Some of my fondest memories and greatest business lessons came from my nearly two decades working for the Walt Disney Company. While I was there, I learned one of the greatest secrets to Disney’s success, and it’s absolutely something I believe we can do in healthcare. What’s the secret? Exceed Guest Expectations.

Sounds simple, right? So how does Disney do it?

Disney SETS expectations so they can EXCEED them.

Disney’s lines are long, but you always know what to expect!

If you’ve ever visited a Disney theme park, you’ve waited in line … a lot! And at the beginning of every line is a sign indicating how long your wait will be. Disney does an excellent job at setting expectations. And they’re masters at predicting how long it will take you to travel from the start of the line to the end. Their formula is simple, really. And it works.

How Disney Manages Expectations

Imagine you’re entering the line for the Kilimanjaro Safari attraction at Disney’s Animal Kingdom Theme Park. A cast member may hand you a “wait time card” and ask you to hold on to it until you get to the front of the line. When you turn the card in, the time is noted and recorded. Let’s say it was 15 minutes from start to finish. In theory, the cast member would take note of the total wait time and adjust the wait time sign so guests will know how long the wait will be.

But this isn’t quite what happens.

As I said earlier, Disney does an excellent job of setting expectations. But where they really excel is in exceeding expectations. How do they do this? They pad the time! The wait time you see won’t be 15 minutes – but rather 20 or even 25 minutes. Disney has allowed a little wiggle room in the wait time so guests will be pleasantly surprised when they arrive at the front of the line sooner than they’d expected.

How You Can Do This In Healthcare

Patients don’t want to be kept waiting either. But, in many situations, if waiting is unavoidable, they’ll want to be told how long they can expect to wait. Avoid using phrases like “soon”, “shortly”, or “in a little while” because they’re too ambiguous and may leave patients with unrealistic expectations. After all, how long is soon or shortly? Ten minutes? An hour? Three hours?

Instead, be as specific as possible – and then add a little more. Just like Disney does. If lab results typically take about an hour? Tell the patient it will be an hour and a half and then check back in with them. If they know in advance how long the wait will be, they’re less likely to become anxious as time passes. And imagine their pleasant surprise when you arrive after one hour? A full thirty minutes earlier than they’d expected!

I remember this phrase from a business class years ago:

Unexpressed expectations can lead to unexpected resentments.

It’s a simple phrase that can have a powerful effect on the patient experience.

By setting clear expectations up front, we give patients a little more peace of mind. And we avoid unexpected resentments and consequences that come from patients feeling like they’re in the dark.

After all, the greatest challenge in healthcare isn’t that we aren’t meeting or exceeding expectations – it’s that we haven’t set them.