Creating Magic Like Disney With Dan Cockerell

AskNicely Team

In February 2022, hundreds of leaders from service businesses across the world gathered together online to take part in the Global Frontline Experience Summit, an event sponsored by AskNicely.  It was a phenomenal event with a contagious heaping of inspiration, excitement and possibility for anyone working in the customer experience and frontline service space.

If you missed the summit, brought to you by our Frontline Magic Community don't worry! All of the sessions are available right here, and are just as powerful the second time around.

From parking cars at Disney to becoming the Vice President of the Magic Kingdom, Dan Cockerell’s career journey is the epitome of a humble success story. Through his 26 years working for Disney, Dan has become an influential expert on customer experience and frontline service. During his presentation at the Global Frontline Experience Summit, Dan shares what he learnt both personally and professionally during his time at Disney leading 12,000 frontline employees, and how other service companies can create magic, just like Disney.  

But before that, host Christina Trippi asks the question we’ve all been dying to hear the answer to: 

Christina: “Would you rather go on a magic carpet ride with Aladdin or fly with Peter to Neverland?”

Dan: “Well, I'll tell ya, I've never had that question, but I like the idea that Peter Pan can fly without having to need a carpet. So, I take Peter pan every time.”

With that, let’s get into the key takeaways from the session!

When Dan left college, like most people who leave college, he had no idea what he wanted to do with his life. With a degree in political science from Boston University, he returned to Florida and decided working at Disney would be a fun place to start. He said he would take any job that they felt he was qualified to do. 

We're going to put you in a gigantic parking lot. And you're going to get those cars parked. And I said, thank you. I'm in.”

In that moment, Dan’s journey at Disney officially began. Dan continued to say “YES” to any opportunity for learning that came his way. This got him to Paris, where he became a management trainee in parking, and then onto nineteen other roles at the company, working his way up to what would eventually be the Vice President of the Magic Kingdom (how’s that for a cool job title?!). Dan was known as the guy who would go anywhere, the Yes man. 

“If you gave me an opportunity to go learn, I said, yes.”

Dan’s Early Career Learnings 

Saying Yes Takes You Places 

Dan is a true believer that what goes around comes around. He learned early on that saying ‘yes’ always comes back to you in the most positive and unexpected ways. 

“Help people first and they'll help you. Think about it, if you say yes, you're going to be helping yourself, I'm telling you it's karma.”

Dan gives an example of this as he delivers his presentation online from San Paolo, Brazil. “The only reason I’m here, he says, is because five years ago my wife’s cousins came and stayed at our house in Florida.” During that time, they met some of their friends, including a man named Louis from Brazil. Five years on, Dan receives a text from Louis asking if he could give a speech at the company he works for in San Paolo. 

We're traveling, we're meeting people. We're doing TV interviews and all that was because we opened up our house to her cousins. That's how life works, personally and professionally.

Being a Leader is Never About You 

“It's never about you. It's always about everybody else. It's about how to improve the business. It's how to improve your team and support them to do their job better. It's about improving the experience for the guest. You come last.”

Throughout his career, Dan also learnt that being a good leader meant putting everyone else’s needs before his own. It’s about empowering, supporting and listening to your team in order to deliver the best employee and customer experiences. 

99% Success Rate in Customer Experience is Not Enough 

When Dan was working in Disney hotels, he realized the importance of meeting your service standard every time. Not 99% of the time, but every time. A 99% score on a college exam might be an awesome grade, but when it comes to customer experience, it’s simply not enough. 

In the hotel that Dan managed, there were 6000 rooms. He calculated that even if his team cleaned 99% of the rooms to the highest standard, there would still be 60 families who would miss out on the full Disney experience. 60 families who paid a lot of money, to receive a lower standard of service than their neighbors. With that, Dan implemented frontline coaching and support to ensure the Disney service standard was met Every. Single. time. 

How to Lead 12,000 Employees That Hosts 20 Million Guests 

In his role as the Vice President of the Magic Kingdom, Dan managed 12,000 employees who had the responsibility of hosting 20 million guests. An overwhelming responsibility to say the least. He shares two main pieces of advice, to any service business leader managing frontline teams:

Listen to Guests & Listen to the Frontline

Dan made a daily habit for himself called ‘Walk the Park”. No matter how busy his day looked, he would put aside 1 hour to walk through the Disney park. He would talk to employees and check in on how they’re doing, take pictures of frontline staff doing awesome work and send them to their direct managers, and talk to guests, asking them how their day was and get their feedback. 

Through this, Dan gained invaluable insight into how his team were feeling, what customers loved the most and least about their experience at Disney and how he could improve the experience of his team, and his customers. 

It also created a ripple effect, where managers started doing the same, baking employee experience and customer centricity  into the company's culture.  

“If someone needed help, I would help them out. And I would go talk to as many employees as I could and be as visible as I could. And then after that hour, I would go back to my meetings and other responsibilities.”

Connect the Frontline to the Boardroom

While working as the Vice President of the Magic Kingdom, Dan wanted to be as accessible as he could be to his frontline team. He didn’t want to be a man in a suit that employees didn’t know, he wanted to know everyone, and for everyone to know him. 

One strategy he used was simply putting posters all around the staff areas with a photo of him, and a phone number. It said something like “Hi, I’m Dan, Vice President of the Park. Call me if you have a problem”. Employees were able to call Dan, so he could understand how his team was feeling, give them a voice, and keep informed. 

If you want to create a culture where you're going to perform really well, you need to be willing to hear the bad news”. 

Dan says if you don’t give your frontline team a voice, they’ll go to the news, Instagram or Facebook to talk about what’s happening. It’s absolutely vital that your teams feel valued, supported and heard, and you can’t do that without connecting them to the bigger picture.

Can’t take 100 calls a day? You can use an employee feedback tool to stay connected with your frontline teams. 

Dan closes his presentation with an important reminder that service businesses and frontline work is a big puzzle, and every piece of the puzzle counts. 

“When you are running an operation, everybody counts. Every detail counts, every person counts. The puzzle piece of the vice-president is no bigger than the puzzle piece of the person that sweeps and keeps the park clean. They just have different jobs, but they both have the same purpose to contribute to the success of the operation.”

A huge thank you to Dan Cockerell for his time and energy at the Global Frontline Experience Summit. Keep an eye on the AskNicely blog for a deep dive into each presentation from the Summit, including presentations from leaders such as Christine McHugh (Starbucks), Charles Ray Minton (Marriott) and Cheryl Desantis (SmileDirectClub).

Want to hear about more solutions to fixing frontline work? You’re in the right place. Join the Frontline Magic Community to gain access to all of the presentations from this year’s summit + be the first to know of new events, frontline news and more. 

AskNicely Team
About the author

AskNicely Team

AskNicely Team
About the author

AskNicely Team

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