I am teaching some workshops in Orlando, Fla., this week and have spent a fair amount of time on Disney property as a result. When I first checked in, one of the greeters in front of the hotel said, “Welcome, friend!” and it seemed like an odd turn of phrase, but I didn’t give it much thought. But then, over the course of the next several days, waiters, store clerks, attraction attendants and other Disney cast members all referred to me as “friend” as well. 

It went from odd to weird. Once I started listening for it, it was pretty consistently how I was greeted, whether I was with a group of people or alone. The frequency of it being said was almost comical. I haven’t had that many perfect strangers lining up to be my friend in a long time!

Disney rarely has a marketing miss, but this new “friend” greeting is a big one. As an avid Disney-goer, over the years I have noticed that their cast members are not as aggressively friendly (a Disney training term) as they used to be. It used to be that each cast member went out of their way to make you feel special and welcome. It has always been one of my favorite parts of my Disney experience. But that has waned over the years, and although they’re still more welcoming than your average wait staff or retail clerk, it’s not quite the same.

My guess is that they got some survey data from guests expressing the same observation and decided they needed to do something about it. They took the shortcut rather than doing some additional training with their cast members, and they issued a new edict – to call everyone “friend.”

As you can imagine, it has the exact opposite effect. It feels awkward, forced and, worst of all, scripted. You cannot script authenticity. 

We react the same way when someone signs their email with their signature catchphrase. The frequency and repetition turn what was probably a genuine expression into something expected that falls flat time after time.

What we need to teach our teams is the intention behind what we’re asking them to do, rather than just the act itself. If you want your employees to show up in a certain way, rather than giving them a phrase or sentence to mindlessly deliver, why not teach them why their attitude matters to your customer? Share examples of how other employees have exemplified the feeling you want them to create. Your examples will go much deeper than any words or scripts you train them to repeat again and again.

When you give them the goal but not the actual step-by-step instructions, it allows them to use their own personalities and the specific circumstances to deliver the customer experience you’ve asked them to create. That’s when it becomes authentic.

We did a lot of work with a health system, and one of the areas we worked on was helping the nurses translate their commitment to quality care into patient-friendly language and experiences. What really struck home with them was when we framed it as “we take care of our patients in the same way we’d want someone to care for our own mom.” We didn’t tell them how to communicate that sentiment – just that we were trying to evoke that response. No scripts, no common phrases for everyone to say. Just an understanding of how we wanted patients to feel. And it worked like a charm!

I’m hoping that some Disney executive and his family are on vacation at Walt Disney World soon. After three or four incidents of being called “friend,” I suspect the practice will stop.