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Customer-centred culture: Why Facebook fails whilst Disney prevails

26th Jul 2018
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Informed by data capture, businesses appear to understand their customers better than ever. But do they?

Mark Zuckerberg wanted to “make the world more open and connected” and with a typical founder’s obsession kept Facebook relentlessly focused on its customers and everybody pulling in the same direction.

But Facebook’s cohesion is now visibly corroding, revealed by a senior executive defending dubious business practices in a leaked memo, a 6,000 word manifesto repositioning the company as a social infrastructure that does good, and the need for a new mission to “give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together”. And that's not to mention the Cambridge Analytica scandal. 

Many organisations stumble over combining growth with keeping everybody engaged and resolutely focused on customers within clear and commonly understood boundaries. 

Very few have a founder who decides that a command and control leadership style no longer safeguards his legacy, so designs a methodology to hardwire customer expectations into the heart of the business. Even fewer have a framework that over the decades has remained the bedrock for global expansion and success. 

Our work on ‘Culture by Design’ has looked at the importance of a customer-centred culture in an increasingly complex omnichannel age. We have drawn on our combined 30 years’ experience at the Walt Disney Company, alongside our work with Cranfield School of Management, to explore how best to design a culture that inspires employees to create exceptional customer experiences. 

A culture, as simple as “the way we do things around here”, is needed that gives everyone the clarity to stay on the same course, and also empowers them to take spontaneous, creative and flexible decisions. Although the commitment required to change culture should not be underestimated, conscious design of culture is possible. Culture embeds a group’s explicit or implicit goals, so in a customer-led organisation it must be designed to keep people focused instinctively on customers. 

The Disney approach 

In its report into the Disney culture, leading management consultancy, McKinsey tells the story of a young girl and her mother coming to a building site on a visit to a Disney theme park. The little girl threw Belle, her favourite Disney doll, into the fenced-off area.

When staff retrieved the doll later, it was spattered with mud, the dress was torn, and the hair was a mess. Staff tried but couldn’t find a replacement. So, accompanied by a photographer, the bedraggled doll was taken to a makeup artist who styled her hair, then to the wardrobe department who made a new dress, and finally to a ‘party’ with other Disney princesses.

Later that evening Belle was returned to her owner, together with a photo album showing what a great time she’d had during her ‘makeover’. The girl’s mother sent a thank-you note describing the moment of Belle’s return as “pure magic”. 

Fundamental to Disney’s consistent customer experience and sustained commercial success is having a small but defined set of standards and behaviours

From such stories it is clear that the final outcome is not just the result of a single employee’s effort. Teams of people work seamlessly together, but do not consult a script or check with their managers - a spontaneous, flexible and personalised response is essential. The trick is how to channel this improvisation so that it adds up to the experience customers want, whilst avoiding the dehumanising tendency for tight scripting and the equally ineffective customer experiences that come from a free-for-all.

Employees are too often neither empowered nor equipped to make good, consistent and customer-led decisions, leading not only to unhappy customers, but also to unhappy employees.

The organisation must define its purpose, encapsulating precisely what it does for its customers. It should not be a fluffy statement that is divorced from customer needs or the reality of what an organisation can deliver. Rather, a well-designed brand purpose should articulate what a customer is really seeking to accomplish - Disney takes the view that families want to have a happy time together, so its purpose is “We create happiness”.

Standards and behaviours 

Premier Inn’s purpose of making guests “feel brilliant through a great night’s sleep” gives them the focus to excel in areas that customers value such as Hypnos beds, good quality showers and a hearty breakfast, but to avoid investing in gyms, luggage porters or fine dining.

Having a clear organisational purpose is immensely valuable. But on its own, knowing that our job is to ‘create happiness’ can leave employees feeling short of guidance on how to behave. Fundamental to Disney’s consistent customer experience and sustained commercial success is having a small but defined set of standards and behaviours that give employees the next level of detail about their customers’ expectations.

These standards and behaviours should be observable, measurable and coachable. For example, an airport with safety, comfort, ease and speed as its standards has “I pick up rubbish” and “I report an area that needs attention” as behaviours associated with ‘comfort’. Similarly, the behaviour “I display a calm tone of voice” is associated with ‘ease’.

Another invaluable element of the Disney approach is to prioritise standards in a non-negotiable hierarchy that is a tiebreaker when decisions conflict. So at Disney, safety trumps courtesy: if you have to shout to stop someone going somewhere unsafe, you do.

An overarching framework helps empower employees to act freely when the unexpected happens, knowing that as long as they are aiming towards the organisation’s purpose and working within the clear boundaries of its standards and behaviours, they will be backed by their management for doing their best.

A well-designed brand purpose should articulate what a customer is really seeking to accomplish

All HR practices need to reinforce the brand purpose and standards if a customer-led culture is to result. Cranfield research consistently shows that organisations with a clear purpose and that also engage all their employees in creating value for their customers have higher levels of customer satisfaction.

Employees who are clear about customer expectations and who are equipped and engaged will be willing to do more, and crucially will focus more precisely on what is importants.

Culture is all around us, influencing our ideas, customs and social behaviour, and as companies like Facebook are discovering, it develops whether we are conscious of it or not. Leaders must, therefore, reflect how culture can be designed to lubricate a system that intentionally engages employees in delivering superior value for customers, shareholders and other stakeholders.



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