In one of my customer service workshops not long ago, I shared some of the practices I learned while working at Walt Disney World. A clearly agitated participant stood up during the question and answer segment. “I’m a university professor,” he announced, “and I’d NEVER encourage any of my students to work at Disney World. They turn employees into robots and stifle all creativity.” He then stood there in anticipation of my response.
Although he hadn’t really asked a question and seemed more interested in provoking, I had to admit it wasn’t the first time I had heard the comment, and it deserved a thoughtful response.
Walt Disney World does have specific rules for its cast members that are non-negotiable such as never eating or drinking while on stage, picking up trash, focusing on interacting with guests rather than chatting with coworkers, etc. Violation of these rules will likely result in some kind of coaching, and continued violation can lead to being fired. They’re not guidelines; they’re rules.
But within those rules, cast members have plenty of room for creativity and for letting their own personalities shine through. I worked at Disney World for twenty years and can assure you that there were (and are) as many personalities as there are cast members. We were empowered to add our own personal touches to how we interacted with guests. The non-negotiable was to make every guest feel special. (Within reason, of course. Making a guest feel special by offering a sip from your hip flask would certainly not be the Disney way).
Having non-negotiables is good business. Every organization has a brand image; hopefully one that is by design and not be default. Behaviors out of alignment with that image damages it, and allowing such behaviors to continue can permanently damage the image.
I’m all for creativity and stretching the boundaries, but it has to be done intelligently, not simply out of a desire to “break the rules” and demonstrate individuality. Imagine going to see the play, “The Phantom of the Opera,” and the lead one evening decides to play the role as a comedian instead of as the Phantom. I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t go over well with the audience, the other members of the cast, or the producers of the show. Even improv troupes, for all their creativity, have rules such as performing with a “yes, and,” approach, adding to the statements of fellow performers, not negating them, etc.
While I didn’t actually do it, I thought about asking the indignant professor about the classes he teaches. Does he have expectations for his students regarding assignments? Does he have expectations about how students are to behave in the classroom? Does he have criteria for what constitutes an A grade on an exam and what constitutes a C grade? I’m guessing the answer is yes to each of those questions, but I’m sure my professor friend would argue that none of those rules stifle creativity; they’re simply part of being a student in his classes. Ironic.
Great organizations are very clear on who they are and what the customer experience is supposed to be. Great organizations also make sure that they encourage employees to think and to be creative, while expecting employees to use their creativity to enhance the brand image, not detract from it.
There is nothing wrong with having clear, non-negotiable expectations for employees. It’s simply good business.
Something to think about: Are your organization’s service non-negotiables truly non-negotiable, or are they more like “suggestions”?