Intelligent Help Desk Blog

Interview with Dennis Snow

Posted by Meredith Estepon Wed, Mar 17, 2010 @ 09:23 AM

 Dennis Snow  I had the distinct honor and pleasure of getting to speak with one of my service mentors/heroes in the early afternoon of Wednesday, February 3rd 2010.

Dennis Snow,  worked for 20 years with The Walt Disney World Company ®. During this time he developed his customer service mentalities. He is the author of the book, Lessons from the Mouse: A Guide for Applying Disney World's Secrets of Success to Your Organization, Your Career, and Your Life. He is also the co-author of Unleashing Excellence The Complete Guide to Ultimate Customer Service. Today, Dennis is a world-renowned speaker, trainer and consultant sharing his lessons learned with other organizations.  

Below is a transcript of the interview for your reading pleasure.


February 3, 2010 

Meredith Estep: My guest today is Dennis Snow. Dennis has a passion for service excellence and has consulted with organizations around the world on this subject. Dennis' customer service abilities were born and developed over 20 years with the Walt Disney World Company. In his last year with Walt Disney World, Dennis' leadership performance was ranked in the top 3% of the company's leadership team.

Dennis, now a full-time speaker, trainer and consultant, is dedicated to helping organizations achieve their goals in the area of customer service, employee development and leadership. He is the author of the book, "Lessons from the Mouse; A Guide for Applying Disney World's Secrets of Success to Your Organization, Your Career and Your Life," and the co-author of "Unleashing Excellence; The Complete Guide to Ultimate Customer Service."

Welcome, Dennis, and thank you for your time.

Dennis Snow: Thank you, Meredith.

Meredith Estep: All right. So, Dennis, there's so many practical lessons that can be learned in ways that companies can work towards exceeding customer expectations from your book, "Lessons from the Mouse." What inspired you to write the book?

Dennis Snow: Well, a couple of things, and in my consulting work that I've been doing over the last 10 years since I left Disney, just seeing what the state of customer service is out there, that there's a lot of inadequate service, and that organizations are - many organizations, they're looking for ways to improve service, but they really - they're not quite sure how to go about it, so just seeing that opportunity that was out there.

But the other thing is, is that people are always interested in the Disney approach, and how do you - you know, how do you get your people to be so friendly and how do you do this and how did Disney do that?

And so putting those two things together was what inspired me to write the book was taking a few key lessons, ten primary lessons that I learned from my 20 years working with Disney World, as well as what I thought would be applicable to just about any industry, and so that's how I put the book together was just in these ten lessons that I talk about; here's what this lesson meant to Disney World and here's what it means in other organizations.

Meredith Estep: Wonderful. Well, so Disney's a theme park ...

Dennis Snow: Right.

Meredith Estep: ... for a lot of people, they think it's fantasy.

Dennis Snow: Yes.

Meredith Estep: What do you think real world companies can learn from them?

Dennis Snow: Well, the first thing that you have to recognize is just like everybody else, Disney, it's a business, and so while their business is fantasy and the business is magic, at the same time it is a business, so they have the same challenges and the same issues that most organizations have.

What I have found resonates with organizations that I work with, whether it's speaking or consulting, is the fact that Disney focuses in on just a handful of principles around service, but those things are non-negotiable, so there's just a handful of things that they say these are non-negotiables for everybody who works here.

So a good example is picking up trash off the ground. One of the top compliments that Disney World gets is how clean the place is. And the reason for that is that it's every single person who works there, it's every single person's responsibility that if they see a piece of trash on the ground, they go over and pick it up and throw it away.

So what I think organizations can learn from this is what is it that you want your customers to say about their experience with you? And then define the behaviors that will lead them to say that, not that they would be the same thing that we would - that people would want them to say at Disney World, but the principle is the same.

You know in your hospital, in your store, in your restaurant, what do you want your customers to say, and then what are the behaviors that would lead them to say it?

Meredith Estep: Right. Disney World can't be perfect?

Dennis Snow: Yes.

Meredith Estep: Please share with us some of your backstage secrets that you might or might not have shared in the book.

Dennis Snow: Well, again, it is a business, you know. Disney World is a business, and so there's 55,000 people that work there, and they have the same problems and issues.

So when you go backstage at Disney World, you know, the example I always use is the what I call the smoking Cinderella. You know that when you go backstage, you see cast members, the employees, doing the things that normal people do. So you might see the person who plays Cinderella smoking a cigarette and you see the person who is grumbling about the shift that they have to work today, and you see the arguments that go on between departments you know all of the things that happen in any organization.

But what Disney World has stressed with every cast member and, again, is one of those non-negotiables is that that backstage does not come on the stage. So you know imagine if your child saw Cinderella smoking a cigarette or drinking a cup of coffee you know the illusion would be - there would probably be therapy involved and you know the illusion would be destroyed.

So the - when you look at those backstage secrets, they're really not secrets, they're mainly realities of any business. But the business secret is how do you keep that from coming onstage? And the answer to that is, is that you make it non-negotiable; that backstage stays backstage.

Meredith Estep: Well, I think your lessons were fantastic. I know that I ...

Dennis Snow: Well, thank you.

Meredith Estep: ... I've certainly learned from them.

Dennis Snow: Thank you. Yes. You know when you talk about backstage secrets you know you haven't lived until you've had to give Mickey Mouse a reprimand, you know? I mean, so all of those, and you know, a lot of people don't realize that Mickey Mouse is a Teamster, that the characters are covered by the Teamsters Union ...

... and you know, so you have all of those things. But the point is, is that the guests should never know that. So - and it's the same thing in a restaurant, you know? A lot of restaurants there's turnover, there's conflict between the kitchen staff and the wait staff and all that, and those are just the realities of backstage in the restaurant business, but the guests should never know that those things are happening.

Meredith Estep: Absolutely. You co-authored, "Unleashing Excellence" with Teri Yanovitch.

Dennis Snow: Yes.

Meredith Estep: Would you tell us a little bit about how the two of you met and decided to write that book together?

Dennis Snow: Yes. Teri and I, we met out at Disney World, and she was doing some consulting out there and I was working with the Disney Institute, and when I retired from Disney World and started my consulting company, Teri and I collaborated on several projects, and her background is in the quality movement.

She worked with the Philip Crosby Organization, and, of course, my background with 20 years with Disney and my focus on customer service, when we were consulting together on projects, we found that there was a very good marriage of the service principles that I was talking about and the quality principles that Teri was talking about.

So, "Unleashing Excellence" came out of that. It's taking quality principles and putting them together with what does it take to create a culture of service excellence, and so what we came out with is a process of defining what you want the customer experience to be, and then building that into everything.

So are we hiring the right people, what are we training them on, are we constantly communicating what our objectives are, measurement, accountability, all of those tools, and so what we created with "Unleashing Excellence" was kind of a step-by-step guide for any organization that wants to raise the bar of service.

Meredith Estep: I've recently finished reading that book, and I definitely wish that I had had that when I had developed several of my organizations over the years.

Dennis Snow: Well, what we tried to do is put as many tools as possible in there so that your - so that you have something to work with, rather than, you know, most people know customer service is important, and what I find organizations want is so what do we do, and so that's why we put the tools in there and we made the tools so you can download them off of the Web site and customize them and so forth.

Meredith Estep: I find wisdom and inspiration and motivational quotes, I've got them hung on - throughout my offices. You've included several throughout the pages of "Unleashing Excellence" ...

Dennis Snow: Yes.

Meredith Estep: ... and one of my favorites was on page 113, and it's, "A great teacher never strives to explain his vision, he simply invites you to stand beside him and see for yourself." And that was by Reverend E. Inman.

Dennis Snow: Right.

Meredith Estep: Do you have any favorite motivational quotes that inspire you to greatness?

Dennis Snow: Yes. The one that I really love, and it comes from Winston Churchill, and the quote says, "Before you can inspire with emotion, you must be swamped with it yourself. Before you can move their tears, your own must flow. To convince them, you must yourself believe."

And that you know that quote just means a lot to me, and basically saying that we have to walk our talk, especially in what I do where I'm going in and helping companies and working with employees and improving service. I have to make sure that I'm providing that service, that I'm - that I have an emotional connection to it that people see my passion for it, and so that's one of the quotes that's just always stood out to me from how should I conduct myself whenever I'm working with an organization.

Meredith Estep: That's a good quote.

Dennis Snow: Yes.

Meredith Estep: Well, I absolutely love the fact that you dedicated an entire chapter of "Unleashing Excellence" to interviewing and selection. I personally believe it's an extremely key component to building a culture of service excellence. So there's a lot of companies that don't put emphasis on this. What would you say to them and ...

Dennis Snow: Well ...

Meredith Estep: ... why do you think that they're not putting emphasis?

Dennis Snow: Well, I think the reason why is that too many - is that many organizations, they get into the warm body syndrome where they literally say, hey, I just need a body, you know, to fill the shift, and, you know, or to fill the opening. And so that's what they get. They get a warm body, and so I think that the reason is they don't recognize the importance of hiring in the overall organizational strategy.

My - what I would say to somebody is you can't teach somebody to be empathetic that isn't already empathetic. You can't teach somebody to pay attention to detail that they don't have a detailed bone in their body. The best you can ever do with somebody is take them up to mediocre.

But if you bring in somebody who empathy is part of their makeup, attention to detail is part of their makeup, you can then train those folks into how do you take it to a whole new level or how do you apply that in our organization.

So with Disney, what we always tried to do was we looked for people who were very approachable, they had the energy, they had that friendliness. Now we were going to put them through training that would say take them -say here's how we do it in the Disney way.

Meredith Estep: Right.

Dennis Snow: But they brought the raw material to the table because, again, you know somebody who doesn't have the talent that you're looking for, you're not going to change them, and you know one of the things that people always ask me when I was with Disney, they would say you know, "How do you get your Disney people to be so friendly?" And the answer was we hired friendly people, you know? And then we took that and said and here's how we do it in the Disney way.

So when I look at customer service in organizations, one of the very first things that I look at is what's the hiring process? You know, are they just hiring warm bodies thinking they'll put them through a training program that'll change them, or do they really make sure that they have identified the qualities that they're looking for, the talents that they're looking for.

And one of the best ways to do that is identify who your current super - service superstars are right now, and understand what makes those folks tick. What is it about them that makes them so good at what they do in your organization, and build your behavioral interview process around that.

Meredith Estep: I loved the questions that you came up with to ask your superstars.

Dennis Snow: Yes. And you know questions like, you know, what tools are of greatest value to you in doing what you do, and what comes out of the responses from your strongest performers, there'll be themes that come out of the responses, that provides you as an interviewer then, when I'm sitting down with somebody, of what are the things that I should be listening for?

You know, so if my superstars say, well, it's my fellow workers, you know, that's really the greatest tool are the people that I work with, I know now that I need to be listening for something about teamwork, you know, something about my co-workers when I'm interviewing an applicant, that at least lead - increases the likelihood that they're going to perform in the way that my superstars do.

Meredith Estep: Exactly. All right. Well, on page 210 of "Unleashing Excellence," you and Teri highlighted the fact that you know waiting until the performance appraisal time to give feedback to an employee's ineffective and also unfair.

Dennis Snow: Yes.

Meredith Estep: So, what words of wisdom can you give supervisor, you know, supervisors that are out there that are not providing employees with effective feedback?

Dennis Snow: Yes. The main thing, there's two things that I would say should be on every poster, a sticky note or something on every leader's desk is never let the coaching moment go and never let the recognition moment go.

That when somebody is not living the values of the organization, they're not performing in the way that's expected, that waiting until the performance appraisal time, you have - you've completely lost the power of the coaching that you could have given in that moment because when a behavior occurs and we coach at the moment or immediately following the behavior, that's real time training.

That's really as good as training gets because something happened, there was a problem, something happened, and I addressed it immediately, it's - you're likely to remember that as the employee, versus I wait until performance appraisal time and I'm thinking what? I don't even remember that happening, and why are you just telling me this now?

So, that instantaneous feedback, and then the same thing with recognition, that if I do something for a customer and you know it's above and beyond, as the employee, my emotions are elevated at that moment. If you reinforce, acknowledge, reward, or whatever you do, the performance as close to that behavior as possible, you've dramatically increased the likelihood that that's going to continue, that the behavior's going to continue.

So, while we certainly are going to talk about these things in performance appraisals, it's - where you get the real value is that immediate feedback, positive and negative, and so that's what I would tell any leader is, is that's the best training tool that you have available to you.

Meredith Estep: Those are both great points, absolutely. Well, one of my favorite lines in the book was also at the top of page 211, and it states, "Intolerable service exists when intolerable service is tolerated." And you know I tend to - when I'm reading a book, I have a highlighter and I highlight things that are ...

Dennis Snow: Yes.

Meredith Estep: ... important to me. I highlighted that sentence and I actually went back and I reread it, and then I read the next sentence, which said you know it's worth reading that line again. I chuckled. I thought it was ...

Dennis Snow: Yes.

Meredith Estep: ... funny because I had already reread it.

Dennis Snow: Yes.

Meredith Estep: Why do you feel that customer service is generally so bad nowadays?

Dennis Snow: Well, I would - the number 1 reason that I see customer service initiatives fail to achieve the desired objectives is because of that issue right there. It's accountability, or the lack of accountability, that you know we say we want our employees to give great service, and we observe somebody who's not giving great service, who's doing something that's contrary to what we say we believe in.

There's a tendency out there to ignore it, whether we're just uncomfortable with confrontation, we're afraid that the person's going to quit, you know? There's a variety of reasons. But for me, that is the big gap that I see in most service initiatives is they talk a great game of what we want it to look like, but the don't put accountability into it.

So when you look at accountability, it goes back to what we talked about with coaching. It includes recognition, but it also includes revising your performance appraisals, your job descriptions, promotion criteria, all of those things that hard wire your service expectations into the culture of the organization.

So, you know that's why I think overall customer service is so bad is that we don't hold our people accountable for it. We hold them accountable for the numbers, we hold them accountable for how long they're on the phone, you know, the length of call in a contact center, we hold - because those things are fairly straightforward to measure, and so we don't hold them accountable for the things that really make a difference in the long run, which is the quality of the interaction with the customers.

Meredith Estep: Absolutely.

Dennis Snow: And you know, and one thing I get a lot of pushback when I'm working with an organization, somebody said why - that you know, how do you measure how nice somebody is, and I always ask this question.

I said is - are there people in your operation that you would love to clone, that if you could just clone these individuals, service would be fantastic, and are there also people in your organization that if they turned in their resignation right now you would be very happy about it? And the answer to that is always yes. You know, they always nod their head, they always say yes.

And so we do have a measurement. It might not be as exact as what was the call length, but we do have a measurement about the quality of the service, and we just need to step up to the plate and say you know what, I'm going to - I am going to hold people accountable for performance.

Meredith Estep: Exactly. We live in an instant gratification world. I must admit, I like things to happen right away. What can a company that wants to improve its customer service do right now?

Dennis Snow: The big thing is identifying what you want the customer experience to be. So what I would say to any organization is - and you can do this as a leadership team, you can do this as a department, it really depends on what your scope of insolence is, is what are the three things we want customers to say about their experience with us; to define those three things that you want customers to say.

So for us at Disney World, it was a magical experience, they paid attention to every detail, and they made me and my children feel special. All right? So, what are those three things? Once you've defined those, what are the employee behaviors that will lead customers to say those things about you?

So if I were to work with an organization that said you have, you know, 15 minutes to tell us what we could do right now, that's what I would tell them is let's identify what you want your customers to say, and let's identify the behaviors that will make them say that.

Meredith Estep: Wonderful.

Dennis Snow: Now, from a long-term perspective, though, Meredith you know you then have to take all of that and weave it into hiring, training, communicating, you know, all those things, but the first step is identifying what we're looking for.

Meredith Estep: Agreed. I think you have to follow it through. You have to - I don't think you can just start at the instant gratification ...

Dennis Snow: Right. You know, everything starts as a program or an initiative, and that's just the way it is. But ultimately you have to hard wire it into the culture of the organization.

Meredith Estep: Right. In today's economy, how important is customer service? You know a lot of people say it's all about price.

Dennis Snow: Yes. Well, and it is about price right now. You know price certainly has a heightened importance at this moment, but it's so easy for your competitors to duplicate your price. What it's hard to duplicate is the way you build relationships with customers.

So while we all have to be price competitive right now, in my business, too, we have to be price competitive, as this - as the economy turns around, which it will, the organizations that still focused on keeping a great customer - keeping great customer relationships, not cutting those things that are important to the customer relationship, they're the ones that are going to come out stronger as we come out of the down turn here.

So, it's not to say that by providing great service that even during a downturn you know you're just going to be thriving, that's not the case. I mean, everybody is struggling right now. But when it turns around, those are the organizations that are going to come out ahead of the game versus the other ones that you know, cut things that were important to the customer experience. They're going to be in the position of rebuilding those relationships now.

So price is certainly important. The gold standard will always be the relationship to the customers.

Meredith Estep: Right. Do you have any feedback or any advice in reference to a manager struggling to motivate a team as well?

Dennis Snow: Well, the big thing for me is once we've identified what we want the customers to say and what are the behaviors that will lead them to say that, one of the big things is let's sit down with the team and let's have a realistic discussion of what are the barriers, what are the things that keep us from performing in that way?

And there may be process barriers, there may be schedule barriers, there may be physical barriers, there could be - there likely will be several barriers, and so let's identify as a team what those barriers are, and then as a team, let's identify what some potential solutions would be to those barriers.

So, for example, a gas station company that I was working with, one of the things that they - that the management was complaining about was that the employees weren't emptying the trash bins around the lot of the gas station.

And when they talk - when they finally sat down and talked about it, the employees said, well you know you expect us to be in the store but you expect us to empty the trash cans. There are 17 trash bins on this property. That takes a long time to do, and so you expect me to be in the store, you also expect me to do this impossible task.

Well, what do we do? And what they did was they purchased a cart that they could do two loops around the property and switch out the bins in just two loops, and it just takes a few minutes to do it. And that never would have happened if they hadn't sat down together as management and as the employees to talk about what's the barrier and what's the potential solution.

Meredith Estep: Well, I think you made a great point. I mean, I think communication is key.

Dennis Snow: Yes.

Meredith Estep: So, what books have most influenced your life?

Dennis Snow: Are you talking about business books?

Meredith Estep: It can be either.

Dennis Snow: OK. All right. Well, there's a few that you know have had significant impact. From a business perspective, I would say there's a book called, "First, Break All the Rules" by Marcus Buckingham, and he wrote this when he was - back when he was with the Gallup organization. But it's a - I thought a ground-breaking book on motivating employees.

Another business book, and it - it's not just a business book, but "The Tipping Point" by Malcolm Gladwell, I thought was just a fabulous book and helped me in my business of looking at how do I bring an organization to the point where the momentum is there to tip so that they continue on with the service initiative.

From a personal perspective, a couple of books that have meant a lot to me, one is called, "The War of Art," which is a play on the art of war, but it's called, "The War of Art" by Steven Pressfield, and it's really about getting things done. You know from an author's perspective and just from a getting anything done perspective, it was just - it was for me one - a revelation.

And then another personal book for me that just had an impact on my life was "Atlas Shrugged" by Ayn Rand, and just from the, you know, the looking at being productive and contributing to society that - so those books were probably the ones that had the most impact on me.

Meredith Estep: And are you reading a book right now?

Dennis Snow: I am reading a book right now. In terms of from a personal standpoint, the book that I am reading right now, got to look at the title of it to - it's called "The Pillars of the Earth" by Ken Follett, and so that's a - just a personal book that I'm reading at the moment.

And from a business perspective, one of the books that - and I usually have a few of them going at the same time, but one of the books that I'm reading right now is called, "Results That Last," and that's by Quint Studer, and it's mainly - it's kind of in the realm of what I do of how do you build a culture that is sustainable in an organization.

Meredith Estep: Good. Good. Well, now as a full-time speaker or trainer and consultant where you help other organizations, what's your favorite part of all of that, of being able to speak to new groups and being able to teach people you know what you know?

Dennis Snow: Well, probably my favorite part is when I'm speak - so let's say I'm up in front of an audience and I'm speaking, usually I can see those individuals or that individual that is totally disengaged, you know? Their mind is on something else or they disagree, they don't want to be there.

So I can usually see that, and what really jazzes me is when I say something and I see that person stop and write it down, and then sort of look at me in anticipation of what's coming next, so that moment that grabs that individual that up to that moment was disengaged.

So, that, to me, is very gratifying. The other thing is when somebody writes me later on after an - whether it's a consulting engagement or a speaking engagement, and just says, hey, here's what - here's how I have applied what I learned in the program, and so somebody who took the tools and actually used them, and it's even better when they have a question about it because then I know they're really giving it a try, they're really working with it.

So, those two things are just very gratifying for me.

Meredith Estep: Absolutely. Well, you've already given so much in the course of your career. What are your goals for the future and what do we have looking, you know - what can we look forward to see coming from you soon?

Dennis Snow: Well, where I am in my career as I get older is I travel a lot as a speaker and consultant, and as I get older I'm, you know, I'd like to slow down with that, and so what's next for me is taking these things that I've learned and the things that I've written about and things that I've consulted about, and really putting together a soup-to-nuts what I would call - what I'm calling it "customer service in a box" where it's an approach that an organization can - they can take themselves and almost plug it in to what they do.

So that's going to include, you know, not only written materials, but videos and audio things, worksheets, templates, so a variety of tools all combined into one system that isn't reliant on me being there with the organization. So trying to create that almost plug and play kind of approach to improving service.

So, that's where I'm headed next, and that'll include online things and, you know, a variety of channels that I probably don't even know exist right now.

Meredith Estep: Very exciting. Very exciting.

Dennis Snow: Yes.

Meredith Estep: Yes.

Dennis Snow: And doing some of the things that you're doing too, you know? I'm doing more blogging and things now than I have in the past and starting to recognize that these are the, you know, from a long-term perspective these are the channels that are really going to add value that doesn't require a consultant to be on site.

Meredith Estep: Right. Touch more lives.

Dennis Snow: Yes.

Meredith Estep: You definitely have touched mine ...

Dennis Snow: Oh, I appreciate that.

Meredith Estep: ... and I know you've touched a lot of people that are around me, so.

Dennis Snow: I appreciate that very much, and I - the questions you asked are great questions. I really appreciate the direction that you took with this.

Meredith Estep: Oh, fantastic. Well, I very much greatly appreciate your time today, and it's been a pleasure getting to speak with you.

Dennis Snow: Great.

Meredith Estep: I certainly am looking forward to your customer service in a box and ...

Dennis Snow: Yes. Yes. Yes. And if any of your readers or listeners you know have questions about what we've talked about you know they're more than welcome to either e-mail me at, or they're welcome to call me. My phone number is (407) 294-1855, and that's in Orlando, Florida, and I'm happy to answer any questions or brainstorm, whatever people would like to do.

Topics: Unitiv, customer service, IHD Services, Leadership, Dennis Snow, Walt Disney World, Disney World, Lessons from the Mouse, ultimate customer service, Unitiv's Intelligent Help Desk