I enjoy customer service encounters. Especially the bad ones. I consider such situations sport, like predator and prey, with the prey not recognizing me as a natural predator until it’s too late.
Which is a nice way of saying: I worked on the front lines of customer service at Walt Disney World. Nobody does the customer service, or customer experience (CX), better than Disney Parks, and I am always game to unleash a master class on companies and their agents who fall short.
Before I continue, I’ll note that a number of my past Disney colleagues have enjoyed success in publishing and on the speaking circuit, based on their Disney tenure. Even with the decades of experience behind their classes, seminars and workshops, none of them can tell this story. It’s the one that taught me more about customer service than any classroom ever could.
It’s New Year’s Eve, or, since it’s just past midnight, it’s technically New Year’s Day. At the Magic Kingdom, as the smoke from the fireworks extravaganza wafts slowly into the darkness, the mass exodus from the park begins. Seventy thousand guests shuffle, shoulder to shoulder, into the Castle Court and down Main Street USA towards the exit and the monorails, boats, buses and trams that will convey their tired bodies closer to bed.
This happens every night; it’s a carefully engineered though wildly frenetic process, made more so by the holiday throngs. Decades of Main Street Ops personnel before me have honed every detail and planned for every contingency to make sure the guests have a smooth, enjoyable and “magical” experience, no matter what, even during this mundane trek of nocturnal egress.
These generations of Main Street professionals who, like me, are spiffily attired in dark blue, three-piece polyester suits and snappy conductor hats, are adept at deploying crowd-piloting mazes of stanchions and ropes; we offer soothing and supportive cadences of holiday-laden instructions; and we cajole the kids into keep their parents moving. It’s what we call “good show.”
Until it isn’t. We hear the radios start crackling on the hips of our supervisors. They confer and then motion for us to follow them. About twenty of us fall into tight formation and walk fast through the crowd (running can cause panic). We head backstage through a secret gate and pick up our pace in the dark towards the front gate. Along the way we speculate on what this mission might entail. All manner of valorous visions are traded among the troops, each one further elevating our role from well-dressed crowd control specialists to some sort of special ops unit, hand-selected for some great and grand mission.
Cresting the berm that separates the inside of the Magic Kingdom from the outside, our quest becomes clearer. There’s a disturbance along the access road that the open-air trams use to ferry guests from the gates to the distant parking lot. Someone had forgotten to alter the timer for the sprinklers, and so thousands of tram-hopping guests are in danger of being deluged. On vacation. Late at night. In January. At Disney World. That’s called “bad show.”
Just as quickly as our visions of heroism are dashed, I and my 20 colleagues carry out our orders: we place our hats over the gushing sprinkler heads and then step on top of them to staunch the flow. Spaced ten yards apart, we are standing tall in soupy, wet grass, after midnight, with cold water being launched up our pants. And we’re having the time of our lives.
Given the unfortunate irrigation oversight, managers could have chosen to halt the trams, leading to delayed departure for thousands. They could have told guests to cover themselves. They could have done nothing and hoped for the best.
Instead, weary guests got something special. As they rode off into the cold night, they were cheered on by a phalanx of young, emphatic, well-dressed men, smiling and laughing and waving and wishing them a goodnight and a Happy New Year.
I’m not sure that many (if any) of the guests noticed the spumes of water shooting up from under our feet, or that our pants were drenched above the knees. That didn’t really matter. We encountered a bad situation and made it right. We made it better than right. What we did was just “good show.”
I’ve learned that I can’t always stop errant sprinklers from raining on an otherwise stellar project, but it’s second nature for me to look for any way to keep my clients happy and dry. When I’m able to do that, even with the smallest detail, I know I’ve turned a potentially negative experience into a doubly positive one.
Even if my client or their audience never notices, I do.