Mouse Method Makes Magic

If you grew up surrounded by the lore of Disney, then you’re familiar with the sense of magic Disney theme parks convey. That magic results from processes that consider every element of the guest encounter and attempts to create an experience that leaves everyone happy.

As a photographer, you’re in a similar business to Disney—creating happiness. You want clients who rave about your service and their overall experience. You do this by preemptively dealing with their concerns, cultivating smooth client interactions, and building a creative enterprise that touches people’s emotions while earning profits. Those are all ingredients in a happiness business.

An expert on managing the happiness business, Lenn Millbower spent more than 25 years at Walt Disney World in a variety of roles that included working on the opening team for Disney’s Animal Kingdom and designing and managing two executive programs for the Disney Institute. Today, Millbower teaches businesses how to improve structures and performance using many of the lessons from Disney’s inspired customer service. He is also the author of the book “Care Like a Mouse: The Key to Delivering Disney Quality Service.”

When thinking about how to create happiness for your clients, Millbower advises learning from the magic of Mickey Mouse, where M-I-C is the key:

  • M is for message. This is what you share with clients that’s critical to their perception of you and your brand. Millbower explains that Walt Disney had a purpose statement that was central to Disney’s message: “We create happiness.” Everyone at every level knows that if they’re not creating happiness, they’re not doing their job.
  • I is for interaction. This describes how you treat people. It’s helpful to think of everybody as a customer, and that includes the employees who work for you, the people you interact with during a job, and vendors.
  • C is for context. This is the environment in which your customer interaction happens. You could have the greatest product in the world, but if you don’t have good customer service processes, then your entire experience is a mess.

For photographers, the task is to find ways to express your core message to set the scene for your brand story while also establishing reasonable expectations. Then express that message through considerate interactions underlined by respect for everyone you come in contact with during a business engagement. And finally, build a context that you control by establishing well-conceived processes that keep client happiness as the primary goal.

Walt Disney was a film director, so he understood the need to address holes in the plot of a movie preemptively. He’d work in a line of explanation before the audience could notice the quirk in the story and have a chance to object. Photographers can do the same thing.


To build a consistently positive client experience, Millbower suggests a method called “presponsiveness.” When acting presponsively, you attempt to anticipate what people will want before they express that want, and you provide the solution at their moment of need.

Walt Disney was a film director, so he understood the need to address holes in the plot of a movie preemptively. He’d work in a line of explanation before the audience could notice the quirk in the story and have a chance to object. Photographers can do the same thing. Think about the questions you’re asked over and over. Determine the moments those questions typically come up, and provide the answers preemptively in the client consultation before they have a chance to bring them up. People will be amazed at your forethought.

Take that concept one step further. If clients consistently ask for a particular thing and your response is always, “That’s not my policy,” then you have a policy problem. The same concern is coming up over and over again, and you’re instantly playing from behind if you’re forced to give a negative response. So, address that concern in advance without compromising your policies. Acting presponsively doesn’t mean you need to bend all your policies every time someone asks. It means you should figure out what people need in advance and provide it to them. Sometimes, this is just a good explanation, like that clever line of dialog in a Disney film explaining a hole in the plot.


If a client concern elevates to a problem, Millbower recommends a strategy called customerization in 3D. Using this method, you listen to the client’s problem, hear their demand, but don’t buy into the demand. “The key is to understand the drama underneath,” he says. Often, there’s a hidden desire that the client may not even realize.

Millbower gives the example of a family that can’t find their car in the parking lot at the end of a long day at one of the Disney theme parks. They’re frustrated. They’re tired. They may be blaming each other. They may be blaming the park staff. Rather than getting drawn into this drama, Disney park attendants are trained to address the underlying desire. What’s that desire? “To be magically transported to their car, of course,” laughs Millbower. The parking attendant asks the family when they arrived at the park. Based on their answer, the attendant can look up where the staff was parking cars at that time. Then the attendant delivers the magic solution: “Hop in my golf cart and I’ll take you there.” Magical transportation delivered.

“But it’s not magic and pixie dust,” says Millbower. “It’s a process, continually worked on, and informed by presponsiveness.”

“You have to step back and get a different perspective. Remove yourself from the process and look at the big picture.”

Lenn Millblower

What happens if, despite your best efforts, you have a process that’s simply broken? You’ve tried to systemize a positive experience, but the same issues keep cropping up. “You have to step back and get a different perspective,” says Millbower. “Remove yourself from the process and look at the big picture.” With that perspective, he recommends employing a favorite technique that organizational psychologists call the Five Whys. When using this technique, keep asking why until you figure out the reason for the issue. An example:

1. Why do clients keep asking for this?

Because they want …

2. Why do they want this?

Because they feel like they need …

3. Why do they feel like they need that?

Because they’re concerned about …

4. Why are they concerned about it?

Because they are coming to me with certain expectations …

5. Why do they have those expectations?

Because …

Eventually, you get to the core issue, that underlying desire that’s fueling a particular concern. Remember the frustrated family that can’t find their car and wants a magical transportation to their ride home?

Step back from the minutiae of running the business and take the time to address concerns that you hear again and again. This means constantly evaluating how everything is working and looking for ways to improve, even if it seems like things are going well. That’s the difference between reacting to a problem and proactively addressing an issue before it becomes a problem.

“Pay attention to what’s going on, and then have the determination to improve it, even if you’re just taking incremental steps,” says Millbower. “It takes forethought and the willingness to continually reexamine your processes, but if you can fix things before they become a problem then you can, like Disney, make your own magic.”

Jeff Kent is editor-at-large.