The true magic of Disney isn't in the band

The MagicBand's remarkable, but the entertainment brand's customer service is even more so, writes Faris Yakob

In business, we have a tendency to use language that elevates and abstracts what we do, probably because career and intellectual status anxiety haunts executives around the world. When McKinsey tells us that retailers need to create "frictionless experiences," it sounds very exciting, but often feels somewhat grandiose when it refers to using your phone to buy beans at the supermarket.

Indeed, the word "experience" has succumbed to semantic depletion into a buzzword, which means no one really knows what it means anymore. And so it’s used to describe literally anything that happens between consumer and brand.

However, I’ve seen only a single brand that can comfortably claim it creates "magical experiences," even directly to consumer, with no one second-guessing the use of either word: Disney.

Visiting Walt Disney World in Orlando Florida provided me with a glimpse of what the world will be like when your mobile is your key and your wallet, when every brand is selling inside a system of frictionless payments and personalization. Disney World has the distinct integrative advantage of designing the device and the entire environment it operates within. Unlike Apple, it doesn’t have to wait for retailers to install expensive hardware and change their POS systems. This is why it gets to the future first.

And it’s awesome, but not in the way "Minority Report" led us to believe. (I have a suspicion we took a wrong turn in the evolution of advertising, partially because we were trapped inside the dystopia of that movie, though we failed to identify it as such. Why would we ever want a billboard to call us out by name? Sounds hellish.)

Much has been made of the billion-dollar investment in wearable technology that Disney dubbed MyMagic+ but that we understand through the MagicBand. It’s truly remarkable; it was designed actually to make the experience better rather than shopping easier, although it delivers on both.

As you book online, you are asked to select your favorite rides, so that the system generates a sensible itinerary for you. A few weeks before your trip, as anticipation builds, Disney borrows from the book of Apple and send you your personalized MagicBands for unboxing. [There are 58,000 MagicBand unboxing videos on YouTube.]

Upon arriving at the park or your hotel, you pair your MagicBand with your credit card and your mobile app, and you are ready to roll. Suddenly, everything that sucked about Disney World before melts away. Your MagicBand is your room key and your payment mechanism, so money vanishes. It’s your pass onto the rides, so the lines disappear. Like that photo from Space Mountain when you leave? Then just tap it with MagicBand the picture appears on your online portal, free of charge. If a ride closes, the app will notify you and offer you a few times on nearby rides.

And yes, when you check into a ride or restaurant, the staff will address you by name, but that’s entirely welcome since you have a reservation.

And this is where the real magic lies. The staff at Disney World were unfailingly delightful, a feat much harder to get your head around than the huge investment in RFID technology. The staff know how to use the technology to lubricate your park experience unobtrusively without dragging you and your family into the uncanny valley. Your food will find you at any table in the Be Our Guest restaurant, automagically.

Walt Disney World Resort employs 66,000 people, and every single one is charming, happy, delighted to help and bubbling over with Disney spirit. Think about your last experience with your bank or airline call center rep and consider how truly remarkable this is.

In the prescient business bible The Experience Economy, the authors identify Disney as deploying a useful, generative, metaphor in the employee engagement — namely that they are "cast members." Regardless of whether or not they are dressed as Mickey or Elsa or as a receptionist at the hotel, they all know they are playing a role, and that allows them to generate responses to situations: it tells them to never break character, it tells them that the show (and it is all a show) must go on.

This is helpful but doesn’t completely explain how Disney manages to inspire their staff to live this everyday, in the heat, in costume, at just above minimum wage, with unwavering smiles on their faces.

We spoke to staff, current and former, about the training, and there is a five-day training and indoctrination boot camp. There are, of course, some disgruntled employees who worked for years at a maximum salary of $16 an hour — but even they "would not want to work anywhere else." For the most part, everyone explained that they just loved Disney, loved the culture and wanted to make sure they were contributing the magical experience that wanted people to have. The staff are encouraged to embrace the brand’s purpose, and they are given scope to interpret that in their work, in how they engage with guests, within very defined parameters.

Indeed, it is perhaps here that purpose is most powerful, internally, for employees, rather than for customers who have sadly realized that lofty proclamations of purpose are too often shown to be hollow by brands that seem to work for Wall Street before their customers [see VW’s long-running eco-campaigning].

Recent HBR research suggests employee motivation strongly correlates to customer satisfaction. Culture is the manifestation of brand, an emergent set of values that everyone agrees to and uses to make decisions on the fly, for brand is, first and foremost, a behavioral template. You cannot create culture, only the conditions that allow it to develop. As you try to, as we say to every client we work with now, send your head of customer experience to Disney World, and use that as your benchmark.

Faris Yakob is the co-founder of Genius Steals, a location independent strategy & innovation consultancy. He visited Walt Disney World in February of 2015 and recommends you expense a trip.

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