MK Haley. Photo by Tracy Certo.

Mk Haley may work with the most famous animation company in the world, but she’s all about the human experience.

Wearing many hats, she’s faculty/entrepreneur in residence at Florida State University as well as a Walt Disney Imagineer — those are the folks who create immersive experiences at the theme parks and resorts. She’s also an adjunct faculty member at the Entertainment Technology Center at Carnegie Mellon University.

Haley is in town this week as the keynote speaker at “Thriving in an Experience Economy” — a forum that will highlight the science and technology behind audience engagement for businesses.

We swapped a few emails with Haley who gave us some insights on what positive experience — and great customer service — is all about. Spoiler alert: Humans matter.

[This interview has been edited and condensed.]

NEXTpittsburgh: Disney has always been on the cutting edge of experience innovation. How does it stay that way as the market changes?

Mk Haley: At Walt Disney Imagineering, we follow “Mickey’s Ten Commandments.” With the keyword in your question being “experience” and not actually “innovation,” it turns out that we have developed some really innovative practices and technologies, but it’s always in service to the guest experience — to invent, enable or streamline an experience for our guests.

What other companies do you think are successful in this arena?

There are lots of companies with a focus on customer service that retain business as a direct result. And there are loads of lists that will tell you who those companies are, but the most consistent part of those reviews is that humans matter. Human beings taking the time to help other human beings, and being given not just the proper training and expertise to do so (which is an investment), but also the freedom to make judgment calls and think outside the box as need be to serve customers needs.

There are also loads of companies and industries that often don’t feel like they have to work for your business, and here is where you often see customer service as a lower priority. From the airlines and cable industries to wedding services and medical care, these industries often have consumers who need their services, rather than want them. As a result, consumers can often see little regard for their priorities or preferences.

Imagine if we could all say we loved our utility company? Wouldn’t that be grand?  (Actually, I live part of each year in Tallahassee where the utility and trash teams are recognized across the country for their services. So yeah. I kinda love my electric company.)

What are the key pieces of advice you’d give to companies that want to succeed in the experience economy?

1. Tell your story. What is your brand, its priorities and the relationship you want with your customer?

2. Train your staff to have the proper foundation to meet guests’ needs. This means product knowledge, access to the information and tools they need in a timely fashion, and the flexibility to make the right choice.

3. Humans matter. Invest in both your staff and one-on-one relationships with your customers to create long-term and even cross-generational fans.

How do the students of today prepare for the workforce of tomorrow in the experience economy?

Technologies to make and build and do are changing so fast, any subject matter expertise on one tool is not very helpful in the long run. It’s the foundational skill sets that are of most value. Understand how to build a model before you learn the software to do it. Understand how to tell a story before you presume to be a filmmaker. Understanding story and the importance of your guest.

Understanding how to work collaboratively, how to present your work or that of your team, and how to problem solve are critical to success no matter what field you are in. K-12 education in the U.S. is so focused on individual achievement and teaching to the test that some of these concepts are not just hard for college students, but downright alien. They will often refer to collaboration as “cheating” because they are getting help from somebody else. Asking for help and volunteering to help in a group is a hugely valuable mindset. Thinking of yourself as part of the whole, rather than an individual, will help steer students towards a mindset for success in their studies and professional life. [It will also make] service to their clients and customers seem natural.

Whose work do you most admire today, and why?

There are, and always have been, great efforts towards supporting children. Hospitals and donors are eager to support the full experience, not just the medical care, of our smallest patients. Why don’t we provide similar programs, and that mindset, for adults?  And why not across every industry? I think all industries have a lot to learn from the attention and care and service as humans to other humans that some of these children’s focused efforts highlight. Some great examples of what is going on now include:

“Magic Minute/Goodnight Lights:” At 8:30 p.m. every night, hundreds of people, shops, boats and emergency vehicles flash their lights for one minute to say goodnight to the children at the Hasbro Children’s Hospital in Providence Rhode Island.

Superhero Window Washers: Window washers dressed as superheroes has become an international trend for children’s hospitals. It started in the UK, and the Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh was one of the first adopters in the U.S.

3D printed prosthetics for kids: It’s expensive for a prosthetic, and kids keep freaking growing. 3D printers and an army of volunteers are making limbs for these kids all over the world, mostly free of charge. Disney recently partnered with some of these groups to provide permission and artwork for Disney-themed limbs.

Want more “experience” with Mk Haley? See her speak in Pittsburgh on Friday, December 1 at “Thriving in an Experience Economy.”

Ali Trachta

Ali Trachta joyfully returned home to Pittsburgh after a long stint at LA Weekly. Most recently she served as its online editor as well as digital strategist for its parent company, Voice Media Group, which owns seven alt-weekly newspapers. She lives in Stanton Heights with her husband and little boy.