SBJ/20101129/This Week's Issue

Customer-service magic


Training with the Orlando Magic included how to
handle shoppers at the team’s souvenir shop.

“See that?” Tom Thomson said. He gestured toward the ticket-taker, who was pointing with two fingers to direct a fan. “That’s us,” he said. “That’s Disney.”

An executive with Disney Institute, Thomson was standing inside the doorway of Orlando’s Amway Center on a warm October evening, watching fans arrive at the first basketball game in the new building. Because it had only opened the week before, the layout was a mystery to many fans, who weren’t sure quite where to go. But the ticket-taker, an upbeat, middle-aged woman, was answering questions with a smile, then using the Disney two-finger point — adopted companywide because a one-finger gesture can seem rude — to send them off in the correct direction. “Feels good to see that,” Thomson said.

In the weeks leading up to the opening of the arena, nearly all of its game-day workers, from part-time food-service employees to the Magic’s assistant coaches, had participated in a multisession training workshop held — no, staged — over several weeks by Disney Institute, a wholly owned arm of the parent company. The result, at least on that first evening, was a family-friendly, feel-good air that seemed unusual for a big league sports event, even the inauguration of a new facility. “The building is getting a lot of accolades, and I’ve had so many people say to me, ‘What did you do with your employees?’” said Magic President Alex Martins. “It’s ground-breaking for our industry, but clearly we’ve already seen that it makes a difference.”

Disney Institute has been helping companies institute Disney’s best practices since 1986, but only in the past year did it start actively pursuing sports franchises and other sports entities. “We’ve come to understand that the sports world is a natural for us,” said Jeff James, a Disney vice president who leads the business. “So many parallels can be drawn between the world of Disney and a sports team.”

James ticked off some of them: loyal fans, big events, the sale of food and souvenirs, the existence of premium customers who’ve paid for an enhanced experience, even third-party vendors who aren’t employees but can go a long way toward aiding — or hindering — customer satisfaction. The Arizona Cardinals were DI’s first major league client, in July 2009, followed by the Magic. The University of Tennessee recently signed on. The South African government brought in DI to help train service workers for the 2010 FIFA World Cup, and USA Gymnastics and the U.S. Tennis Association’s National Tennis Center in Flushing Meadows, among others, have done one-day seminars. Several more are on the horizon, James said, from NFL teams to small- and big-time college programs. The contracts vary based on need and logistics, but the costs range anywhere from $10,000 to more than $50,000 for a fully customized program.

What clients have learned, through tailor-made programs for each, is the Disney way of motivating employees to create singular customer experiences: the equivalent of Mickey Mouse kneeling down to sign an autograph, or a dropped ice cream cone getting replaced before the first tear has been shed. Those experiences, Disney believes, have the potential to be as memorable as any slam-dunk or touchdown pass. “What makes people come back is not the big stuff,” contends Dennis Frare, one of DI’s presenters, or “facilitators.” “It’s about lots and lots of small, seemingly insignificant things that we do.”

As Thomson watched the pregame activity around the new arena, he spotted additional evidence of that attitude in action. A dropped credit card provided the impetus for an usher to hustle down the concourse to return it. At the Magic’s souvenir shop, where an 8-year-old buying a hat had handed over a handful of crumpled dollars, the clerk completed the interaction with the child, not the parent, to the point of giving the little girl the receipt. “That shows that everyone is an individual, especially children,” Thomson said, watching as the clerk then gave directions, complete with the requisite two-finger point.


“It was about being the best we
can be in every area. That’s why
you bring in a company like

Michael Bidwill
Arizona Cardinals CEO and owner

And when a customer approached security guard Linda Berkely asking where to find veggie burgers, Berkely recalled noticing a stand during a scavenger hunt that DI had held inside the arena. She immediately consulted the handbook that DI suggests all employees carry. “We will find you a veggie burger,” she said as Thomson beamed. Once the customer was on her way, Thomson stepped in and acknowledged Berkely’s work, letting her know that someone had noticed and appreciated her actions. That, too, is a Disney dictum. As Frare puts it, “Great leaders are willing to go out and catch people doing things right.”

If such gooey, emotional tactics seems a far turn from the autocratic, often macho culture that permeates sports and sports business … well, it is. “It’s not commonplace, for sure,” Martins said. Despite the inherent connections, many sports executives still aren’t entirely comfortable treating football or basketball fans like theme-park customers — or acknowledging that replacing that ice cream cone is, in its way, as important as that new point guard. That defines Disney’s challenge.

“We strongly believe that if you take care of the guest in the proper manner, your financial results will come,” DI’s James said. “The sports world is so far behind, they’re just beginning to understand that. They’re just learning that they need us.”

More and more, they do. They need capacity crowds to drive the different on-site revenue streams that now contribute to each franchise’s bottom line, which in turn requires motivation for fans that transcends their team’s performance. “At some point for every team, there’s a downturn,” Martins said. “With a consumer product, you’ll always get the same quality, but a sports team is variable. It’s the other factors that will secure the longevity of our patrons.”

“I think,” added Audra Hollifield, the team’s vice president of human resources, “that people around sports are going to start paying a lot of attention to how this works out for us. I actually think that this is going to change some minds.”


Martins credits Disney training for the
positive feedback on employee interaction
with fans.

At this month’s International Crowd Management Conference in Kansas City, sports executives from various sectors of the industry — the Minnesota Twins, University of Texas, Arkansas State, the New Orleans Convention Center, and so on — filled the room. These were the men and women who run many of America’s stadiums and arenas, from Madison Square Garden to small local and collegiate facilities. They’d come to network, to get a three-day snapshot of the state of their industry, and maybe even learn something in the process.

It was toward that end that Antony Bonavita — who volunteers as the vice chairman and program director of the convention when he isn’t serving as vice president of facility operations for the Cleveland Cavaliers — had booked DI for a one-day seminar. He’d been talking about hiring the company when he worked in San Antonio for the Spurs, but left for the Cleveland job before he could. “To be honest, this conference was at a point where it was very status quo,” Bonavita said. “We wanted to get people to pay attention. Last year we had 83 attendees, this year 141. I absolutely know that Disney is the difference. People are intrigued.”

Intrigued, perhaps, but also skeptical. “I’m not exactly sure what they’re doing here,” one manager of a Midwestern facility said before the program started. Within minutes, Frare had made it clear. “We can all agree that we’re in the entertainment industry,” he said. “If 1 percent of our guest population doesn’t show up, that means millions of dollars lost from the bottom line. Conversely, if we do the right things and attract 1 percent more, it means millions of dollars added.”

Frare’s content had been culled from four different seminar templates, then tweaked for the arena-management industry. It was actionable knowledge, but a sales pitch, too. In that room, he hoped, were some number of executives — five, 10, maybe even more — with the wherewithal and the budget to initiate a long-term relationship with DI. Bonavita was one of them. This was his chance to see the DI team in action, glean some tips and — if all went well — come away with enough ammunition to convince his bosses.

Frare started by asking questions of the audience. As he got the first few tepid responses, he rewarded participation with little figurines of Mickey, Goofy, Minnie and the rest. Before long, the room was filled with raised hands and shouted answers, and Frare had proved a point. Give even the most jaded audience a vested interest in paying attention, even one as seemingly silly as a figurine, and it will.

To show how difficult it can be to unlearn behavior, he asked everyone to interlace their hands. Either the right or left thumb is on top, he said, but now undo them and put them back together the other way. See how uncomfortable it is? Finally, undo them, and now put them back together one more time. “What did each of us do? We went back to the way that’s comfortable for us,” he said. The message was, change comes only if we make a concerted effort over time to keep doing something a new way, no matter how hard it might seem at first.

DI has been teaching such lessons for a quarter century. In 1982, Tom Peters and Robert H. Waterman Jr. co-wrote “In Search of Excellence,” a book on business principles that used Disney as an example of superior customer service. “Companies started calling and saying, ‘I want some of that,’” Thomson said. “Our first instinct was to tell them, ‘Sorry, you can’t.’ But then we started thinking, ‘Why not?’”

So Disney did what Disney does. It surrounded the idea, building a campus, and started holding seminars on site, addressing core topics such as leadership, people management, and brand loyalty. Those topics are still DI’s centerpiece, but these days nearly all of its business is done where its customers are, so that a wide range of employees — not merely top executives — can be addressed. “We flipped the model,” James said. “We took the product on the road. That made all the difference.”

When Steve Penny, president of USA Gymnastics, saw DI’s presentation at a meeting of Olympic governing bodies earlier this year, he booked a seminar for representatives of his member organizations. He wanted the owners or managers of as many as possible of his 2,000 member clubs to hear Disney’s ideas about thinking like a customer. “Not-for-profits tend to live a little bit in isolation,” Penny explained. “For us, the most important thing was to remember that we’re a customer-service organization. We have as many retailers in America as McDonald’s has franchises or Chevy has car dealerships. And the same people who are taking their kids to Disneyland are the people who are coming to gymnastics clubs every day.”


Disney still brings clients to
its home turf, but it also has
taken its product on the road.

And when the USTA wanted to bring in DI before this year’s U.S. Open to talk with the 1,000 or so of its employees who only work for the USTA for three weeks every summer, the organization’s executives asked to share the stage with Disney’s presenters. “We had some material of our own that we wanted to cover,” said Chris Studley, the senior coordinator for guest services at the National Tennis Center. “The Disney name gave us credibility.” The presentation made an immediate difference, Studley believes. “Our people interacted more personally with the attendees this year,” he said. “They were willing to take those extra few minutes to explain the options in the food court, not just say ‘the food court is over there.’”

Disney owns television networks (including ESPN), sports facilities, magazines, hotels and conference facilities. But the lessons that DI teaches originate with its core business, with Mickey and Goofy. So when outside decision-makers, such as Cardinals CEO Michael Bidwill or the Magic’s Hollifield, express interest in the process, they’re invited to Disney World in Orlando for a backstage tour. The subterranean tunnels that run beneath the massive park feel like the dressing rooms at a Broadway show, and that’s no accident. When Disney employees are on duty, they’re performing like actors on stage. Instead of uniforms, they wear costumes. And their job consists of creating memorable experiences — “wow” moments — that will keep customers coming back.

Much of that comes from employee empowerment. At the theme park, cast members are encouraged to stop whatever they’re doing if a guest wants a picture taken, or needs a question answered. Employees get recognition, in newsletters and e-mails, but also from executives who prowl the park looking for praiseworthy acts. Interaction with guests is encouraged. Employees are sent out into the park with metal pins to trade with anyone who approaches them. The idea isn’t to get customers to buy more pins — though, admittedly, that’s a positive side effect — but to create yet another potentially memorable moment.

“We look for as many ways as possible to turn our cast members into heroes,” said DI facilitator Sara Jones. “That makes them feel good. And it keeps our guests coming back.”

“We strongly believe that if
you take care of the guest in
the proper manner, your
financial results will come.
The sports world is so far
behind, they’re just
beginning to understand

Jeff James
Disney Institute

Just because a team, organization or facility hires DI and attends a seminar doesn’t mean change inside its organization is a foregone conclusion. The temptation to relink the hands in the easy, comfortable fashion is a strong one. “All the ushers at my arena have been there 20, 30 years,” said Glenn Walinski of the Tyson Events Center in Sioux City, Iowa, over lunch at the crowd management conference. Walinski liked the DI message, sure. But he seemed to feel that implementing it would be close to impossible. Even Frare concedes that for most organizations, a full year is necessary for any kind of shift in the corporate culture to take hold.

Often, an external marker — a change in ownership, a new facility — is needed as the catalyst. “We would never have been able to do it without the new building,” said the Magic’s Hollifield. “It would have been tremendously difficult. There were people who’d been with us for 21 years, doing things a certain way. It took the move to give us a fresh start.”

The Arizona Cardinals didn’t seem to have any of that. Their new stadium was already several seasons old, and the same family had owned the team since 1932. But the Cardinals had experienced a sudden reversal of fortune, from one of the NFL’s most downtrodden franchises to a Super Bowl team. And when a Cardinals employee saw DI give a presentation and booked it for a one-day seminar with game-day staff, it went so well that Bidwill decided to do something organizationwide. When DI’s facilitators arrived, “some of the people in our organization didn’t understand what they were doing here,” Bidwill says. “People in our finance department, some of our coaches, people who take care of our sports turf. ‘How does this affect me?’ I heard that a lot.”

With DI’s help, the sense that the franchise had turned itself around on the field was transplanted to the front office — and beyond. “It was about being the best we can be in every area,” Bidwill said. “That’s why you bring in a company like Disney. And when they saw me going through the training, too, it made a big impact.” After half a season, the response from Cardinals fans has been strong enough that DI will return for a second session in February. “We’re going to continue to make sure we keep our service standards at a very high level,” Bidwill said. “It’s exciting. I think it’s something that will set us a little bit apart.”

If that’s what DI can accomplish with a major league team after only a brief interaction, it’s tempting to wonder what would happen to sports’ existing sense of customer service if the company owned teams of its own. But, of course, Disney did own its own teams: hockey’s Mighty Ducks from 1993 to 2005 and baseball’s Angels from 1996 to 2003. And while both franchises were known for perfectly fine customer service, it fell within the range of what others were doing. There were no epiphanies learned, no new standards set.

Maybe the message hadn’t yet been calibrated to fit a sports franchise. At the time, DI was focused on health care, retail goods and education, and hadn’t yet worked with a pro or college team. But while Disney explored many synergies involving TV, branding, even the name of the hockey team, game-day experience — beyond the use of entertainment acts and the “cast member” and “guests” terminology — wasn’t among them.

“There wasn’t as much interaction with Disney as one would have thought,” said Tim Mead, the Angels’ vice president of communications, who recently completed his 31st season with the team. “We were really seen as a separate business.” As former Disney CEO Michael Eisner said to Mead about the Angels at the time, “You’re a unique animal.”

Perhaps if Disney owned the teams today, a stronger attempt might be made to integrate the ideas that originate at the theme park. “There’s no doubt that by the end of their ownership you could feel the philosophical impact of the Disney influence much more than at the beginning,” Mead said. But part of why DI’s seminars work is that they’re getting sports teams to see customer service through outside eyes. For that, the external perspective is not only helpful, it’s imperative. “Bringing them in is the ultimate tune-up,” Penny said. “It helped remind me to listen better, to really be keen on the needs of our members versus thinking that we have all the answers. It reminded me to think like our customers.”

The Magic, Hollifield notes, had never met at the same time with all the various entities that make up their game-day experience. They’d have separate sessions with security staff, caterers, their own ushers and other employees, but there was no common template, no consistent theme. DI’s methodology brought everyone together, taught them the same lessons, and tried to instill the same mind-set. “In the past,” she said, “every vendor had a different name tag. It was new for us to sit down with everyone and say, ‘OK, here’s how we’re going to do things.’”

And for all its bells and whistles and the half-century of received wisdom, that in itself may be the best “best practice” DI has to offer. Simply paying enough attention to customer satisfaction to bother to hire Disney is a paradigm shift in itself for many entities, and an indication that minds are open enough to consider serving fans in a different way.

“I feel like customer service and enhancing the fan experience is sports’ next frontier,” Bidwill said. “Disney doesn’t say, ‘Look, you’ve got to do it exactly the way we do it.’ But they give you the tools to start developing your own kind of leadership style for addressing this. Why come to the game when you can stay home and see it? To answer that, we need to focus on making the experience better and better. And that’s what bringing in Disney does. It makes us focus.”

Bruce Schoenfeld is a writer in Colorado. He can be reached at

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