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An airport hopes to tap into the Disney magic

Miami International and other firms with tough customer relations take lessons from the 'happiest place on Earth.'

January 20, 2008|Carol J. Williams | Times Staff Writer

LAKE BUENA VISTA, FLA. — Helen Nunci went to the Disney Institute looking for inspiration on how to create winning personal touches at the island retreat she runs, beyond the hand-lettered welcome cards she props on pillows and the playful antics of her staff.

Nunci's business isn't in the resort industry: It's the Veterans Administration hospital in Puerto Rico, the busiest in the U.S. military system, with 66,000 patients a year, many of them returning wounded from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Disney Institute has espoused pixie-dusting customers to the service sector for more than two decades, teaching organizations about laser-sharp attention to detail, managing expectations, taking responsibility for the customer's experience and simply smiling.

Lately it has been taking on a tougher clientele: Healthcare companies that have to drop coverage, insurance agencies that deny claims, airlines that overbook planes and lose luggage, and condominium associations that raise fees or change rules -- all have begun turning to the place that bills itself as the happiest on Earth to learn how to buffer the bad news.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday, January 24, 2008 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 75 words Type of Material: Correction
Airport ratings: An article in Sunday's Section A about the Disney Institute's program to help businesses improve service said Miami International Airport received the lowest customer satisfaction rating in the 2007 J.D. Power and Associates analysis of 61 airports in North America. In fact, 16 other airports in the large-airport category scored in "the rest," the lowest of four assessment levels. The three higher ratings are "among the best," "better than most" and "about average."
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, January 27, 2008 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 76 words Type of Material: Correction
Airport ratings: A Jan. 20 article in Section A about the Disney Institute's program to help businesses improve service said Miami International Airport received the lowest customer satisfaction rating in the 2007 J.D. Power and Associates analysis of 61 airports in North America. In fact, 16 other airports in the large-airport category scored in "the rest," the lowest of four assessment levels. The three higher ratings are "among the best," "better than most" and "about average."

"The people we deal with are usually angry about something," said institute student Ryan Hall, co-founder of a Minnesota condominium and homeowners association management company, Community Development Inc., which has more than 20,000 customers.

Last fall, the institute landed a tall- order contract: Miami International Airport. Traversed by 32 million travelers a year, the airport received the lowest customer satisfaction rating in the 2007 J.D. Power and Associates analysis of 61 airports in North America.

The airport was marked down especially for accessibility problems imposed by its protracted reconstruction and for baggage handling -- the two things travelers care about most.

Half of the space occupied by American Airlines, which accounts for 60% of the airport's traffic, has been closed for refurbishing.

Travelers wait in three separate lines, curled around one another in a thronged terminal lobby, to get boarding passes and tag luggage and get bags inspected -- all before shedding shoes and jackets for security screening.

Last fall, 400 employees from 16 of the airport's tenants, including Transportation Security Administration screeners and the janitorial staff, took part in the Disney Approach to Customer Service, a program tailored to an industry's specific needs but essentially drawing from the same page.

Disney's ideological designers insist that their winning philosophies are just as relevant to an airport as to the Magic Kingdom.

"Let's start with the similarities," says Bruce Jones, programming director of the Disney Institute. "In both places you have millions of people waiting for a ride."

But an airport also has tens of thousands of people passing through security each day. Mountains of trash accumulate. Spills must be mopped up, bathrooms cleaned, and food cooked, sold and served to people on the move and in a hurry.

Consultants Dennis Frare and Susan Pearsall are among those who conduct training sessions in Disney resort conference rooms.

At a recent session attended by Nunci and Hall, Frare and Pearsall alternated holding the floor, tossing back and forth like news anchors as they imparted the Disney mantras. They rewarded participation with plastic figures of Mickey, Pluto and Winnie the Pooh.

A key tenet of the Disney ideology is that employees are empowered by their ability to provide good service, especially in situations in which the unpleasantness, such as a weather delay, is beyond their control.

Take ownership of a guest's concern, Pearsall says: Even if it's not your fault, it is your problem.

Deliver "the little wow," urges Frare, a thoughtful flourish that makes a guest tilt his or her head and utter an "oh," of the isn't-that-nice variety.

In the world since the Sept. 11 attacks, the Disney approach turns out to be an effective weapon against terrorism, Jones adds.

"Make eye contact and smile. Warmly greet each individual by name. Those are the things the bad guys hate the most," he said of tips shared with the TSA.

Miami airport screeners who examine travelers' documents have begun personalizing the exchange: "Have a nice trip to Chicago, Bill" or "Hey, Maria, be safe in Boston."

Miami's terminal operations director, Dickie Davis, says the Disney advice about empathetic problem-solving is especially useful for her staff members, which have to deal all day, every day with travelers miffed by service breakdowns out of their control.

"What happens here might not be our fault, but at the end of the day it is our problem," she said.

Another Disney concept being embraced by the airport is "onstage versus backstage," said airport spokesman Greg Chin, among those who in the fall earned a course completion certificate festooned with mouse ears and inspirational words from Walt Disney.

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