• Kelly E. Middleton

How to Be the "Disney" of Public Education



One of my favorite blogs to read is Shep Hyken's on Forbes.com. Shep always shares good insights for leaders on the subject of customer service. If you've read any of my books, you know that I think of the Disney Corporation as the gold standard for customer service. I believe that companies and organizations that can emulate Disney can reach the pinnacle of their industry.


In a recent article by Hyken, he interviews a former Disney employee who shared some of the ways Disney provided excellent customer service. Below are the five tips from the piece as well as how those translate to public education. I hope these will serve as useful tools for school leaders to adopt some of the practices that have made Disney the customer satisfaction powerhouse that it is today.


  1. Hiring At Disney, applicants are asked to watch a brief video, outlining the philosophy and expectations of employees. This is a great way for an organization to show what they're all about and even serve as a matchmaking test. If those who watch the video feel that they are not the kind of person who wants to "have a smile in their voice" all the time, or sing the praise of the organization to friends and family, it provides an easy out before wasting the time of both the applicant and the organization. I love this idea for public schools! Creating a short video, tailored toward potential employees, can be a great way to hone your school's mission statement and clearly define what exactly you are looking for in an applicant. What's your ideal school culture? Express it in this video. Maybe even get some A/V students to help with production. Having all incoming employees watch the same video is a great consistency check—I'll talk more about this on #5 below. Next, comes the actual interview. At Disney, (surprise, surprise) it's not a typical process. Instead of focusing on the "getting to know you" angle, they go for more of a conversational dialogue. The back and forth is key because it allows the interviewee to find out more about the job and organization, which can help them decide if the job is a good fit. In public education, I like to see school leaders think outside the box for interviews. My interview committees work hard to craft the right questions and define the ideal candidate before the interview process starts. That way, everyone is on the same page about what is attractive about a candidate. We often use role plays and hypothetical situations to see if the applicant has the right mindset. For example, I love to throw a curve ball and ask how they would respond to a situation where there is a clear, legally correct answer that conflicts with the common-sense, customer-first answer: "What would you do if you knew a child went hungry at home and asked for a little extra portion of the lunch you were serving?" Interviewees who would give the kid a little more food always get a positive check mark for that question.

  2. Onboarding The concept of onboarding at Disney is similar to college orientation. This is a way of experiencing the culture firsthand to soak up the overall vibe of the organization. This includes learning the history of Disney as well as the reasons behind their ideologies. These are important for employees to understand because it provides context to the expectations and standards of the job as well as to the work environment into which the new hire will have to assimilate. Also similar to college orientation, the onboarding experience gets the employee excited for being a part of this new team. Onboarding in a public school is a critical step, showing the new hire what they can and cannot do, as well as what to expect from the other employees and their bosses. I like to use the phrase "when in Rome" here. For a school to successfully implement a customer-first culture, there needs to be an element of homogeneity amongst all employees. By this, I mean a guest can walk through the school and pick up on the vibe of the learning environment as welcoming, positive, student-centered and committed to going the extra mile in the spirit of customer service. It's that je ne sais quoi, that inexplicable quality, that you just feel when you experience it. Don't be afraid to celebrate the new hire too! Welcoming them and getting them pumped to work at your school are part of the process.

  3. Everyone Has Three Jobs Disney employees are truly expected to go above and beyond their job descriptions. Do you recall a time when you asked a salesperson a question and they answered with "I don't know, that's not my department," and left you to wander off in search of someone else who could help? I'm pretty sure Walt had an experience like that in mind when he made this rule. All of his employees are expected to 1. do the job they were hired to do, 2. serve the customer and 3. keep the park clean. Everyone from the CEO to the administrative assistants has to pick up trash if they see it on the ground. They also have to help every guest find the answer to their questions and don't simply pass the buck. Public school leaders should put an asterisk next to this one. I can't count the number of times I've witnessed school staff flat out ignoring any request that fell outside their job descriptions. They simply can't be bothered and that attitude is an infectious plague upon your school culture! Those mindsets need to be adjusted or else you need to find a new person for the job. I believe that every employee should have multiple jobs in public education. In addition to the three Disney expects, I'd add having each employee be a positive PR agent for the school, singing the praise and sharing the accomplishments of the students and staff. Those employees who can do this are worth their weight in gold.

  4. Know the Details that Count At Disney's theme parks, the attention to detail makes all the difference. They pipe in wonderful smells, make sure the park is perfectly manicured and play famous tunes from your favorite movies, creating a magical illusion that transports guests to another world. By focusing on pleasing all five senses, Disney wows its guests around every corner. One of my favorite things to do is what I call "walk in the shoes of the customer" (also a practice popularized by Walt Disney at his theme parks). I'll go through the lunch lines at one of my schools and sit in on a class or ride the bus after school in order to see the experience from the eyes of the students. As I do this, I am constantly analyzing each detail of the process—every touch point—to see if we are meeting, coming short of or exceeding expectations. I encourage school leaders to do this often, especially when students complain about an experience at the school. Remember to keep checking in on the five senses throughout your time walking in the shoes of the customer.

  5. Create Timeless Service Standards Service standards are the backbone of any customer service program and Disney knows this. By clearly stating the expectations of all employees and repeating that message consistently over years, even decades, the culture they create with their employees remains strongly embedded into the workplace. New hires are surrounded by coworkers who went through the exact same orientation and training process, creating the kind of consistency that fosters assimilation. I find that one of the biggest struggles public schools face in building a customer service program that facilitates positive school culture is consistency. Leaders and staff are always coming and going and rules are being updated so regularly that it can be hard to do anything consistently. By building a school mission statement on the fundamentals of customer service and focusing on positive school culture, then implementing those ideals into a training and onboarding manual, schools can nullify the impact on the changes that take place over the course of a year or even a decade.

Striving to be the "Disney" of public education takes time and a commitment to customer service. Remember to start small and be realistic with your expectations. Disney World wasn't built in a day.


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