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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

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.

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."

At the seminar in Burlington, a screen displays the company's "chain of excellence," which starts with leadership that motivates staff to go the extra mile to satisfy customers, who in turn come back for more. That coveted repeat business results in the final link in Disney's chain: profit.

Disney's exceptional customer loyalty certainly adds up. The company's presenters tell the crowd that more than seven out of 10 guests at its theme parks have been there before. And Disney calculates that, on average, each visitor who walks through its front gates is worth an astonishing $62,000 over a lifetime.

"They come to us time and time again because they know what they are going to get," Mr. Kurlin says. "It's like McDonald's. It's like Tim Hortons."


'Green side up'

Disney says companies should try to consciously design their own corporate cultures, by telling stories that reflect their values to their employees.

Disney staffers are told about how Dick Nunis, then executive vice-president of Disney parks, forced a group of executives to help roll out sod in the frantic days before Walt Disney World opened in 1971.

One executive asked how, and Mr. Nunis replied: "It's pretty simple: You keep the green side up."

To this day, Disney uses the phrase "green-side-up situation" to mean a time when all hands must be on deck, and to illustrate its culture of forcing everyone to pitch in.

Stop saying no

Disney security staff called them "stealth weddings." Groups overdressed for the Florida heat would try to circumvent the company's ban on weddings and tie the knot in front of Cinderella's Castle.

Disney had long held that the grown-up, religious elements of weddings disturbed its "fantasy" setting. But after customer pressure and market research, Disney compromised and built a "wedding pavilion" within sight of the castle. Packages even include carriage rides and appearances by Mickey and Minnie.

Now, Disney's parks are second only to Las Vegas as a wedding destination in the United States. The lesson, Disney says, is that companies should look again at things they are saying no to.

Use your mouse ears

Disney says it holds regular brainstorming sessions with front-line employees and takes their ideas seriously.

For example, it was the parking attendants at Walt Disney World themselves who came up with a low-tech solution to a big problem. About 400 families a week were forgetting where in Disney's 12,500-vehicle parking lot they had left their cars.

The answer did not involve GPS or licence plate scanners. Disney staff simply write down the times that each row of the lot fills up in the morning. As long as customers know when they arrived, Disney staff can find their cars.

Jeff Gray


All new hires at Walt Disney World spend an entire day in what the company calls "traditions" training, learning Disney's corporate lore.

Among their assignments: A quiz to see them name as many Disney animated characters as they can. The idea is to get employees "emotionally connected" to Disney from the start, says Walter Kurlin, a presenter with the Disney Institute, the company's consulting arm.

"It's like an indoctrination. You know what that is; they drink the Kool-Aid," Mr. Kurlin acknowledges, after pointing out that he grew his new goatee after Disney relaxed its famous ban on staff beards earlier this year.

He says Disney is more interested in an applicant's personality and enthusiasm than skills or experience: "We're looking for attitude, not aptitude. Aptitude is fine, but anybody can fake aptitude on a résumé. But attitude is real."

Most workplaces are not like Disney World. But Mr. Kurlin says employers can benefit from some of Disney's methods. For example, the company makes sure applicants know a company's "non-negotiables" up front.

A chirpy video tells would-be Disney applicants right away not only about the jobs, pay and benefits – but about Disney's strict rules on personal appearance. Woman must have "natural" makeup and hair colour. and necklaces and bracelets are banned. Men's hair must be "off the ears and off the collar." Visible tattoos are banned.

Disney also insists that even the words it uses matter. Disney consciously calls its staff "cast members," thus assigning even janitors or fast-food servers a "role" in the show. Visitors are "guests," not customers.

One consulting client had a particularly unfeeling name for its staff, says the Disney Institute's Jeff Williford: "They called the people who worked for them 'units' [as in] 'We have 27 units, and they service our users.' Those terms really affect how people perceive themselves."

Jeff Gray

Follow Jeff Gray on Twitter: @jeffreybgrayOpens in a new window

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