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A Mickey Mouse Approach to Customer Service

by Paige Booth  |  
January 9, 2007
  |  9,459 views

Although specifically about the application of the "everything speaks" approach to a university, this article contains relevant lessons for any company that interacts with its customers.

What does Mickey Mouse have to do with higher education?

Several of us from St. Edward's University found ourselves pondering that unusual question five years ago as we filed into a classroom at the Disney Institute. We came to Orlando, with a tinge of skepticism, to attend a business seminar on applying the Disney model of customer service to colleges and universities.

Before the trip, some of the administrators on our team questioned the suitability of Disney marketing strategies for the higher education setting. We quietly wondered, "Could the magical kingdom of juvenile entertainment have anything to offer the hallowed halls of higher education?" However, during the seminar, attended by representatives of several colleges and universities, even the most critical eyes began to see the relevance to higher education of Disney's central message: "Everything speaks."

That means everything on campus—from the smile on the receptionist's face and the bright flowers lining the walkway to the cleanliness of cafeteria utensils and the maze of phone loops—says something about your institution. In other words, like any business, a college or university has a unique cast, setting, and process, each of which sends influential messages—positive or negative, intended or unintended.

  1. Cast—Your employees and volunteers, including everyone from the workers dishing up delights in the cafeteria to the switchboard operator, professors, and president. While faculty members form the heart of an institution, don't underestimate the significance of your staff.

    Receptionists, groundskeepers and others in supportive roles are often the first people with whom prospective students interact, and poor initial contacts with prospective students result in institutions losing an average of 12 percent of enrollment, says Neal A. Raisman, founder and president of the New York customer-service consulting and research group AcademicMAPS.

  2. Setting—The sensory experience of your entire campus environment. Examples include the admissions office, signage, classroom amenities, dormitory bathrooms and school spirit.

  3. Process—The various procedures and systems in place to help participants navigate and achieve their goals, such as applying for a campus job, requesting course schedules, or registering for classes.


As you can see, these three elements exist at colleges and universities whether employees are aware of them or not. Of course, institutions of higher education will want to strive for awareness, for it is the messages sent by cast, setting, and process that form people's perceptions. These dimensions make a critical impression on students, prospective students, donors, alumni, parents, vendors, job candidates, and others in contact with the institution.

Orlando customer service consultant and former Disney Institute seminar leader Teri Yanovitch recalls the first time she prepared a customer service workshop at Disney to address higher-education representatives, as opposed to her usual corporate crowd. The main differentiating factor she had to take into account is that many of a school's "customers" live at the "business," she says, and that means such institutions have a greater range of time and details to consider. Students are not simply stopping in to buy widgets. Thus, the "everything speaks" philosophy is perhaps even more critical in higher education than in other businesses.

Neal Raisman of AcademicMAPS agrees. He wrote the book Embrace the Oxymoron: Customer Service in Higher Education and worked for many years as a faculty member and college president in New York.


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Paige Booth is vice-president of marketing at St. Edward's University (www.stedwards.edu), Austin, Texas, where she leads a team that functions as an internal marketing agency.

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