Service Excellence in Higher Education

We all know that a higher education institution is not a theme park, it is not a vacation, it does not have rides, and it doesn’t have characters, so it is not Walt Disney World. But in their industry of theme parks, Disney is one of the most successful at keeping guests coming back. Are there any lessons that can be learned and applied to colleges and universities to help keep students coming back? Absolutely.

From my 15 years of experience at Disney and from my work with higher ed institutions over the past decade, here are three simple things that leaders can do within their departments. They are not magic, but they can create magical results when every employee commits to these behaviors:

1. Don’t allow use of the phrase “it’s not my job.” HE institutions tend to have silos. Employees sometimes feel all they have to do is what their department is charged with doing. Many times though while a student is going through a process, he has other questions outside that area for which he needs answers. He may ask the person who is helping him a question outside their department and if the response is “I don’t know, you’ll have to go ask ______” that is basically saying “it’s not my job to know that answer”. At Disney, if a guest asks a cast member a question that involves another area or they don’t know the answer, the reply is “Let me find out for you”. The cast member takes ownership of the guest.

2. Keep the campus clean. Even if you have old brick and mortar buildings, there is no reason why they can’t be kept clean. It is the responsibility of every cast member at Disney to pick up the trash. Before the parks open every morning, a walk-through is done of the area to ensure it is fresh and ready for the guests. Every employee in your department can do this by walking through their area and taking down outdated posters or notifications, cleaning windows of fingerprints, straightening brochures, organizing chairs, and wiping down countertops. Unkempt areas hurt your credibility. Not that a student would leave a school because it was dirty, but it’s the little things that whittle away at the overall experience.

3. Encourage the use of Personality and Personalization. It’s easy when dealing with large numbers of people involving routine processes to become robotic in responding and interacting. At Disney, managers continuously remind front-line staff to be animated and look for ways to treat each guest as an individual. If you are working in the university dining room serving line, you could connect with a student by noticing what books they are carrying and ask about a class and then follow up next time she goes through your line by asking how she is doing in that class. Cast members are reminded to “act fresh” when asked the same question over and over. They respond as if it was the first time they’ve been asked the question and add a little bit of their personality or share a tip to help the guest. This creates the little wow’s that make a guest feel valued and not processed.

Every point of contact counts. Every interaction either builds up your school name, image, and brand or tears it down. As a leader start with these three things to work on with your staff. Make sure you praise when you see them done and make sure you address and counsel when they are not done. And, finally, make certain you are a role model yourself!