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'The Disney Way' Helps Ottawa County, Mich., IT Staff Communicate, Build Relationships

By developing a customer service vision, story and codes of conduct, the county has worked with employees to develop a much different and better expectation.

Treat customers as you would treat guests in your own home. And never refer to them as customers. They are your guests.

This is the No. 1 rule at Disney, according to Capodagli Jackson Consulting. And while it may seem obvious to adopt such a rule at an amusement park, restaurant or department store, the concept may also prove worthwhile for government — which also is beginning to embrace it. Take Ottawa County, Mich., for example; here, all government workers participate in the Disney Way customer service training.  

“There are plenty of cop-outs available for government employees to not provide outstanding customer service," said County Administrator Al Vanderberg, naming such excuses as, "They’re really not customers. They have to use our services. We have to implement and oversee laws and regulations that don’t allow us leeway to provide better outcomes for people."

But by developing a customer service vision, story and codes of conduct, he said, "We have worked with employees to develop a much different and better expectation.” 

The training is a part of the county’s 4 Cs initiative, which emphasizes customer service — of which the Disney Way training is the foundation — communication, cultural intelligence and creativity.

Over the course of more than two years, The Disney Way author Bill Capodagli worked with the county to guide employees through a two-and-a-half-day training. Of the roughly 1,000 county employees, almost all have experienced the training, including the 28 IT staff members. 

“Part of it is to understand that IT is not a department that works behind closed doors,” said David Hulst, the county’s innovation and technology director. “We’re accessible. It’s all a part of building relationships between IT and other departments.”

According to the Capodagli Jackson Consulting website, the Disney Way Customer Service training objectives include:

  • understanding why Walt Disney felt that every business is show business;
  • knowing how to create your own show;
  • understanding how to create a customer-centric organization;
  • knowing why it is essential to establish a multi-day orientation process to enhance the customer experience; and
  • developing an action plan to begin your journey to becoming customer-centric.
Following the training, some IT department changes included shifting the Help Desk to a Service Desk, which now has dedicated employees who serve as Service Desk Technicians (formerly, the department would rotate staff through the Help Desk). The department also has created two positions from what was previously a single programmer analyst, and now employs an application specialist and a business analyst. The business analyst’s role, Hulst said, is to act as the eyes and ears of the IT department to understand and assist the IT needs of other departments. 

“Formerly, the programmer analyst was heavy on programming and light on analyzing,” he said. “Now, the business analyst goes into the other county departments to identify what they are doing, improve their processes and apply technology to their processes. We’re not there to be critical or judgmental. We want to know what we can do proactively to get them where they want to be.”

Ottawa’s IT department also increased the amount of proactive communication with other departments via an IT newsletter that includes a lead article from Hulst, a spotlight on one IT department staff member, and tips and tricks that may be relevant to employees in other departments.

“Our goals are to communicate,” Hulst said, “to help people better understand what’s going on, to give them some ideas about how they might do things differently and resources they can take advantage [of], and who among the IT staff can provide specific levels of support.”

As a part of the county's overall customer service program, it solicits nominations for customer service awards. Last year, the IT staff received 25 nominations; in the first quarter of this year alone, there were 15 nominations.

Hulst said that the training uses a form of storyboarding to gather information about specific issues, and then the focus shifts to organizing and prioritizing the issues in order to determine how to address them.

Unlike Disneyland, which communicates with thousands of new guests each day, the IT department’s guests are internal departments and a few external customers. Still, both businesses strive to create an environment of mutual respect and trust.

“You see people wandering the hall and instead of ignoring them, you stop and say, ‘May I help you?’” Hulst said. “It’s a little different than Disneyland, but the concepts apply.”