6 Things Disney Can Teach Us About Academic Advising

UPDATE: This article struck a chord with the folks over at the Disney Dispatch network and they subsequently picked it up for their subscribers. Here is a link to the post on their blog: What Academic Advisors Can Learn from Disney.

UPDATE 2: This article was also was featured in NACADA’s Monthly Association Highlights for May, 2011.

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We keep moving forward, opening new doors, and doing new things, because we’re curious and curiosity keeps leading us down new paths. -Walt Disney

Recently I attended the annual conference for academic advising professionals (NACADA) in Orlando, FL. During our stay, our advising team made particular notice to observe the renowned Disney service experience to gather ideas to replicate with our advising center at Tulane University. To that end, here are some reflections from our visit that are worth considering for your advising center.

1. Walk Them There

Whenever I asked a Disney cast member about a particular location, they would first use the trademark two finger Disney point and would then offer to walk me there if it wasn’t too far. College campuses are becoming increasingly larger and more decentralized. The days of the one stop student center have long since passed. As an academic advisor, I often refer students to various other departments including the Registrar, Financial Aid, Counseling Center, Health Center, and more. When time permits, why not walk them there? This can be especially useful if the student you’re working with is a freshman and is new on campus. I utilized this recently when I began my new job at Tulane because it gave me the opportunity to get to know the campus and meet different staff members in different departments. It also gives the student a strong sense of confidence and leaves them feeling positive about the service experience in your department, which cultivates loyalty.

2. Don’t Create False Realities

I’ve been to a number of Disney Institute trainings and have stayed at various resorts as a guest. I love their model of customer satisfaction and generally find it applicable, except when it comes to the whole happy ending thing. I witnessed a number of individuals get too caught up in their role or the role of Disney to come back to reality and address me where I was. The same goes for students. It’s important that we encourage them to dream and focus on the positive, but also address the reality of their situation, especially when times get tough. We’re not cheerleaders but coaches who can have a profound impact on their success in and out of the classroom. That often requires tough and challenging conversations. Using structured theories like Sanford’s challenge (+1) and support will cultivate a trusting relationship and will allow you to support the student when it matters most.

3. Take Advantage of “In Between” Opportunities

When it comes to the customer experience, Disney has clearly thought this one out extensively. My favorite example of this was the bus rides to and from various locations around Disney. For example, when you take the Magical Express from the airport to your resort or your hotel, Disney has created a video detailing all of the wonderful and exciting things you can do during your stay. This would normally be a time when everyone would be staring out the window or lost on their smartphones (many still were), but it’s a great passive promotional opportunity to get some extra content in and begin framing the type of experience you want your customers or students to have.

One example of this would be to take advantage of the reception area where many students wait for appointments. Try to think of ways you can provide passive and active content to further educate your students on your center’s services and help students learn about all the things they can do with an advisor in your department.

4. Think About the Whole Student Experience

Whole student development is deeply understood in many higher education and advising circles, but what about the whole student experience? For the last few places I’ve worked I’ve led a customer experience mapping exercise in an effort to capture and design positive interactions at every touch point. Here is an example of a student experience map I created while working for University College at the University of Denver to help us better understand our students (PDF Download: University College Student Experience, 16.5 kb) Disney has long been a leader in this field of experience design; many others such as Starbucks and Apple have picked up on Disney’s lead here and you can too.

Take a day to step outside your daily routine and act as if you were a student. What is the appointment scheduling experience like? How easy is it to gain access to an advisor? What does the waiting space look and feel like? What are simple transactions like? Taking a step back to think holistically about the entire student experience can pay huge dividends as it has for Disney. If you’ve ever experienced a Disney vacation, you’ll know and more importantly feel this value and attention to every detail, from the dining experience to the way your bed is turned down.

5. Be Inclusive When Brainstorming Solutions to Problems

One of my favorite Disney stories about customer service has to do with the team that designed the resort at the Animal Kingdom Lodge. The lodge features a beautiful indoor waterfall that generates quite a bit of noise. Because the hallways leading to the guest rooms all opened up to the lobby, they installed an extra thick plush carpet to soften the noise as it traveled to the guest rooms. This however presented a challenge for the custodial staff who are responsible for pushing carts to replenish supplies for guest rooms.

To resolve this, the designers brought in members of the custodial staff and included them in brainstorming solutions to the problem. It would have certainly been easier for the engineers of the building to create a solution that worked for them and then disseminate the results downwards to this traditionally oppressed staff group. However, they took the more energy intensive approach to include the staff and as a result ended up with a better solution. This also had the byproduct of empowering this staff group and including them in the decision making process. This no doubt has a profound impact on this group since many of them directly interact with guests on a regular basis. As Disney learned, it’s much easier to get buy in and participation when you’ve included the group that stands to be affected by your decision.

The solution revolutionized the entire company as well. Together they created a motorized cart that easily maneuvers along the thick carpet to make it easier for the custodial staff to move from room to room. Incidentally, other departments caught on to this innovation and decided to copy it. Now whenever you visit any Disney theme park you’ll see motorized carts carrying supplies all over the place.

Next time you’re dealing with an issue, consider taking the tough road to be inclusive as it may generate more effective solutions to the problem you’re dealing with that benefit students in ways you hadn’t originally thought of.

6. Engage Everyone in Your Pursuit of Loyalty and Excellence

The previous approach can also pay dividends when it comes to cultivating student loyalty. I don’t know if this is true or not but I’ve heard that Disney pays custodial workers extra because their international guests often feel more comfortable asking them questions.

When it comes to your advising center, think about all the people who interact with your students, especially the ones who are not on the org chart. How can you include them in your decision making process to better empower them to deliver excellent care and attention to your students? When was the last time you invited them to your staff meeting or planning retreat? Think beyond your org chart to determine who you can include in your pursuit for student service excellence.

I know many of you have experienced Disney at one point in your life. The Disney experience is far and wide, so what are some things you’ve seen that could be copied to higher education and academic advising? I’d love to hear your thoughts and stories in the comments below.

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3 Responses to 6 Things Disney Can Teach Us About Academic Advising

  1. Jason B says:

    Great insight. This will be spread amongst the office. Thanks!

  2. Pingback: Tweets that mention 6 Things Disney Can Teach Us About Academic Advising | Brian J. Elizardi's Blog -- Topsy.com

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