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Holiday 2013 Planning Starts Now

By Bruce Jones, Disney Institute

The 2012 holiday shopping season featured stores opening earlier on Thanksgiving, extended hours shopping marathons, and, according to the National Retail Federation, an additional 585,000 to 625,000 seasonal retail workers.

Many retail managers are now looking back on the holiday season to assess the challenges they faced, taking note of what worked and what didn’t, and beginning to develop a plan for the 2013 season. The holidays are a busy time for the Walt Disney Parks and Resorts as well, and Disney Institute, the professional development arm of The Walt Disney Company, has some tips for keeping cast members (Disney-speak for employees) engaged and guests happy.

The first step is to create a culture. Disney has long been recognized for its approach to customer service. Time after time, Disney guests cite superior service as the reason they return to Walt Disney Parks and Resorts. The secret behind that reputation, though, is not just magic. Disney has worked hard to create a culture that fosters cast member engagement and trust. It’s that trust that leads to an exceptional customer experience, repeat business and solid financial results.

Every organization has a culture, whether they realize it or not. It’s up to the leaders of the organization to determine what they want that culture to be, and then make sure it’s reinforced at all levels of the company. Disney calls this a “culture by design” as opposed to a “culture by default.”

A key to assimilating cast members into the company culture, whether full-time or seasonal, is keeping the lines of communication open. Disney leaders consistently communicate the reasons for rules, regulations, and expectations so cast members understand how their work and actions affect the bottom line. In the retail setting, this could mean making sure seasonal employees understand the procedure and importance of clocking in and out, the store’s return policies, and the pricing strategy.

The second step is to seek input. Disney leaders routinely seek feedback from the frontline, and not just through surveys. Cast members are more likely to provide great customer service if they know they can go to their leaders with ideas for making things better.

Cast members can serve as the eyes and ears for the company. As Disney cast members find new ways to surprise and delight guests, the company also asks that they examine what isn’t working and what could be improved. This type of feedback helped Disney learn that some attractions had lines that guests felt were too long, and that guests wanted easier ways to find their favorite characters in the park. Because of this, the company created the “FastPass” service that provides guests with time slots to visit attractions without waiting in line. Disney also created character Meet & Greet locations and dining experiences that make it easier for guests to interact with their favorite characters. As retail employees assist customers with merchandise, work the register, and stock shelves, it’s good to ask them to share the feedback they’re hearing from customers — both good and bad.

The third step is to share a common purpose. Another important piece of employee engagement is for leadership to show that every cast member is working together toward a common purpose — no matter their title or position. When cast members see their leaders displaying the same behaviors expected of them, whether that’s straightening merchandise on the shelves or calling another store location to find what the guest needs, they are more likely to be invested in their jobs.

At Disney, we treat cast members the same way we expect them to treat guests. That includes empowering them to do the right thing without having to seek approval from a manager. For example, if a child drops an ice cream cone in one of our theme parks, a Disney cast member can give the child another ice cream cone for free. This not only enhances the guests’ experience, it also encourages cast members to take initiative and seek to improve a guest’s experience wherever possible.

Lastly, organizations must facilitate excitement. Walt Disney had a love for steam engine trains. He even built a small-scale train system in his backyard on Carolwood Drive in Los Angeles. Similar to how coal and heat create steam that drives the engine, the people working at a company are the “emotional engine.” When employees are engaged and excited about their work, they will stoke the fire and propel the engine. They also will share their experiences with other employees helping to stoke their excitement.

Disney consistently shares positive guest feedback with cast members of all levels; those letters and stories are what keep us motivated. They remind us that we are here to make people happy, and this feedback stokes the fire of our cast members and the Disney emotional engine. With the right fuel and support, employees will be the steam that drives the success of the organization now and your organization’s next holiday season. 

Bruce Jones is the programming director for Disney Institute. In this role, he oversees the team that develops engaging content built around the five topics that Disney is best known for — leadership, management, quality customer experience, brand loyalty, and innovation/creativity. Bruce is a member of the American Society for Training and Development and serves on the editorial advisory board for Training magazine.


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