Sunday, April 22, 2012

In Customer Service Consulting, Disney’s Small World Is Growing

ORLANDO, Fla. — Maryland teachers were instructed to engage children by crouching and speaking to them at eye level. Chevrolet dealers were taught to think in theater metaphors: onstage, where smiles greet potential buyers, and offstage, where sales representatives can take out-of-sight cigarette breaks.

Florida Hospital now exhibits what one official called “calming video art,” and it installed recessed lighting based on a Disney finding.

A Florida children’s hospital was advised to welcome patients in an entertaining way, prompting it to employ a ukulele-playing greeter dressed in safari gear.

These personal service tips came from the Disney Institute, the low-profile consulting division of the Walt Disney Company. Desperate for new ways to connect with consumers, an increasing array of industries and organizations are paying Disney to teach them how to become, well, more like Disney.

Revenue from the Disney Institute has doubled over the last three years, according to Disney, powered in part by its aggressive pursuit of new business. Over the last two years alone, 300 school systems across the country have sought its advice.

Other clients range from very large entities — Häagen-Dazs International, United Airlines, the country of South Africa — to small ones: three Subway restaurants in Maine, a Michigan hair salon, a Boston youth-counseling center.

The Disney Institute recently hired a network of field representatives to sign up clients and started dispatching its executives to companies wanting help; before that, advice-seekers traveled to Walt Disney World here or Disneyland in California.

“We’re putting our people on planes all day every day, domestically and internationally,” said Jeff James, who runs Disney’s consulting branch. “Some clients are in great shape and want to improve even further, and some are truly clueless.”

Mr. James said the up-and-down economy had put pressure on companies to pay more attention to consumers’ needs. He also cited the importance of the Web, which “gives unhappy customers a megaphone.”

Disney, which employs 64,000 people in Orlando alone, has its own employee difficulties, of course. Union spats arise, and some cast members — Disney-speak for employees — chafe at the company’s strict rules, although it recently lifted a facial-hair ban and now allows women to forgo pantyhose. Disney’s sugary customer service can also startle visitors who aren’t used to such uniform cheerfulness.

But vast numbers of consumers love it, and the company is routinely showcased in business books, like “The Disney Way: Harnessing the Management Secrets of Disney in Your Company,” for its hospitality and efficiency. For instance, the company has spent so much time studying its park customers — more than 120 million of them globally last year — that it places trash cans every 27 paces, the average distance a visitor carries a candy wrapper before discarding it.

That attention to detail is what compelled Frank Supovitz, the National Football League’s senior vice president for events, to hire Disney to help with this year’s Super Bowl, following a seating debacle at the 2011 game. Disney devised and executed a training program for the game’s 20,000 staff members and helped coordinate crowd control.

“We wanted those 20,000 people to internalize a sense of pride in their part to play,” Mr. Supovitz said, adding that he planned to hire Disney again next year.

Sometimes the Disney influence is more noticeable. Florida Hospital, a 22-campus chain, now employs that ukulele-playing greeter and exhibits what Tim Burrill, a vice president of the chain, called “calming video art” elsewhere. The hospital installed recessed lighting in hallways after Disney researchers found that patients on gurneys didn’t like staring at fluorescent bulbs.

Disney has been marketing its services to hospitals in advance of a new government requirement that patient satisfaction surveys be reported online; starting in October, billions of dollars in Medicare reimbursements will be linked to the scores.

In 2009 Florida Hospital’s children’s unit had patient satisfaction scores in the bottom 10 percent of the country. It hired Disney and by the end of 2010 ranked in the top 10 percent. (Last year, the hospital opened a new $75 million expansion; Disney’s philanthropic arm contributed $10 million and was given naming rights of the children’s wing.)


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