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The Ideal Customer Experience: Lessons in Loyalty from Mickey Mouse

By: dev | August 28, 2013 | 
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Ideal customer experience

By Jason Konopinski

A few weeks ago, I hopped into a 15 passenger van with some of my closest family and started a long drive to Orlando.

Our destination? Walt Disney World.

My niece and nephew (ages four and two) are eyeball deep in a serious Disney princess and Mickey obsession, so we knew it was time to head down the road (well, 15 hours down the road) for a good, old-fashioned family vacation.

As we went hurtling down the road with plenty of plush stuffed animals, a stack of DVDs, and scads of salty and sweet snacks to fuel our enthusiasm, I thought back to my first trip to Disney as a senior in high school.

It was our senior class trip (all 435 of us, mind you). Unleashing that many rowdy teenagers on the parks of Disney might not have been the best decision by our class advisors, but I digress.

I was far too focused on simply spending a week away from mom and dad and celebrating graduation with my friends to really pay attention to fancy things like the ideal customer experience or branding continuity, but fast forward 15 years and it’s another story completely.

The Ideal Customer Experience

As one of the most well-known global entertainment brands, Disney knows know to create authentic brand loyalty. There are few global brands that can boast the passion and loyalty that legions of Disney fans feel for Mickey Mouse and his creator, and any marketer worth their salt knows that of all the things it takes to build a lasting business that can weather economic and industry turbulences with ease and grace, brand loyalty is the hardest to pin down.

It costs a lot less to keep a customer than find new ones, and loyal customers are certainly worth their weight in gold. Walt Disney recognized brand loyalty begins in the most inauspicious ways possible — with an authentic relationship. From the moment you enter a Disney property, it just feels different. Those aren’t just employees at the check-in desk at the resort or maintaining the grounds. They’re cast members focused on providing visitors with simply the best experience.

Be Our Guest

Philosophically, you’re not just a paying customer. You’re a guest in the home of the Disney family. You’re not just there to be entertained or amazed (though that certainly happens). You’re going to feel special. It’s Disney Magic and the tremendous power of memory — and they’re in the business of making memories that build loyalty.

There are lots of tangible reasons people break up with companies. Broken brand promises, product that don’t live up to expectations, changing customer needs. The list goes on. At the top of the list? A customer’s perception the business just doesn’t care about them.

Creating the ideal customer experience — one built on precious memories and a little whimsy — informs everything Disney does from the moment you pass the ticket turnstiles and enter one of the theme parks. Famous for their friendliness, knowledge, passion, and superior customer service, the Disney employees have been fueling the iconic brand’s wild success for more than 50 years.

It’s no surprise Disney University, founded by Van France, turns out some of the most engaged, loyal, and customer-centered employees the business world has ever seen.

Ideal customer experience

So, How Do They Do It?

Forge an Emotional Connection. My niece is something of a princess expert. She knows all the Disney princesses by name, and she really, really likes Ariel from “The Little Mermaid.” Princesses exist in her world. Cast members at the parks called her “princess” everywhere she went, even bowing when they passed. It might have something to do with the dress she wore, but I can’t quite be sure. Cough.

Be the Memory Makers. Positive interactions delivered on a personal level result in lasting memories, and begins with the cast members themselves. When they see an opportunity to make a positive difference in a guest experience, they do so. The iconic Disney characters pose for photographs, sign autograph books, and interact with guests. Couples honeymooning in Disney are gifted wedding-themed his and her Mouse ears, and families are randomly selected to take a starring role in the daily parades coursing through the park.

Building Repeat Business. My wife Lisa went to Disney every year growing up. Her mother worked in a factory, and when things shut down for a few weeks each summer, the family car got loaded up and they hit the road. She has her own affinity for Disney animated films, and has her favorite attractions. We rode “Pirates of the Caribbean” and “Big Thunder Railroad.” Twice. Why? Because those were her favorites, and we had to keep the tradition going. Now we’re sharing that same Disney Magic with our niece and nephew.

Focus on the Little Things. That’s right, details matter. Theme parks and long lines go together. As I queued up waiting to take my flight to Mars on Mission: SPACE at Epcot (my FAVORITE!), I marveled at the attention paid to environmental and set design. The Mission: Space waiting area is fully styled to resemble a space station, with lots of sensory stimulation. The effect is profound: You’re not just waiting in line to take a five-minute high G force simulation ride, you’re going moving through an interstellar outpost and getting proper training!

The Sum of Its Parts

What makes Disney’s brand and customer experience the topic of so many case studies and leadership programs is its simplicity. There aren’t really any complicated moving parts, but they all work together.  Really, really well.

If you can succeed in forging emotional connections, and empower internal stakeholders to call audibles in improving customer experience on the ground, you’ll capture the hearts, minds and loyalty of the market you serve.

No pixie dust required. You’re safe, Tinkerbell.

P.S. We have Jay Baer joining us tomorrow (!!!) for a free webinar about his new book, Youtility. You can register here.

69 comments
dbvickery
dbvickery

Outstanding post, Jason - and I enjoyed the pics (as well as seeing them on Facebook). I know I have one relative who puts that Disney trip on the credit card every year...and then pays on it throughout the year. The "experience" was that important for her to share with her kids.

Great example, and loved the "guest in the home" of Disney reference.

Chris Syme
Chris Syme

Just got back from Disneyland in SoCal and I have the same thoughts every time I go there--it's a customer service marvel. My favorite small detail: cleanliness--every bathroom I've ever been in and restaurant we've been in is always clean. Plus I love the idea that every "cast member" can tell you where anything is. 

biggreenpen
biggreenpen

Great points about how to create the ideal customer experience. Two thoughts to ponder also --- I have never done a running race at Disney (FL) but they're all the rage in the running community. And although everyone has a good time, I get the sense that this is an area where there are a few gaps in creating that "ideal" experience (for example a lot of the runs take place on the "back roads" as opposed to through the theme-oriented part of the parks. One of the Disney properties refused to accommodate a friend who had a medical condition during the race and needed an extra half hour past checkout to shower (and I know they were justified in doing so .... it just created a bad taste in her mouth and seems like it could have been managed differently). On the GOOD side, it's reall something what Disney does to prepare cast members for children with various behavioral (and physical) disorders. My friend @diaryofamom wrote extensively about her family's experience, which did have an issue (documented in the prelude post to the one I am sharing here .... good idea to read it) BUT Disney worked with her on making sure it's a teachable moment for the cast member. Here's the link: http://adiaryofamom.wordpress.com/2011/09/12/disney-redux/

jasonkonopinski
jasonkonopinski

I'll add another layer to this discussion with this:

Check out their mobile app. It's brilliantly designed -- you can get real -time updates to current wait times on various attractions in the parks. Lisa had hers loaded up all the time, so we could make the most of our time in each of the parks. Disney is actually testing a band that serves as your ticket and meal plan with a small group right now. One of the features of that band is that parents can load the name of their kids into their own band, so when one of the characters walks up, they know their name to make for a truly personalized branding experience. 

I think it's brilliant -- and any privacy concerns are moot because it's completely opt-in. 

Thoughts? 

Latest blog post: Poetry Friday: Ezra Pound

LSSocialEngage
LSSocialEngage

So true! All their parts work so so well together. After a lot of research and thinking we just booked our first cruise ever on Disney partly because we are assured that they will do it really well. My almost 3 and 6 year old boys are very excited too (not about the princess stuff though. Having said that  I really really like Ariel too. My favourite princess for sure). Thanks for the great read.

RobBiesenbach
RobBiesenbach

Never been to Disney, though I did stay in Orlando in a hotel shaped like a swan. I fear the whole thing on multiple levels. But here's something that jumped out at me about your post: "You’re not just waiting in line to take a five-minute high G force simulation ride, you’re moving through an interstellar outpost and getting proper training!"

That is a GREAT lesson. We are accustomed to so much "dead time" at events, waiting for the "show" to start. Conference and meeting organizers can learn from this, that the "show" starts long before the speeches begin. Extending themes and content throughout the experience, at hotel check-in, conference registration, as you enter the ballroom, as you wait between presentations, is vital. And not just with banners and flyers and gifts, but actual content. How do you really make the whole thing an experience that drives the message forward?

Last weekend I went to a play at a small storefront theater I go to regularly. Every theater has their little announcements about turning off cell phones, location of the exits, running time, etc, etc. This theater always make a point to record a custom announcement that fits the theme of the show—in this case dinosaurs in Vietnam (I know, right?) So the announcement is actually very much part of the show itself.

Anyway, long post. It's something I've been challenging myself to do ...

susancellura
susancellura

I adore Disney. I'm not going to rehash what has been said, but yes, they know what they are doing. 

ryanruud
ryanruud

What a great post! First, because of Disney as the case study for the subject matter. But the reminder that as marketers and communicators we neeed to get a little personal to make the greatest impact! Personal aside about the power of Disney, I still have strong memories and emotions connected to that brand, I had a Make - a - Wish trip there as a kid. It was an incredible experience even before I left Minnesota. Obviously Make - a - Wish was a part of the equation too but both brands are permanently lodged in my consumer mind. I contribute to Make - a - Wish and am a repeat Disney-er (that's a thing, right?! :) ) Again, great post! :) Much to think about in my own work.

John_Trader1
John_Trader1

You had me at "recognized brand loyalty begins in the most inauspicious ways possible — with an authentic relationship." 

This perfectly ties in with @martinwaxman's post yesterday about establishing a real connection with someone before migrating to a give and take relationship. You are so right about the seemingly difficult task of forging an emotional relationship with a customer that Disney does so well and how it is so elusive for some companies. In the end, what we all want is to feel needed as a consumer - to be heard, be acknowledged, and be respected.

P.S. - That Goofy hat is you!

jolynndeal
jolynndeal

Jason, great post. Disney should be the customer service blueprint for all businesses.  I especially like your point to focus on details. Attention to detail separates the expected from the exceptional.  I read recently about another similar mission followed by the Ritz, "We are ladies and gentlemen serving ladies and gentlemen." I like knowing a company treats its team like they do the guests!

Chris Syme
Chris Syme

And speaking of apps--we downloaded the "Lines" app for our visit this time and it made our journey around the park much more efficient. We checked the wait times of every ride we wanted to go on and planned accordingly. They do have some nice apps.

TaraGeissinger
TaraGeissinger

@jasonkonopinski I am a Disney nut as well. Of course it helps that I only have to drive 3 hours to get there. We don't go a crazy number of times per year because I want to keep it "magical" too, but I think it's worth every cent. 

I was reading about that interactive band and I think it sounds pretty amazing. I love when technology helps make my experience better (like the Fast Pass option) and I think this sounds like it would do just that!

JohnMTrader
JohnMTrader

@SpinSucks All is actually well. In fact, it couldn't be better. Feeling unbelievable these days! Hope you are too.

jasonkonopinski
jasonkonopinski

@jolynndeal Their customer service is truly something to behold. When we were there, a whole mess of new cast members-in-training was out and about. They shadow current cast members (everything from facilities management to actual characters) and I overheard some of their discussions. The point that gets constantly reinforced? Do everything you can for a smile. 

Latest blog post: Poetry Friday: Ezra Pound

SewellGardner
SewellGardner

@CitrusContent it really is a fantastic place for the kids & the big kids! Tge staff can't do enough for you! Lessons to be learnt for sure.

LSSocialEngage
LSSocialEngage

They love Toy Story and that's an awesome Fun fact! I can't wait to get them to do that! Any other tips or tricks?

susancellura
susancellura

@jasonkonopinski And what is really amazing, is that they have not wavered from this approach from the beginning. I mean, I went many times when growing up and we've taken our daughter there several times already. Considering the expansion of their library (princesses, action, fairies, etc.), they have done a remarkable job in keeping with the times and not missing a beat. 

ryanruud
ryanruud

@jasonkonopinski Absolutely! If it's not personal, why would people bother? In organizations I've worked in I always tell my team, do we want our customers having one night stands with our brand or something more meaningful?! 

LSSocialEngage
LSSocialEngage

@jasonkonopinski We did that when we stayed at the park resorts itself. I thought the meals are all included on the cruise though? We are taking the Disney Fantasy.

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