The Disney 3 o’clock parade question: Insights from KnowledgeOwl support team

Catherine Heath | April 10, 2020

Here at KnowledgeOwl, we’re quite the fans of Disney World. Disney is famous for its customer service in their parks, and we’ve talked about them in previous blog posts. 

Believe it or not, software customer support has a lot in common with service at Disney World. At KnowledgeOwl, we are wholeheartedly customer-focused, and we take it as our mission to ensure every customer has a magical support experience. 

Often, however, customers aren’t quite as clear in what they want as they could be. Questions can be phrased in a way that suggests they want one thing, when really it could be quite another. We don’t want any customer to go away disappointed because we didn’t understand what they were asking for.

A great way to look at this problem is through the ‘3 o’clock parade question’. 

What is the 3 o’clock parade question?

Frequently in the Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World Resort, guests will ask the cast members this apparently strange question. The point of this story is that there is an underlying meaning to the question that is not immediately obvious. 

Disney says, “As our Guests are often excited and distracted by the myriad of sights and sounds in our Theme Parks, we know that when they ask this question, more than likely, they want to know more than just the start time of the parade. 

“So, Cast Members will ask some additional questions to uncover what it is that the Guest really wants to know…such as, "What time will the parade get to me?" "When should I start waiting to get a good viewing spot?" and "Where is the best place to stand?"”

Staff at the park are well trained to respond to guests when they ask this question. What guests might want to know when they ask “What time is the 3 o’clock parade?” is: 

  • What time the parade passes by particular locations in the park
  • The best vantage points from which to view the parade
  • What time they need to leave another area in order to arrive in time for the parade

Staff understand that guests are excited – and possibly overwhelmed – by all there is to do in the Magic Kingdom. They know that to facilitate a magical experience in the park, they need to be alert to guests’ true wants and needs. 

Customer support for software companies

It’s exactly the same for us at KnowledgeOwl. 

When offering support to our software customers, we understand that the ‘3 o’clock parade question’ phenomenon may occur. While possibly not quite as exciting as going to Disney World, using KnowledgeOwl may leave some customers a bit confused or overwhelmed. 

No matter how well the software is designed, or how good the customer experience, customers will always have questions and problems. 

Customers use our software in the course of their work, in jobs which are often complex, demanding and stressful. When they ask us puzzling questions, it’s our job to decode their true meaning, so we can provide the best support experience possible.

Customers who make feature requests

For example, we get a lot of feature requests for KnowledgeOwl. These are fielded by our support team, who have a special way of dealing with these sorts of queries. 

Our Head Product & Documentation Owl and Resident Cheese Monger Kate Mueller says, “When someone asks us for a very specific feature out of the blue, I usually reply with something like: "Tell me more about why you want this/how you think you'll use it." I usually frame this to say I'm looking for more detail so I can write up the feature request better and understand their use case, but it lets me get at why someone is asking for a specific feature.”

One of the reasons for taking this approach is that customers may not be using the exact same language we would use in order to ask for the feature. There’s more than one way to accomplish the same objective, and one way is not necessarily better than another. Customers can only draw from their past experience when making feature requests, so it’s important to understand exactly what they want to achieve.

You might already have the solution they’re looking for

Kate continues, “Often, it's the only way they've thought of solving their problem, or they ask for a feature that some other tool had that they used to solve a problem like this. And in many cases, we do have a way to solve the problem they're looking to solve--just not with the exact feature they're asking for. So any way you can pleasantly ask for more details is helpful.

“With regard to things that sound like feature requests, I ask them how they solve that problem now--what their workflow looks like, etc. Sometimes this reframes the question and gets them to open up about what they're actually doing--which can be a far cry from the feature they started out asking for.”

It wouldn’t be productive to log all feature requests, especially since they might not all be referring to the same thing. It’s important to get as much information from the customer as possible. Even though this takes longer and requests might not be resolved as quickly, this approach increases the likelihood that customers can actually get what they want. This also means that work isn’t as likely to be duplicated. 

Structure your responses

Kate says, “On a more basic level, one of the things I picked up from Marybeth when I started here for answering what seem like straightforward questions (like, does your product do xx or have yy feature?) is to explain that we do, add a couple high-level sentences about how that feature works, link to documentation on it, and then finish the response with something like: "Do you think that will work for your needs?" or "Can you review that documentation and be sure this seems like it will work for you?" or "Does this sound like what you were looking for?" 

“Marybeth does this a lot and I learned it from her, but it basically leaves the door open for the conversation to continue, for a customer to respond and add more detail or context to the request itself in case the feature we call "subscriptions", for example, isn't at all what they had in mind when they were thinking of subscriptions.”

It’s about having a conversation with the customer so we can come to a mutual understanding. Having comprehensive documentation to send to customers also helps, and saves the need to repeat information multiple times to different customers. Customers can also review the documentation at their leisure, or send it to other team members. 

Avoid giving a “yes” or “no” answer

Our Knowledge Goddess and Chief Executive Owl Marybeth Alexander says, “According to Zingerman's 3 steps to great service, step 1 is find out what they want. This is exactly what Kate is getting at by asking more questions.

Marybeth says, “A great example in tech are the questions like "are you guys down?" or "are you having issues?". We could just answer the direct question (yes or no), but normally the answer is no and that's not that helpful to them. If someone asks a question like that, that means they are having issues, so a better response is "Things look okay over here. Are you having issues on your end? Let me know and we can help figure it out!"

Even though questions might seem straightforward, and you can provide a simple “yes” or “no” answer, that doesn’t change the fact that customers are experiencing problems. At KnowledgeOwl, we like to go beyond problems that relate directly to our software and really get to the heart of the issue. 

Marybeth says, “On calls sometimes people will say things like "Can you see my screen?" which tells us a few things. (1) They want to show us something and (2) They don't understand how this works. So a good answer to that is something like "No but we could jump on a screenshare" or "No but I can make you the presenter if you want to show me your screen".”

A flat “yes” or “no” answer can come across like you don’t care about your customer’s problem. Take the time to find out more and provide the next steps. This shows you’re engaged and you want to help. 

Using your detective skills

Another way to look at this is: customers don’t know what they don’t know. They might have a problem, but be unclear on how to approach solving it. That’s our job. 

There can be wildly differing skill levels among software customers. Some may be totally comfortable jumping into some code, and others may not even be quite sure what language to use to describe a problem. Use your empathy, intuition, and investigative skills to understand every customer as an individual. 

Marybeth says, “In software, sometimes you need to play detective with their questions to figure out what they are asking. Sometimes customers will ask us if we have xyz and we might not ever have heard of xyz before. However, we can spend a few minutes googling or looking at what they were doing to figure out what they mean. It could be we have the feature and call it something different, or it could be a feature request. A lot of finding out what they want is detective work.”

Using contextual cues

When you work in software, you have access to the back end where there are lots of clues that tell you about customer behavior. 

Marybeth says, “There are lots of contextual clues when people send emails, and often our tools can help give us even more. For example, in our contact form, we send over the page they were looking at before they clicked on contact us along with metadata like the operating system and browser. This can give us enough information to figure out what people mean without having to ask them directly.

“And even when we do have to ask, I always like to take my best guess and answer that. Because often we're right and solve it the first time. If not, we at least showed them we tried.”

And that’s important. Even if you don’t get it right the first time, customers get the impression you are willing to help. Contextual information tells a story, but sometimes it’s misleading if customers just got a random impulse to ask a question. 

Kate says, “Sometimes there is zero relationship between the page they were on and the question they asked, too. So occasionally you have to ask for clarification just because it really was a random question they just happened to ask while on that page.

“Like, they asked a question about formatting a bulleted list but they were in the reporting dashboard, which just presents reports on your KB. Obviously that's not a place they were editing content and creating lists themselves.”

Marybeth says, “Agreed. Not all contextual information is relevant but they can give you clues when you don't know what they mean. I'm trying to think of what percentage of questions we have to translate, and I think it's probably more than half. Sometimes it is very straightforward, but more often than not, they are asking question A because they really have a question or issue B.”

Train your power users

Kate says, “A lot of our power users almost get "trained" to present that additional context when they ask about something, because we ask for it so frequently. These people often, when they ask for something, provide a use case description of how/why they're asking for it. That's almost always our first step in answering those questions, seeking more info, and I feel like we slowly train people just by doing it repeatedly to present more info like that when they ask...that's totally anecdotal and maybe I'm wrong.”

Marybeth says, “Along the lines of "are you down?", some people will just ask us to do things or if they can do things. We could simply answer the question and be done with it. But that extra step of figuring out why they want that can be very helpful. Sometimes there's an easier way, sometimes there's already a feature, sometimes it's a bug causing the problem. But you don't know if you don't ask.

Customers can be the canary in the coalmine that tells you when a bigger problem has occurred. This is an important part of delivering outstanding service. Customers can become aware of software issues before we are, so we take everyone seriously. 

Marybeth says, “It's like taking a holistic approach to each customer inquiry. Figuring out where it fits in the big picture rather than focusing on the exact question.”

The key components of responding to the ‘3 o’clock parade question’ are:

  1. Ask yourself "why would they ask this?"
  2. Be a detective. Use contextual clues.
  3. Ask questions to clarify the big picture.

Final remarks

Instead of trying to get the customer off the phone as quickly as possible, take the time to understand their true needs. They will remember the effort you put in and feel much more loyal to your company. 

Customers also become used to this way of working, and the next time they have a question they will know to provide more context and phrase their questions in a clearer way. It’s a bit like training customers to have a magical support experience. Everybody wins.

Support agents must be empowered to use any means at their disposal to help customers. Take the proactive and long-term approach to customer support. Let them be like Disney World, and reap the rewards. 

If you’d like to try out some new knowledge base software, sign up for a free trial of KnowledgeOwl right now. 

About the author
Catherine Heath
Catherine Heath

Catherine is the Community Builder for KnowledgeOwl. She is also a freelance writer based in Manchester. She writes blogs, social media, copy, and designs owl-based images. 

You can find out more about Catherine on her personal websites Away With Words and Catherine Heath Studios.

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