A magical customer experience starts with your frontline workforce

Disney is a brand that inspires customer loyalty like few others in the world. 

Around 157 million people visit Disney theme parks each year. And they don’t just visit once—they keep coming back. They collect memorabilia, join fan clubs and bring their whole family. One superfan has visited Disneyland 2,995 days in a row (an eight year streak).  

What is it about “The Happiest Place on Earth” that inspires such devotion? 

It has everything to do with the customer experience delivered by frontline staff every day, according to Dan Cockerell. He’s the former VP of the Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World, where he led a team of 12,000 cast members in welcoming 20 million guests each year. 

We sat down with him to learn more about ‘the method to the magic’ that brings people through the gates again and again. 

The two most important indicators of success

“We’ve learned at Disney that making money is simply a lagging indicator of all the inputs upstream,” says Cockerell. “The two key leading indicators of success are intent to recommend and intent to return.”

Everything they do is focused on creating an exceptional guest experience that will accomplish these two goals: get people to come back, and get them to tell their friends.

Notice that we said exceptional guest experience—not good or even great. This is an important distinction at Disney. So much so, that when they conduct customer satisfaction surveys, they look at only two categories: ‘excellent’ and everything else. Even those who scored ‘very good’ get lumped in with the ‘good’ and ‘poor’ responses. 

“The difference between very good and excellent is light-years away,” Cockerell explains. “People who are only satisfied are likely to leave when a competitor comes up with a better service. But when people rate your products or services as excellent, they’re much more likely to come back and much more likely to recommend your company highly.” 

Architecting an exceptional customer experience

“Great service doesn’t materialize magically,” says Cockerell. “Every single step is architected based on in-depth knowledge of your client.” 

That requires you to get inside your customer’s head to understand what really matters to them. After extensive interviews, Disney found that their guests really want these four things during their visit: 

  1. Treat me as an individual, not just one of 50 million guests that come through the resort every year. 
  2. Make me feel special, by delivering those emotional ‘wow’ moments that I’ll never forget.
  3. Respect me and the time and money I’m spending with you. 
  4. Be knowledgeable and provide accurate information to help me navigate my visit.

It’s not the fireworks, the rides or the new attractions that keep people coming back. It’s the way they feel during their visit. Every interaction they have with Disney’s frontline staff contributes to this feeling. From the parking attendant, to the waiter at Liberty Tree Tavern, to the guy in the Mickey Mouse costume himself—every touchpoint matters. 

“Each interaction is one chapter, and over time they’re building up a book of experience,” says Cockerell. “That will determine whether they will enjoy their visit and whether they’ll come back.” 

The chain of excellence

How do you make sure your frontline employees treat customers right? It starts with treating employees right. 

Disney asked their cast members what a great employee experience looks like to them—and it turns out, they want the same things as customers:

  1. Treat me as an individual.
  2. Make me feel special.
  3. Respect me.
  4. Make me knowledgeable, by providing the resources and training I need to deliver a great experience.

“If we give employees what we’re asking them to give our guests, they’ll be more than happy to do that,” says Cockerell. This realization informed what he calls the chain of excellence: 

Leadership → Employee Satisfaction → Customer Satisfaction → Sustainable Results 

“Leadership has to create the environment, expectations, standard and culture for all your employees to work in. If you do that, employees will be satisfied and feel motivated and respected,” Cockerell explains. “If employees feel motivated and respected, they’re going to deliver great experiences. And if they deliver great experiences, your guests are going to want to come back again. This is the model. There are no shortcuts.”

Watch Dan Cockerell’s full AxoniCom session on demand.

Recognize and reinforce exceptional service

One of the most powerful ways for leaders to promote exceptional customer service on the frontlines is to recognize it when it happens. Recognition doesn’t just boost morale and spread positive vibes. It also reinforces positive behavior and gives others on the team a role model to emulate.  

“When you recognize your employees, you’re telling a story to them and the whole organization about what great performance looks like,” says Cockerell. 

He cites an example from his time at Disney, when he received a thank you note from visitors who had a great experience at the Disney Emporium. The associate that helped them had gone above and beyond to celebrate their daughter’s fourth birthday, by giving her a balloon and leading the staff in singing ‘Happy Birthday.’ 

Cockerell made sure this note was shared not only with the associate who had done a great job, but with the whole team. In fact, they read it aloud at the shift meeting. This not only gave staff an inspiring example of how to make guests feel special—it also demonstrated that this behavior is highly valued by the company. 

Stories stick with us. The next time an opportunity came up to celebrate a guest (whether for their birthday, anniversary or anything else), staff remembered this story and took action to create even more special moments that customers would be talking about for years to come. 

“Your frontline delivers your bottom line,” says Cockerell. “Wherever employees are interacting with customers, they’re creating this intent to recommend and intent to return, and that’s going to be the lifeblood of your business.” 

Make sure your frontline does the right things in the moments that matter.

Build the right mix of knowledge and confidence to deliver exceptional customer service.

JD is one of the most prolific authors and speakers in workplace learning today. His practical approach integrates science, technology, storytelling and pure common sense to enable employees, improve performance and drive business results. For 20 years, JD has executed strategies for global organizations, including The Walt Disney Company.

Let’s work together to drive frontline performance in all the right ways.