Good Customer Experience? It Depends on a Good Employee Experience

By Laurie Bassi, Ed Frauenheim, and Dan McMurrer with Larry Costello

The Disneyland employees most pivotal to the famed theme park’s customer satisfaction aren’t the ones roaming around in Mickey Mouse and Goofy costumes. They’re the folks carrying brooms.

Scholars John Boudreau and Peter Ramstad have shown that the sweepers who continually tidy up the park and often answer guest questions are vital to Disney. The caliber of these workers and their ability to solve problems are crucial to the holistic “magic” Disney aims to create for visitors.

“Disney sweepers have the opportunity to make adjustments to the customer-service process on-the-fly, reacting to variations in customer demands, unforeseen circumstances and changes in the customer experience,” Boudreau and Ramstad have written. “These are things that make pivotal differences in the ‘Happiest Place on Earth.’ . . . At Disney, sweepers are actually frontline customer representatives with brooms in their hands.”

The importance of sweepers to Disney speaks to the way in which consumers’ desire for integrated experiences is propelling companies to greater worthiness. For Disney to delight customers on premium-priced vacation packages, the company can’t just focus on excellent rides, good food, and friendly costumed characters. It has to make sure even the employees carrying out clean-up duties are sharp thinkers and sociable to boot. It has to recruit the right people to be sweepers, train them, engage them, and retain them — it must be a good employer.

Consumer hunger for more than just goods and services is one of several economic factors ushering in the Worthiness Era. Others are technological change, global trade, and the public’s growing focus on economic security. This chapter discusses each of these forces.

Consumer desire

Providing a wonderful, relaxing time has been a key to Disney’s success over the years. It has fulfilled children’s fantasies of meeting beloved characters and taking thrilling rides while realizing parents’ visions of making their kids’ dreams come true. The company was ahead of the curve in recognizing that consumers want memorable experiences or “transformations,” where companies help individuals realize their aspirations.

This desire on the part of consumers is not new — advertisers at the turn of the 20th century were trying to tie mundane products to grander concepts. But the power of brands and experiences has been recognized and tapped most extensively in just the past decade or two.

Authors B. Joseph Pine II and James H. Gilmore warned companies to think bigger than mere goods and services in the late 1990s. “Those firms that shift beyond manufacturing goods and delivering services to staging experiences and guiding transformations will ward off the com- moditization that threatens businesses everywhere,” they wrote. “Those that do not will find themselves subject to the vagaries of a very competitive and ruthless marketplace.”

Pine and Gilmore’s prediction has held up well. Their notion of the “Experience Economy” helps explain not only the continued popularity of Disneyland visits, but the premium Starbucks can charge for coffee and the quick take-off of Virgin America airlines. People will pay $3 or $4 for a latte at Starbucks instead of $1 for a coffee at 7-11 because that latte is served up in a broader package that speaks of friendliness, coziness, and sophistication.

Virgin America airlines has lured travelers away from existing air- lines largely because of its ultra-hipness, including a commitment to fuel efficiency, cabin mood lighting, sleek black-and-white seats, and irreverent flight attendants. The airline, launched in 2007 and partly owned by Richard Branson’s Virgin Group, reported a net profit by the third quarter of 2010, when it also saw revenue jump 28 percent year over year to $202 million.

Experiences, not just goods and services

Yes, customers continue to patronize low-price specialists. But even discount giant Walmart has taken a page from the customer experience playbook. Walmart in 2007 de-emphasized its “Always Low Prices” motto in favor of a tagline that tries to connect bargain shopping to a more profound goal: “Save money. Live better.”

To deliver experiences rather than simply goods and services, companies have to maintain a consistent feel to their “brand.” An unkempt bathroom at Disneyland, a rude Starbucks barrista, or a Virgin flight attendant speaking from a script breaks the spell for consumers, making them think twice about their next purchase.

Brand coherence means every customer-facing employee must provide the same high level and kind of service. And for those customer- facing employees to be able to provide great experiences, it’s important that support staffers also perform at a high level.

Thus firms must recruit people with certain traits (friendliness in the case of Starbucks coffee slingers, free-spiritedness in the case of Virgin flight attendants), train them in the same processes and priorities, and inspire them to “live” the organization’s values. Decent if not generous compensation and a healthy corporate culture are part of the equation. So is an ability to manage people and tasks with an eye to hard data.

Akin to the way leading companies study, segment, and engage their customers, companies seeking to provide great experiences need to ana- lyze employee performance and impact, encourage employee feedback, and empower workers to take initiative. A key to great customer experi- ences, in other words, is excellent people management.

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It starts with employee experience

Some in the business world preach putting the customer first. Anything other than a laser-like focus on the people paying the bills is a distraction that can destroy a company in short order, this argument goes. To be sure, companies can’t lose sight of customer desires and shifting market trends. But they also must not concentrate on customer needs in a way that blinds them to the importance of their own people.

“Customer experience depends on employee experience,” writes consultant Bruce Temkin. In his book The Six Laws of Customer Experience, Temkin elaborates:

If you want to improve customer experience, then it might seem obvious that you should focus completely on customers. For most firms, though, that’s not the correct approach. Where should you focus? On employees. While you can make some customers happy through brute force, you cannot sustain great customer experience unless your employees are bought-in to what you’re doing and are aligned with the effort. If employees have low morale, then getting them to “wow” customers will be nearly impossible.”

Most Disney sweepers probably do not directly “wow” visitors so much as maintain the theme park’s happiness vibe. But one sweeper made a strong impact on photographer John Harrington. Harrington, on assignment at Disney’s California Adventure park in 2009, mentioned the sweeper in a blog item, saying the man stood out for his pride and purposefulness.

“A stubborn stain he spritzed with his spray bottle, and his holster held other tools necessary to do the job as if he were Michelangelo,” Harrington wrote. “He even cared about his appearance as he was doing it, and he also worked during lulls in the crowd so his mopping didn’t interfere with the parks’ guests. I watched for a while, impressed by his overall approach as well as the details he cared about.”

Sweepers like this one help explain why Disney’s parks and resorts were able to stay profitable during the difficult years of 2008 and 2009. Walt Disney himself would be smiling about those results and the rank-and-file folks behind them.

Disney’s relationship with employees was not always smooth, but he understood their importance. “You can design and create, and build the most wonderful place in the world,” Temkin quotes him as saying. “But it takes people to make the dream a reality.”

Yes it does. And to make reality dreamy for customers in search of richer experiences, businesses must act as worthy employers.

Excerpted from the book Good Company: Business Success in the Worthiness Era, Copyright (c) 2011 by Laurie Bassi. Reprinted with permission of Berrett-Koehler Publishers, San Francisco, CA. or 800-929-2929.


About the authors: Laurie Bassi is an economist, an expert in human capital analytics, and CEO of McBassi & Company. Ed Frauenheim is a journalist with 15 years of experience writing about topics including technology, work, business, and education. He currently is Senior Editor at Workforce Management magazine. Dan McMurrer is the chief analyst at McBassi & Company and chief research officer at Bassi Investments. Larry Costello is the founder of consulting firm The Lawrence Bradford Group. 

Laurie Bassi is the CEO of McBassi & Company, a leader in the emerging decision-science of human capital management. Since founding McBassi in 2001, she has been working with clients to help them unleash human capability within their organizations. Earlier, she served as VP for research at ASTD, the director of several U.S. government commissions, and a tenured professor of economics and public policy at Georgetown University. Contact her at