Create an Outstanding Customer Experience

Oct. 1, 2015
Former Disney executive John Formica discusses strategies for wowing customers

Known as the “ex-Disney guy” due to his former career as a manager for Disney’s top luxury hotels, John Formica, also a speaker at this year’s NAPA Expo, shares his years of experience and proven Disney success strategies in excellence, leadership, working environment and customer experience to help businesses create a “magical” customer-focused culture.


The thing that I am an advocate of is that Disney doesn’t just offer a service, they provide an experience. I think that separates them from everyone else. There are hundreds of theme parks, resort destinations, vacation spots. Why do people continue to go back to Disney? It’s all because of the experience they create. It’s memorable, they love the people, the quality, the attention to detail—it’s all part of the experience. 

Most businesses focus on service. When you just think about service, it becomes task-oriented of doing what the customer asks, fulfilling that obligation and then wiping my hands clean. What happens is that staff focuses on completing the task and not taking it to the next level of creating that experience. That’s what Disney does. Anyone can create that experience by starting with the right foundation.


It’s the other piece of that experience, which is what Disney calls on-stage presence. When you are on stage, it is showtime. You have to have a happy face. If you’re off-stage, then you can grumble. It is no different than if you went to a Broadway play. You expect to have a professional experience. What if the actors said, “This is the 20th show in a row, let’s just skip a couple acts.” You’d go crazy. Disney always looks at it as a show. 

That’s another piece of the puzzle: What does your show look like? When you open up the doors to your shop, it’s showtime. Does everyone look the part? Does everyone understand what part they are going to play? Are they going to bring the energy to the “audience”? All of those things are part of the show. It’s what separates Disney because a lot of people take that for granted.


I worked at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Fla., and there are 60,000 employees that work there in Orlando alone. It’s the single highest amount of employees in one single location in the United States. And people often ask me, how do you get 60,000 people to go to work smiling and with an attention to detail and all that? It’s because Disney creates an environment where you want to be there, not where you have to be there. Disney hires and finds people to fill a role, not a position. What they’ve done so well is identified and defined the role that they’re looking for. 

It starts with traditions training, where you spend two full days learning about Disney values, about Walt, about why you were chosen to be an employee at Disney and what the company stands for. It’s an incredible orientation that doesn’t tell you anything about benefits, vacation days, the disciplinary process. It just focuses on the core value of the company, which is making people happy. 

Your role is making people happy. Then you’ll get an extensive training program in your location and then you start your job. While I know that’s difficult for a lot of companies, if they took the time to invest, it would really make the employee feel like you know what you’re doing. That environment doesn’t get created on its own. 

The other thing is that while you’re an employee at Disney, although it was by far the hardest job I’ve ever had, we had fun. We worked hard and we played hard. It all boils down to creating an environment where if your mind is in the job and your mindset is positive, it’s going to rub off on the customer.


I’d say having the wrong people in the wrong role is the biggest mistake. They’re trying to get a square peg and shove it in a round hole. Because it’s so frustrating when you have someone who’s great in the interview and bad on the job. When you have the wrong people in the wrong role, you’re babysitting. You’ve got to tell them to smile, to get engaged with your customer, to pay attention to detail, how to do everything.

One of the biggest challenges is that small businesses, they put an ad in the paper, they take résumés and they hire someone from that pile. What happens is that now, your whole hiring process is based on hoping the right person comes in the door. You constantly need to be looking all the time, even if you don’t have openings. If I want someone who is bubbly and friendly, I may be able to find them at a retail store. Go to areas where those technical people are, such as community colleges, or ask others for recommendations. What happens is that you start to build this list. You can even interview them, talk to them, and say, “I don’t have an opening right now but when I do, I’d love to have you on board.” I’m planting the seed. 

The second part is you have to identify what it is that you’re looking for. People will hire based on competency but later on, complain that they’re not a good fit. Either train them to be competent or only look for people who are already competent and then choose who is the right fit from there. 

Your attitude can’t be, “Let me just find somebody and hope they work out.” Disney doesn’t settle. When I interviewed, I was plucked out of the Hyatt Hotels organizations when Disney went from four hotels to 16 hotels. I had 16 interviews in two days. I thought, “There is no way they will hire me.” What it did was that it makes you realize that they don’t take this hiring process for granted. And once I was so fortunate to get selected, I said to myself, “I have to live up to the expectation and bring my A-game every day.” 

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