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Can Disney’s Customer Service Model Work in Government?

In the public sector, customer service can easily devolve to “our way or the highway.” The head of the Arlington, Texas, planning department is transforming its service culture into a place where your “dream comes true.”

iCARE-ambassadors-head.jpg
The I.C.A.R.E. ambassadors in the Arlington, Texas, planning office. Director Gincy Thoppil is seated left.
(City of Arlington)
“How can we make your dream come true today?” is not how a customer entering a government office expects to be greeted. But if it’s the planning office in the city of Arlington, Texas, that might be exactly what they hear.

Gincy Thoppil, trained as an architect and community planner, came to Arlington in 2005 as a senior planner and was named director of planning and development services in 2018. In her new role, she did something that had never been done in her city, or any other: She had her staff adopt the customer service principles used at Walt Disney World.

Thoppil had been inspired by a book co-authored by a former Disney executive that focuses on providing an “exceptional” experience to customers. Standing in line for a building permit might never match waiting to board a car at Space Mountain, but there’s no city department where customer service matters more than Thoppil’s, says outgoing mayor Jeff Williams.

“It’s the face of the city,” says Williams. “That’s where people come who live here, or who want to do business here, and it’s so important that we show them that we care.”

People may not come to her department to buy things, but that doesn’t mean Thoppil is not in a competitive market. “There are cities all over the north Texas metroplex, all within driving distance for workers, and we are always competing with other cities where businesses might want to go,” she says.

The private sector is ahead of the game in regard to customer service, and she’s made it part of her job to pay attention to its practices. The principles Disney employees are trained to imbue in their work were appealing, and provided a framework for improving how her staff do their jobs.
Two women at the welcome desk at the One Start Development Center.
The welcome desk at the One Start Development Center.
(City of Arlington)

We’re Going to Do What?


The concepts used by Disney form the acronym “I.C.A.R.E” — Impression, Connection, Attitude, Response, and Exceptionals. Thuppil decided to spend a period of several months integrating them one at a time.

Tressa Allen, a customer service representative in the planning and the development department, says that her previous customer service training was essentially, “what the government says, goes.”

“When Gincy came with the I.C.A.R.E. culture, we were all looking at her like, ‘we’re going to do what?’” says Allen.

Thoppil began with Attitude, following on a Disney notion that a worker who comes to work happy will be more able to make others happy. She spent four months working on this concept with her staff, well aware that showing up in a good mood every day might not come naturally to most people.

A difficult and convoluted process shows that you have not really paid attention to your end user, according to Thoppil. “But during the time period when the process is not that great, you can still satisfy your customer if you have the right attitude with them.”

An “ambassador” was chosen from each subdivision of the office — a plan examiner, an engineer, a building inspector and an administrator — to lead culture change among their colleagues. Ambassadors also speak on behalf of their teams during planning meetings, relaying feedback and concerns about what is being attempted.

Allen became the ambassador for the frontline customer service workers, encouraging them to “put some spark” in their work. She and her co-workers have found that even simple things like happy music, food or short games in the break room can have a big effect on mood that carries into customer interactions.

These shifts in attitude had a contagious, cumulative effect. Outgoing by nature and embracing the new culture, Allen began to greet every customer by name, telling those who wanted to build in the city, “I’m here to make your dream come true.”

At first, customers responded with laughter and disbelief. But as Thoppil and her staff worked month after month to implement the Disney principles in all aspects of their work, word got around that there was something different about the Arlington planning department. And this had a big impact on the city economy.
The D.R. Horton headquarters building in Arlington.
Home construction firm D.R. Horton relocated its headquarters from Fort Worth to Arlington, building a new four-story building on a six-acre campus.
(City of Arlington)

Big Projects, Thousands of Jobs


“It’s been phenomenal,” says Mayor Williams. “The front desk of our planning and development department suddenly went from ‘what do you want?’ to ‘how can I help you through this process?’”

Developers will go to another city if they have just one bad experience, says Williams. As an example of the impact of the culture change in his city, he cites a $1.48 billion expansion of a General Motors plant in Arlington. The city’s “exceptional service” culture made things go so smoothly with the GM project that the city was able to recruit six of its suppliers to Arlington, bringing about 2,000 jobs to the community.

Thoppil points to another recent project of similar scale, the relocation of the headquarters for the multibillion-dollar home construction company D.R. Horton from Fort Worth to a newly constructed four-story building on a six-acre campus in Arlington. This was followed by the acquisition of adjacent property to build a large data center.

A civil engineer and president of an award-winning engineering and planning firm, Williams is aware of the pitfalls of inefficient government service, including added costs for developers. “Being customer-friendly in your plan review and permitting and inspection processes translates into more business and more revenue for your city,” he says. “It’s a direct correlation, and it’s really huge.”
Three people standing in front of Gilberto's building in Arlington.
Gincy Thoppil (left) presents a copy of the book that inspired her customer service campaign to a local business owner.
(City of Arlington )

Caring for Small Businesses


As significant as these large projects might be, Thoppil is quick to point out that 98 percent of the city’s business comes from small businesses. In addition to making sure that these members of the community are treated well when they come to her department, she has found other ways to serve them.

Until the pandemic interfered, each week one small business was allowed to put up a display in the lobby of City Hall to promote itself. Thoppil also went to each participating business on behalf of the city to learn more about it.

“I would give them an I.C.A.R.E. book, letting them know what we are all about and what kind of culture we try to adopt,” she says. “It was just a fun thing, but it did a whole lot to help us connect with our community and our smallest businesses.”

Tressa Allen likes to recall the restaurant owner whose traffic tripled after his time in the lobby. When investors visiting City Hall asked if they could also have a display promoting their business interests, she took pleasure in telling them they’d be welcome to do so if they had a business in Arlington.

You’re a Customer Somewhere Else


Williams appreciates the fact that the customer care culture Thoppil has engendered has continuity. “When we lose people, when her assistants move on to be planning directors, she’s got a formula to do training with their replacements to protect and promote the culture.”

Thoppil is aware that many people still come to city hall expecting a bad experience. “There’s a perception that government employees are just here for an eight-to-five job and a paycheck,” she says. “We have to change that perception.”

“We are all customers somewhere else, and we need to treat our customers as well as we want to be treated,” says Allen. “If they’re upset, they’re upset for a reason — if you were in their shoes, you would want someone to understand that you know how they feel, that you’re human too.”
Carl Smith is a senior staff writer for Governing and covers a broad range of issues affecting states and localities. He can be reached at carl.smith@governing.com or on Twitter at @governingwriter.
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