ORLANDO, FLA. – Maryland teachers were instructed to engage children by crouching and speaking to them at eye level. Chevrolet dealers were taught to think in theater metaphors: onstage, where smiles greet potential buyers, and offstage, where sales representatives can take out-of-sight cigarette breaks.
A Florida children’s hospital was advised to welcome patients in an entertaining way, prompting it to employ a ukulele-playing greeter dressed in safari gear.
These personal service tips came from the Disney Institute, the low-profile consulting division of the Walt Disney Co. Desperate for new ways to connect with consumers, an increasing array of industries and organizations are paying Disney to teach them how to become, well, more like Disney.
Revenue from the Disney Institute has doubled over the past three years, said Disney, powered in part by its aggressive pursuit of new business. Over the past two years alone, 300 school systems have sought its advice. Other clients range from large entities — Haagen-Dazs International, United Airlines, South Africa — to small ones: a Michigan hair salon, a Boston youth-counseling center.
Last year, the Disney Institute hired a network of field representatives to sign up clients and started dispatching its executives to companies wanting help.
"We’re putting our people on planes all day every day," said Jeff James, who runs Disney’s consulting branch. He said the economy had put pressure on companies to pay more attention to consumers.
Disney, which employs 64,000 people in Orlando alone, has its own employee difficulties, of course. Union spats arise, and some cast members — Disney-speak for employees — chafe at the company’s strict rules. Disney’s sugary customer service can also startle visitors who aren’t used to so much cheerfulness.
But vast numbers of consumers love it, and the company is showcased in business books, like "the Disney way: Harnessing the Management Secrets of Disney in Your Company," for its hospitality and efficiency. For instance, the company has spent so much time studying its park customers — more than 120 million of them globally last year — that it places trash cans every 27 paces, the average distance a visitor carries a candy wrapper before discarding it.
Marketing to hospitals
Disney has been marketing its services to hospitals in advance of a new government requirement that patient satisfaction surveys be reported online; starting in October, billions of dollars in Medicare reimbursements will be linked to the scores.
In 2009, Florida Hospital’s children’s unit had patient satisfaction scores in the bottom 10 percent of the country. it hired Disney and by the end of 2010 ranked in the top 10 percent. (Last year, the hospital opened a new $75 million expansion of its children’s wing; Disney’s philanthropic arm contributed $10 million and was given naming rights.)
Alan Batey, vice president for Chevrolet sales and service, defended the program. (About 3,000 Chevrolet dealership employees are going through Disney-led workshops.) He said: "some dealers were very skeptical. we had to explain that this was about taking the best things about Disney and applying it to our own culture. We’re not going to be building castles and dressing people up in costumes."