Northern Illinois University

Northern Today

Disney seminar proves magic for NIU

July 16, 2007

by Joe King

What can NIU learn from Mickey Mouse?

When the topic is customer service, plenty.

Disney employees provided NIU with insight into the best practices that the entertainment giant has developed to become a model of customer service that most companies can only envy.

The June 6 session, sponsored by NIU Outreach in conjunction with several partners across campus, drew more than 570 faculty and staff from 110 different departments to the auditorium of Barsema Hall.

While a theme park and a university might not have much in common on the surface, the two share some similar goals when it comes to customer service, says Donna Mann, director of credentialing programs for NIU Outreach.

“Both are looking to attract new customers and keep them coming back as repeat business,” Mann says. “In the case of students, we want them to help attract new students, to return to NIU for graduate degrees, to hire NIU to provide training at their companies, to attend alumni events and to provide funding for scholarships and the NIU Foundation.”

In an attempt to help faculty and staff build those long-term relationships, the program explored ways to better handle all interactions with “customers.”

“Every time that any one of us interacts with students, parents, alumni, businesses or the general public, we are the face of the university. So the better those actions, the better perception people have of NIU,” Mann says.

Discussion on how to improve those interactions touched upon several main themes, including:

Attention to detail. Disney employees (or “cast members” as they call themselves) go to great lengths to understand and anticipate the wants and needs of guests and to pay attention to the smallest details to make sure wants and needs are met or exceeded – whether it is hotel room peepholes set at child height or the way food is arranged on plates.

Answering unasked questions. Disney employees often are asked the question, “When is the three o’clock parade?” Rather than roll their eyes, cast members are taught to provide not just the obvious answer, but to anticipate the questions behind the question and provide related useful information (for example, the parade route, the best place to take pictures or where to sit in the shade.)

Customer analysis. Disney cast members are taught to think about the needs, emotions and wants of guests, as well as any stereotypes that they bring to their interactions with those guests. The goal is to help them better understand their guests and find ways to maximize their experience.

All of those concepts are transferable to campus, says Mann, and apparently many in the audience agreed. On their evaluations, attendees were asked to describe how they would apply one idea they heard in the presentation, and more than 160 people identified a way to improve their daily interactions with “customers.”

Ideas ranged from better answering the “three o’clock parade questions” asked by families attending orientation to offering Huskie paw print bandages after immunization shots and to improving instructions for online interactions with various departments.

“The most important thing, I think, is that most everyone who attended recognized that every individual can make a difference. We always need to look for ways to make the experience of every student, parent or client as positive as possible because it will ultimately generate a lot of positive benefits for the university,” Mann says.

The program was made available to the university free of charge as part of an agreement with Disney to sponsor and host the Disney Keys to Excellence and Team Creativity programs in northern Illinois.

It was offered through the cooperative efforts of NIU Human Resources, the Supportive Professional Staff Council, Faculty Development, NIU Public Affairs, the NIU Alumni Association, NIU Conference Services, NIU Customer Partner Relations, the NIU College of Business and NIU Outreach Education Training.

Promotional costs were paid for by Supportive Professional Staff Development and Faculty Development grants.