5 Questions About Building A Customer-Centric Culture - Dennis Snow

How to build a customer centric company culture? How to hire into that culture? How to hardwire customer centricity into the everyday work life? If you want to build a company that your customers love, these are the questions you should be asking yourself.  

Today we talked with Dennis Snow to learn his thoughts about the customer experience and how Disney’s customer experience playbook can help any company.  

Dennis started his career as a submarine driver at Walt Disney World resort in 1979. After that he held various management positions around the company. Dennis spent several years with the Disney University teaching corporate philosophy and business practices to cast members and the leadership team. He also and consulted other global companies on customer experience via Disney Institute

Following the rewarding 20-year career with Disney, Dennis Snow is now the CEO of Snow & Associates. As a customer service expert and keynote speaker, Dennis' focus is to help clients achieve "walk-through-fire" customer loyalty.  

Alongside his keynote speeches and consulting, he also is the author of two successful customer service books and leads a blog on customer experience.  

1. Are the Disney principles still valid today? 

“Disney’s principles are timeless.  

What Disney realized very early on is that they are not selling rides and shows. They are selling an experience. That is what makes Disney different.

So certainly, the rides and the shows are part of that all but so does every other interaction. They called their customers guests, and every interaction that a guest had with a cast member is a part of the experience. Waiting in line – part of the experience, parking your car – part of the experience.  

What they have thought from very early on is how to make each element of the experience something that is positive, something that people will remember to differentiate. There’re a lot of places where people can go to get rides, or just to go on vacation.  

Disney knew they had to do something different. Their principles are still valid today. The execution evolves through time, but the foundation principle of what is the experience that they want to create for guests, that goes back to Walt Disney himself.”   

2. How do you make sure that every employee knows these principles? 

“We had a very clear vision of what customer experience is supposed to be. So once employees have that (and this works for any company), you need to hire people that are likely to deliver that experience. Disney hires people very, very carefully. It is called the casting process. They want people to understand that you are not being hired for a job, you are being cast for a role in a show. The hiring process is taken very, very seriously.  

Once you get hired, you go through a very careful training process - about the culture of the organization and what the guest experience is supposed to be. What your role in the show is, what those non-negotiable things are. You know, if you see a piece of trash or a piece of garbage on the ground, it is your job to go over, pick it up and throw it away.  

Everybody regardless of title and job goes through the culture training. Those principles are reinforced, over and over in terms of meetings that you have, additional training that you might go through, coaching, accountability. Everything revolves around the experience Disney is trying to create.   

So it is a fairly simple model. The challenge is you have to be consistent with it. You can’t just assume that people catch on, that they have got it. As leaders, we have to be relentless and keep that vision of service in front of our people all the time.“ 

3. How do you transform an existing company culture into a customer centric one? 

“The first thing that you do is you help them become very clear on what their current experience is. So let’s use a regular store as an example. It starts from the moment a customer parks their car and stretches to the moment they get back in their car in the parking lot. Everything in-between is customer experience. How should the customer be feeling and at each step, what should the experience be? You have to decide it first.  

Who are you bringing in to the company is vital because that is going to have the longest effect on the culture. 

Step 2 is getting everybody in the company, that works in the store, to clearly understand the behaviors that will lead to that experience. For example, how do we greet somebody when they come into the store? How do we say goodbye? You know, as the person is leaving the store, what could we say, what can we do to make them feel “Wow, I really like these people, I can’t wait to come back”. It includes lots of training and working with the management and the staff to deliver that experience.  

And then the next step is to hardwire that all into the everyday culture. It includes looking at the hiring process, looking at the accountability processes, finding out who gets promoted in the organization and what happens if somebody is not delivering that experience. What do you do when your employee is not living up to the expectation that you now have? You have to work with the management team first and then only hardwire it into the culture of the organization.  

To sum up, you need to define the experience (what it is supposed to be?), help everybody to understand behaviorally how to deliver that experience and then hardwire it in the long-term.” 

4. Could you share some particular practices that you were following at Disney?  

“A good example is when they ask the guests, what impressed them. They always say I can’t believe how clean this place is. Well, one of the reasons is that if an employee sees a piece of trash on the ground, it is their job to go over, pick up and throw it away. And it doesn’t matter if you are a cast member who works on the rides, or you are the Vice President of Marketing. If you see a piece of trash on the ground, it is your job to go over, pick it up and throw it away. That’s one of those practices.  

Another practice is not waiting for a guest to come to you for help. As an employee, you learn how to see the ‘I need help’ look. If a guest looks confused or frustrated, you are expected to go over and say ‘Can I help you find something?’ or ‘What is it that you are looking for?’.  

That means you have to be proactive. My reference is Disney World in Florida. The place is huge, it is just massive. There is no way that you can know the answer to every question that guests are going to ask. It is impossible. Still the expectation is if you don’t know the answer that you will find the answer. You would never say “I don’t know”. The expectation is if you don’t know, you find out and help the guest anyway.  

When you are out there with the guests, your costume looks right, and your name tag is on, you would never eat or smoke in front of a guest, you would never be chatting with other cast members while a guest is standing there. All of those things are built into the training process and then reinforced over and over. 

Then, as a leader, when you are in a management or leadership position, the expectation is that you will do all of those same things too. If you see a guest who needs help, you will go over and help out. 

You are expected to be watching your cast members, are they doing the things that they are supposed to be doing. If so, to acknowledge that through recognition and say “hey I saw how you handled that tough guest issue and that was wonderful!” If they didn’t do what they’re supposed to do, you are expected to coach them and tell them “okay, remember these are not right, we hope you do these things.” These are things that make Disney Disney. 

And that’s the same for any company. You know, it is not just Disney. The same principles work for a restaurant, a store, a software company or a manufacturing company. The execution might just be a little bit different. And I have worked with just about every industry you can think of. From law firms, restaurants, banks, hospitals, funeral homes, manufacturing, you know, a little bit of everything and what’s amazing to me is that they all say, this makes perfect sense.  

They say, yes, this is what we need to be doing. So again, the execution might vary but the foundational principles are the same.” 

5. How do you hire people that can follow the culture?  

“Find out who your strongest performers are when it comes to customer experience. I always ask “who are the employees you would love to clone?”  

Then identify what makes them your superstar employees. What are the things that they do, what are the things they don’t do? What are the things that really makes them your strongest performers?  

Then design the hiring process for similar jobs based on those traits. Use a behavioral interview process. There’s a lot of different tools out there that can help you do that but remember, it has to be designed on what kind of experience you are trying to create and who are the best people at creating it.  

A lot of people and a lot of companies forget that recruiting process should model your culture. When somebody comes to an interview, they should be treated the way you want to treat your customers. Only then, they see that this really is the culture of this company. It goes from scheduling the interview, the interview itself, to the communication that happens, following the interview. You want that to model the culture of the organization. And so, in the end, you will have people who are wired to be right for your culture.  

It is not easy.  

The concept is simple, but it is not easy. It takes a lot of time to build it properly.  

Sometimes, people ask me “if we could do only one thing, to improve our service culture, what would it be?” I always say that it would be who are you hiring, who are you bringing in to the company because that’s going to have the longest effect on the culture.”