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What Can the Government Learn From a $100,000 Salt & Pepper Shaker?

July 26, 2010

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I finally got around to reading “The Last Lecture” by Randy Pausch.  If you’re not familiar with Randy’s story, read about it here or watch the video below.  I highly recommend this if you’re about to have a child,  already a parent, if you’re a teacher, or if in any way, you’re responsible for the welfare of someone else – it’s a fantastic reminder to focus on what matters.  There’s a ton of great lessons in this book, but as I was reading it, one story in particular stuck out – the $100,000 Salt & Pepper Shaker.  This story resonated with me because it not only made me think of all the companies and brands that have earned my loyalty over the years, but also of the the interactions that I have had with our government, be it at the Post Office, at the DMV, as the Social Security Administration, the IRS, etc.

Here’s the summary of Randy’s story –

When Randy was 12, he was walking around Disney World with his sister. He and his sister wanted to thank their parents for the vacation so they pooled their money together to purchase ceramic salt & pepper shakers as gifts. Unfortunately, in his excitement to be at Disney World and to give his parents the gift, young Randy drops them, shattering both. Someone saw this incident and suggested that he take them back to the store and ask for a replacement. This was a foreign concept to Randy – why would they replace them? He broke them. It was his fault.  Nevertheless, he went back to the store and explained what happened. To Randy and his sister’s surprise, the Disney store manager not only replaced the salt & pepper shakers free of charge, he apologized for not wrapping them up well enough!

Years later, Randy looks back at that day and sees the beginning of a love affair with Disney that has gone on for decades. You see, that one seemingly insignificant gesture made Randy and his parents see Disney on a whole new level, and as a result, they have enthusiastically supported the Disney brand to the tune of more than $100,000 in tickets, food, and souvenirs.

At the end of this chapter of the book, Randy tells the story of how he still serves as a consultant to Disney and at the end of his meetings, he ends by asking,

“If I sent a child into one of your stores with a broken salt and pepper shaker today, would your policies allow your workers to be kind enough to replace it?

The executives “squirm at the question” because they know the answer is “probably not.”

We all have stories like this – the mechanic you still go to because he corrected that other mechanic’s mistake for free; the barber who, upon finding out that you didn’t have enough cash to pay him after cutting your hair told you “not to worry about it because you’ll pay him next time;” the guy at Best Buy who took 20 minutes out of his day to answer every single question about plasma vs. LCD TVs that you had.

Now, can you think of a story like that involving a government institution?  If you are a civil service employee, how would you answer the question? Are your organization’s policies such that you would be able to spend ten extra minutes with a heartbroken customer to fix their problem?

If I were the head of a government agency, I would bring in the folks from Disney to talk to all of my managers and public-facing employees about the importance of customer service in government. A government agency that uses solid change management techniques to teach every employee to truly embrace principles like “the front line is the bottom line,” and “Two Ears, two eyes and one mouth, use them in that ratio” would do more to bring about “Government 2.0 than any new policy, memo, or technology platform could ever do.

We talk a lot about Government 2.0 being citizen-centric, but that’s not going to happen via some technology platform or memo. That’s going to happen when we make the citizen our customer, our bottom line and we extend that to include both online and offline interactions. There’s one phrase that Walt Disney used as the key to Disney’s customer service program – “exceed guests’ expectations.”

Where in your agency’s mission mission does it say that you will try to “exceed citizens’ expectations?

Watch the full video of Randy Pausch’s “Last Lecture” below.

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