby over the hospital’s loud speakers every time a baby was born in the facility. 

The Right People

The interviewing and selection process is critical to keeping the desired company culture alive. Life gets more difficult for everyone when a manager hires the wrong person. Often the excuse is, “We needed a body,” but this, Snow said, is exactly what the company will get — a ‘body’ who does not bring value to the team or reinforce the company’s value. 

People come into an interview with skills, knowledge and talent. While the first two can be taught, the last two cannot, Snow explained. Even so, employers usually hire for the first and second while ignoring the third. Snow said distributors need to select for talent, and leaders can do this by studying the traits of their best existing employees and looking for them in a potential new hire.

“We need to always be in recruitment mode. We need to always be looking for good people — even in other industries,” Snow said.

In interviews, he recommended distributors listen and watch for:

  • Sincerity of responses
  • Specifics and details versus a person who talks in generalities
  • Appropriateness for your culture

The company’s values should also be reflected in the interview process. If attention to detail is a value of the business, it should be evident during the interview. At Disney, the company’s values are reflected before the potential employee walks in the door of the Disney casting office through door knobs that are shaped like cartoon faces. 

Addressing Issues

Snow recommended getting employees involved and engaged in the company culture. One of the best ways to do it, he said, is to have team members help identify barriers to service excellence and make suggestions about what the company can do to address them. This can be done in a quarterly meeting where there is nothing on the agenda but what frustrates the company’s customers and what might be done about it. 

A meeting of this nature at Disney produced a solution to a common problem: A child stands in a long line for a long time, only to get to the front and realize they are too small ride. A Disney employee recommended creating a “Fraternity of Future Splash Mountaineers” certificate for the child to come back to the front of the line when they are tall enough.

“Be the company that actually does something about [barriers to top customer service] by engaging your folks,” Snow said. 

Accountability comes by operationalizing expectations, he added. Intolerable service — such as “a smoking Cinderella” in front of the guests at Disney — cannot be tolerated. He urged distributors to contemplate the smoking Cinderellas in their world and recommended five steps to address issues:

  1. Position the discussion. Set a context. Go back to the true product/end goal and remind the employee of it.
  2. Discuss the performance situation. 
  3. Set a plan of action. Pull out calendar and set a follow-up meeting. The employee should do the majority of the talking during this step, Snow said.
  4. Communicate the consequences of non-performance.
  5. Set a follow-up plan. This tells the employee it wasn’t just a chat and they will be held accountable. 

“Never let the coaching moment go,” Snow said. “Coaching is real-time training.”

For these steps to work, the company leaders need to walk the talk, he added. Executives must model the values of the organization. “The outcome is an environment that creates extreme customer loyalty,” Snow said. 

 

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