Disney My Hero

by Jeff Kober, contributing writer

Last week, I provided a program to the City of Sammamish, in the greater Seattle area. I've been working with them to improve their customer service over the last two years. Yes! There are cities that want to provide better service.

While there, Emily Arteche, an employee of Sammamish, approached me about an experience she had visiting Disneyland a few weeks prior. The story has a great message for anyone who wants to create better customer loyalty. With her permission, she allowed me to share her experience with you:

"A few weeks ago, we set off for a surprise birthday celebration to Disneyland. My son was going to turn 5 years old. We told him that we were going on a business trip to Los Angeles. As part of the surprise we flew in grandma and grandpa from Buenos Aires, Argentina on the day my son turned 5. We all planned to celebrate at Disneyland that day, on his actual birthday, March 25, 2010. This was a first trip experience for everyone. The emotional outpour of joy my son showed upon seeing grandma and grandpa at LAX and then of him learning of his next stop, Disneyland, made everyone tear up.

It was a very happy moment. Our next thrill after gathering our luggage was our transportation to Disneyland on the Disneyland Express Bus, serviced by Gray Line (this is the bus with the big Disney characters plastered on the side of the coach). We waited for the bus for about a half hour and then boarded the 12:30 p.m. bus. I called Gray Line before booking our online tickets to double check the hotels serviced by the company and to better understand the company pick-up and drop-off service. The bus picks up passengers regularly from the LAX airport. It stops at Downtown Disneyland to check fares and then it proceeds to drop off passengers at their respective surrounding hotels.

Upon arriving at Disneyland, we were asked to show our fare and provide the name of our hotel. I told a Gray Line manager we were staying at the Anaheim Park Hotel in Fullerton. He told me that we would probably need to ride on another bus as most of the passengers were headed to hotels in the opposite direction. At first I was a bit concerned. The process the manager described was different from what I was told on the phone. The manager briefly left us. When he returned he told us we would need to exit the bus and take the hotel shuttle to our hotel. He told us that Gray Line didn’t service our hotel.

I immediately told the manager that there must be a mistake. I told him I had called the company and confirmed our hotel as being serviced before I booked our tickets. The manager and the driver held firm. They insisted that the company did not service our hotel. My family was very concerned after listening to the my discussions with the manager and driver. I promised my family that everything was going to be fine and that Gray Line, a respectable company was going to “do right” and fix whatever problem had occurred. Even if my hotel was not serviced, I expected the company to get us to our hotel. I expected they would address the problem.

Without any more words spoken to us the bus driver took our hard-copy e-mail confirmation and proceeded to drive off. We stayed on the bus until he dropped off all passengers at their hotels. When the bus had emptied out, except for my family, the driver proceeded to take us back to Disneyland. He stopped the bus on the main street adjacent to the hotel shuttle drop off and pick up service. He stated, “get off the bus.”

Without any explanation or understanding what was going on, we quickly learned that Gray Line was throwing us off the bus, with no service to our hotel. I was horrified at what was happening to us. The treatment and service was awful. My family was more than upset. They felt personally insulted by Gray Line. The shouting, confusion and frustration between the Gray Line driver and my family left me shaking. No one was happy and I began to feel as if I was the person who ruined my son’s birthday.

My first instinct upon exiting the bus was to call Gray Line. I did. However, the employee who answered the phone and listed to my problem was unable to help me. She did not have an explanation or a solution for my problem. She told me that she would have to speak to a supervisor and call me back. My next move was to call the hotel and find out when they would be able to pick us up at Disneyland. My answer: not for another two hours. My next thought was to call for a taxi. However, after reading the Disney sign stating that Taxi service had been moved to Downtown Disney I didn’t know what to do. I felt I had no choice but to approach a Disney parking attendant to inquire about help. This amazing Disney employee who worked at the booth on March 25 at 2 p.m. was soon to become my hero.

While sobbing profusely, I babbled out what had happened to me and my family. The Disney employee looked out from her booth and saw grandma, grandpa, dad, and my son standing out among our luggage, which was piled up on along the sidewalk. She immediately stated that she would get a taxi over to pick us up even if it was against Disney rules. She made a few quick phone calls and, before I knew it, she had completed the arrangements. In the meantime, this Disney employee could see that I was completely distraught. She stated that Disney ought to be able to do something more for me and my family. My first thought was what could Disney possible do to help us and to make this bad experience better.

She called over to Mary, at Disneyland Guest Services and had me explain to her what had happened. While talking to Mary my cell phone rang with Gray Line on the line. My husband and son had also wandered over to me to find out what was happening. My husband finished explaining the Gray Line experience to Mary. Gray Line told me that they would need more time to try and figure out what had happen, i.e., the drive and to obtain permission to issue me a refund. Meanwhile, Mary at Disney Guest Services offered complimentary entry to Disneyland for my family of five. In addition, we were also offered two free “first in line” passes. The passes were good for any ride at Disneyland. Our frowns turned into smiles and we were thrilled to get into the taxi and get back to Disney as quickly as possible so that we could let the magic begin.

As we entered into the taxi I asked the driver how long it would take to get to the hotel. His answer, “10 minutes.” For a 10-minute detour off of Gray Line's normal hotel path I would have thought that the company could have made it happen, but they didn’t. Instead Disney picked up what went wrong and made something good of it. Even though Disney had no connection to our Gray Line problem other than the Disney characters plastered on the side of the bus they became our heroes."

This story illustrates perfectly the service recovery matrix I shared some time ago in two previous articles you can find here and here. In those articles I shared the following matrix, originally created by my former Disney Institute colleagues, Dennis Snow and Guy Smith:

When service goes poorly, there is a way to determine how you should provide customer service for the individual, based on how severe the experience is, and how at fault you are for what occurred. When management for Gray Line at LAX realized that Emily had purchased passage for a hotel they did not normally visit, they should have "fixed" the problem while it wasn't too severe by either refunding the ticket and redirecting her to transportation that would get her there, or by simply going the extra 10 minutes and dropping her off. Instead they created a more severe situation by dumping the family on the East Plaza of Disneyland where there were no taxis and no solution

Then they made it worse. When senior management later heard of this situation having occurred, they should have pulled out the "red carpet" and have really made good with the family. Instead, they eventually refunded them the ticket, which by then was inadequate to the damage done. That left the family with an awful taste in their mouth about Gray Line. When people have that kind of experience, they tell everyone not do business with that company. And while such experiences don't usually become the subject of an article on MousePlanet, they do in this age and era end up often in all forms of social media from Facebook to Twitter to review websites like Yelp.

Meanwhile, Disneyland, who really in no way is to fault for this instance, stepped up to the plate, realized the severity of the situation, and became the "Hero." In return, what do they get? Emily's family has now told everyone about how wonderful Disneyland really is, and how they really went the extra mile when they didn't have too. Frankly, you can't buy that kind of marketing. They are evangelists to Disney's service, and will be returning to Disneyland in the years to come, spending more money than it ever cost Disneyland to provide the service.

Now, some of you may have had an amazing experience with Gray Line, where they've been more than wonderful. And some of you may have had a less-than-stellar experience dealing with Disneyland. The composite of all of those experiences become what the public thinks about a particular organization. And of course, this really isn't about them. It's about your organization:

  1. Do you know what kind of service recovery to offer and when?
  2. Are your employees empowered to fix the problem before they become too severe?
  3. Are you prepared to pull out the "Red Carpet" when you've really blown it?
  4. How can you step up to the plate and become the "Hero" even in instances when it isn't your fault?

Our best to Emily and her family. And for the rest of us, if you want to bring the magic to your business, master customer service by offering the right service recovery when everything goes wrong.