Lessons in customer experience from Disney - for companies of any size


Disney's former head of innovation and creativity, Duncan Wardle, shares five secrets that have helped to make the company's customer experiences so memorable, and that can be adopted by brands of any size. 

26th Feb 2021

I have been a huge fan of Disney for many years. They are one of the most CX-focused companies in the world, so I was delighted to interview the former head of innovation and creativity, Duncan Wardle, on my weekly podcast.

We chatted about lots of different ideas around innovation and customer experience, but there were five important insights that I would like to share:

1. The multiple “why?”

Just like when we were young and we annoyed our parents by asking “why”, only to ask “why” again after their explanation, Duncan believes that “Insights that are useful for customer-oriented innovation tend to only appear after four or five consecutive 'whys'.”

According to Duncan, data often only goes one or two ‘whys’ deep, so can deliver faulty insights.

He explained: “If you run a survey asking people ‘why do you go to Disney on holiday?’ people might tick the box ‘I go for the new rides and new attractions’. So you could decide to spend $240 million on a capital investment strategy. But if you ‘act like a child’ and keep digging deeper with multiple whys, you might get an answer like 'It reminds me of the times I used to go with my mom and now I take my daughter too'.

"And so you would uncover something that has nothing to do with capital investment strategy whatsoever and everything to do with a communication campaign focussed on nostalgia. Especially in these times where AI will strip away between 20% and 30% of the jobs in the Western world, it’s crucial that we keep our childlike curiosity and creativity, which is something that the machines won’t be able to do in a very long time.”

2. Combine data and gut instinct

Duncan is also very big on trusting his guts.

“There’s no doubt that Big Data is getting better and better every day”, he told me. “But if you’re only looking at your Big Data, you’re also only looking where your competition is looking. And if you’re only looking where your competition is looking, how will you find that one insight that will allow you to innovate in ways that somebody else can’t?”

3. Live with your customers

It might sound extreme, but one of the pieces of advice Duncan gives is to “Stop being so arrogant and go and live with your customers for a day". He said: "Executives are often so far removed from their consumers that they don’t know what’s important to them. I would advise to make it mandatory for everybody in your organisation who’s not in direct contact with the consumer to go spend a day per year in their living room. It will ground you in becoming a consumer-centric organisation.”

It’s also why, in his time at Disney, Duncan was not big on organising focus groups because of their forced and “false” context which does not stimulate honest answers – “They will always tell you what they think you want to hear!” – and interesting insights.

He told me: “It’s a lot better to talk to them in the relaxed environment of their own home, especially if they are with more than two because that triggers what I call the ‘self-regulating honesty policy’: the husband might for instance answer in a certain ‘manly’ way, while the wife would add something a lot more closer to the truth like “Oh no, but you said it made you feel like a little boy again”.

4. Guests, not customers

One of the approaches that made Disney so wildly successful in all of their different endeavours, is what Walt Disney called the “Experience before retail” strategy. And you can see it in every little detail of their amusement parks. It’s one of the many reasons why I love them so much.

“From the first days onwards, Walt told everyone that 'we will not have any customers in our park but guests',” Duncan explained. “Think about the difference between how you feel when you are treated as a customer or when you’re treated as a guest, right? That can have a huge impact. Walt also said that 'We will not have any employees but cast members that wear a costume, not a uniform'. That’s a huge difference for their engagement and behaviour, too. And with that simple re-expression, he redefined a level of hospitality and experience that has never been replicated or duplicated.”

5. Lack of resources is not an excuse

Just like me, Duncan believes that a lack of time or resources is a terrible excuse for lack of customer innovation. I always tell my audiences that they just have to work in small, affordable and manageable steps, which will amount to a lot if you count them at the end of the year. Duncan put it like this: “Necessity is the mother of invention and creativity is almost certainly the father. The people who are in fact, the most innovative and most creative are the people with the least amounts of money.”

Disney has always been one of my top favourite companies because of their fantastic customer experience. So I really hope that you’ll be inspired as much by these learnings as I am, every time I go to visit them.

Steven van Belleghem is one of the world’s leading thought-leaders, speakers and authors on customer engagement. His new book, The Offer You Can’t Refuse is out now.

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