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The cost of courtesy



Can you really put a price tag on being polite?

Lee Cockrell, executive vice president for park operations at Walt Disney World, thinks so. On April 12 he issued a memo in which he told WDW cast members they are under no obligation to be nice to the customers when they're off the company clock. Oh sure, you can be polite, he clarified. But it's on your own time. And don't expect Disney to pay you for it.

Understandably, Cockrell's "Guidelines for Walking Through On-Stage Areas While Off Duty" memo has caused some friction. A number of long-time Disney World employees cite it as the latest example of how the higher-ups have lost sight of the real goal -- keeping the customers happy -- in their never-ending quest to keep costs down and profits up.

"Walktime" refers to that 10 to 15 minutes of paid time that the Mouse formerly tacked on at the start and end of each hourly employee's shift. The intent was to give cast members the time they needed -- once they were in costume, mind you -- to hike across the theme park to their assigned positions. Of course, walktime came with a few conditions. For example: If the cast member, while en route, was approached by a guest, they were to stop and give that customer their full attention.

This used to be the Disney way. Always courteous. Always smiling. Ever upbeat.

Then came the late 1990s, when cheaper became better.

One of the things cut was the famed "Traditions" training sessions, a required seminar in Disney history and how to interact with the public. (Always make eye contact with the customer. Never slouch or slump while you're "on stage." When pointing out something to a guest, always use your whole hand, never a single finger.) "Traditions" was halved from two days to one.

Walktime also went out the window. Management apparently concluded it was dumb to pay people while they were in the park if they weren't actually standing at their post.

This didn't solve the problem of all those uniformed workers coming and going through the park as if they actually worked there. (Indeed, in another attempt at cost savings, employees finally were allowed to take their costumes home with them, so that Disney wouldn't have to pay them while they were merely getting dressed.)

Many veteran cast members in the parks believe that going out of their way to make each guest feel special is a big part of the Disney experience. "It's something that the tourists have come to expect," said one vet. "We can't let them down now." Memo or no, these folks are still trying to be as friendly as possible when approached, no matter if they're on the clock or off.

Unfortunately, some of the more recent recruits don't share that work ethic. "Why should I still be courteous to these idiots when I'm not getting paid for it?," groused one new hire, fresh from the larger-than-expected return of tourists to the Orlando parks last month. "Let somebody who's still on duty show them where the restrooms are."

In fact, Cockrell's directive validates and, alarmingly, seems to encourage that very view.

"It has come to my attention recently that there is some confusion regarding our expectations of hourly cast members who walk through a guest area to get to or from their work location while in costume," he wrote in his memo. "I would like to clarify the company's expectations."

He continues: "We do not require or expect our hourly cast members to perform any work activities while off the clock. This includes answering guest questions. All cast members should, however, be polite in interactions with guests at all times. Hourly cast members who are off the clock may politely redirect the guest to another cast member for assistance. An appropriate response might be, Ã?Sir/Ma'am, I am unable to answer your questions. However, the cast member at [location] will be happy to assist you.' Of course, any cast member may answer the guest question on his/her own time (and not redirect the guest to another cast member), but this is on a totally voluntary basis. If the question would take more than a few seconds, please direct the guest to an on-duty cast member."

To erase any doubt, Cockerell's memo put the words voluntary basis in bold.

Disney spokesman Marilyn Waters dismissed the fuss that veteran cast members were making about what she portrayed as a non-issue. "Walt Disney World remains focused on delivering the best possible customer service to our guests," she said.

Someone should clarify that for Cockrell. Because it doesn't take an interpreter to see that he's telling cast members it's OK to let customer service slide.

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