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Disney’s common sense ‘magic’ is typical of the advice offered by the Disney Institute, which has seen demand for its customer service secrets from big companies – including a growing number of Canadian ones – skyrocket. (GENE DUNCAN/DISNEY)
Disney’s common sense ‘magic’ is typical of the advice offered by the Disney Institute, which has seen demand for its customer service secrets from big companies – including a growing number of Canadian ones – skyrocket. (GENE DUNCAN/DISNEY)

MANAGEMENT

Lessons in management: What would Walt Disney do? Add to ...

It’s a code red for the parents of small children everywhere: The tears that flow after a scoop of melting ice cream falls off its waffle cone and plops onto the hot pavement.

But Walt Disney Co. has perfected the solution, which it teaches to all of its theme-park staff, from janitors to senior managers, on their first day of training.

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The procedure goes like this: Drop whatever you’re doing, run over, find out the flavour the child had, run to the front of the line, put fresh ice cream in a bowl and stick a cone on top along with two cookies that look like Mickey Mouse’s ears. In minutes, a tantrum turns into a story the child’s parents will tell everyone they know.

“We call them ‘magical moments,’” says Jeff Williford of the company’s Disney Institute consulting arm, speaking to a seminar for business people near Toronto where that word “magical” keeps on coming up.

This kind of common sense “magic” is typical of the advice offered by the Disney Institute, which has seen demand for its customer service and staff-training secrets from big companies – including a growing number of Canadian ones – skyrocket.

It’s very much a sweat-the-details approach that started with Walt Disney himself. And its appeal is growing as service industries face a tight economy, tighter competition, and cranky customers who now take to Twitter to broadcast their complaints.

Even Tim Hortons Inc. has sent senior staff to Florida and held a recent symposium for its franchisees there, with content from the Disney Institute.

The doughnut chain says it “shares the same values” as Disney, but offered few details about its relationship with the institute or how it has used its advice.

Franchisees who declined to be named said the Florida meeting was mostly “inspirational.”

Ottawa-based developer Minto Group Inc. has spent the past two years working with Disney, sending senior staff for backstage tours of the Magic Kingdom.

Among the results for Minto has been a customer-service program called “beInspired,” that has seen, for example, maintenance staff in Minto buildings encouraged to put down their mops to open doors for residents.

All of General Motors Co.’s U.S. Chevrolet dealers are now getting the Disney treatment. Organizers of the Super Bowl and the 2010 World Cup in South Africa also made use of Disney’s staff-training expertise.

Disney has long quietly offered management and customer-service consulting, as do a range of better-known but more orthodox firms such as McKinsey & Co., Deloitte & Touche and the Boston Consulting Group. But Disney says growing interest from corporate clients in its unusual approach, as well as a new marketing push, have helped to double the Disney Institute’s revenue in the past three years. (Disney does not release the exact figures.)

At a recent Disney Institute seminar at the Burlington Convention Centre west of Toronto, hosted by McMaster University’s DeGroote School of Business, the more than 200 attendees included small business owners, doctor’s office co-ordinators, bank staff, an official with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats and municipal civil servants.

All were handed their name tags by a team of young women in mouse ears. The podium, also topped with mouse ears, is framed by two ceiling-high towers of silver Mickey and Minnie Mouse balloons.

The institute’s instructors are all former senior managers at its theme parks. In addition to offering seminars and tours of Walt Disney World near Orlando or Disneyland in Anaheim, Calif., Disney also sends out “mystery shoppers” to businesses to evaluate their customer service. And it is often simple things that make customers – “guests” in Disney-ese – the happiest.

“Make customers go, ‘Huh.’ Or make customers go, ‘I never expected that,’” Disney Institute presenter Walter Kurlin tells the crowd. “And then they go home and tell their neighbour about your business and what you did to make them feel special. That’s what this is all about.”

Few other business seminars feature video clips from the classic animated Disney film Pinocchio or WALL-E. At one point an audience member was asked to sum up the plot of The Lion King to illustrate a point about leadership.

But the Disney link has, at times, been controversial. In 2010, Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty’s office told a Windsor health-care conference to scrap two Disney Institute speakers after critics complained about paying $9,600 for advice from Mickey Mouse. Similar snickering has erupted over Disney’s work for the Brooklyn Nets National Basketball Association team and U.S. hospitals.

In an interview, Stacey Thomson, the Disney Institute’s worldwide publicity manager, says clients know there’s more to Disney’s management approach than cartoon characters: “As much as we like to talk about magic, it’s not magic. It’s business. These are sound business practices that have been in place literally since Walt Disney founded the company with his brother Roy.”

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