Interview with Austan Lundeen

Austan Lundeen, Communications Student at the University of Minnesota, Duluth interviews Bill Capodagli:

What form of education did you need to prepare you for your consulting career?

My degrees are in Economics and Mathematics.  These have been very helpful with the technical part of our consulting practice – helping clients with measurement, statistical process controls and other analytical problem solving tools.  Equally important are the soft skills we provide – team building, conflict resolution, communication and feedback.  Lynn has degrees in organizational development and counseling, and these disciplines are also helpful in the facilitation of our clients’ teams. With over twenty-five years of running a successful firm, I believe that our combined analytical and soft-skill tools have been critical in guiding numerous organizations to improve or totally transform their cultures.

What separates Disney from other entertainment corporations, and why did you choose to focus on Disney Way of customer service?

 I think the passion that Disney instills in their Cast Members is why they soar above the competition.  They have a multiday orientation process that communicates the vision, values and codes of conduct to each and every Cast Member.  As brand new hires, they learn the story or the mood they are trying to create for their guests, and how to engage them from their very first contact with the Company.  That may be on the Internet or driving into the parking lot…it is all part of the “show.”  Other entertainment companies don’t come close to instilling this degree of passion in their employees.  Universal Studios in Orlando Florida is just seven miles from the entrance of Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom.  Universal’s attendance last year was 8.8 million guests; the Magic Kingdom’s attendance was over 20 million!

Why do I use Disney as a model for any business, public or private?  The first time I experienced the Disney magic was in 1974 at Disneyland with my three-year old son.  I don’t know which one of us was more excited.  You see, I grew up in the 1950’s and I watched Disneyland being built. As a young industrial engineer, I not only impressed with the WOW experience but also with the way they moved people as well as their signage and their attention to detail.

Several years later while working for a large consulting firm, we were conducting benchmarking studies for many of our clients.  We would identify their key business processes and then search for companies that were considered the “best of the best” for each process, regardless of industry.  Disney often emerged as the best, not only in customer service and creativity, but also in training, employee turnover, and even production; they have the fifth largest laundry in the world, the largest in the United States.  It is a production facility; they process thousands of costumes, linens and towels every single day, and pay a little better than minimum wage, and yet they have less than 5% employee turnover.

As a part of my research in the 1980s, I would take clients to Disney and arrange “behind the scenes” tours; over the past thirty plus years, I have interviewed countless Disney Cast Members.  After years of using Disney as an example for my clients, Lynn and I wrote the first edition of The Disney Way.  This year, McGraw-Hill released the third edition of the book that features new examples such as Ottawa County, Michigan – a wonderful illustration of how Walt Disney’s Dream, Believe, Dare, Do principles work in local government.

Does the Disney way of customer service work for other businesses that aren’t in the entertainment or attraction industry?

I have consulted to almost every market segment…from government to health care to manufacturing to hospitality and have helped implement Disney’s guest service values in each of these industries.  Speaking about his successful Disney Way customer-centric culture implementation, Ottawa County Administrator Al Vanderberg claimed, “the results have been nothing short of amazing!”  After a recent keynote presentation in Colorado in which I described Ottawa County’s results, a gentleman came up to me and said, “If you can make this work in government, you can make this work anywhere!”

Why do you think some businesses don’t understand the importance of good customer service?

I don’t think it is a matter of not understanding.  Ask any organization if they are committed to outstanding customer service and you will most likely get a resounding “of course”!  Clearly they are intellectually committed to great service, but not always emotionally committed.  It is a huge commitment to immerse an entire employee base in a new set of values, a feat that requires a multi-day training process.  The next step is making changes in the way you serve your customers and, even more importantly, in the way you lead and treat your entire workforce.

It’s sad that too few companies are truly serious about producing a customer-centric culture.  Those who do soar above their competition!  But, there is no secret formula or “magic potion” required… all we need to do is train the daylights out of our people, let them know what is expected of them, give them the tools to succeed and then get out of their way and trust them to do their jobs.

With you writing the book, The Disney Way, and having a clear understanding of the customer service aspect of the company, what do you think would give me a competitive advantage for getting into a company such as Disney?

The Walt Disney Company seeks to find candidates who exhibit four skills: Depth, Breadth, Communication, and Collaboration.  The most desirable candidates are those who have taken the time and effort to acquire a thorough understanding of a topic or “depth”, which may or may not be work related.  For example, the first Dean of Pixar University (Pixar’s name for their internal training department) was Randy Nelson, a world-class juggler.  Ed Catmull, the cofounder of Pixar and currently President of Disney and Pixar Animation Studios, expressed his delight to have a world-class juggler running his education department rather than a mediocre educator or animator.

Secondly, breadth is important.  Ultimately, Cast Members need to be interested in learning from others’ interesting experiences, rather than telling others about their own interesting experiences.

Thirdly, Cast Members must exhibit solid written and verbal communication skills, but outstanding listening skills are also essential in providing the very best guest experiences.

And lastly, since Disney is a highly collaborative environment, Cast Members must enjoy working together to solve problems and accomplish a common objective.  The Company does not hire people who think “this is mine and isn’t it good?”; they hire people who Believe, “this is ours and isn’t it great!”