This article tells the stories of Terry Dolan, a seasoned research professional and Managing Research Director at Integrated Insight. With a breadth of knowledge and interesting anecdotes dating back to his time at Disney, Terry shares his successes, challenges, and ironies of a career in research.
Interestingly, my career path to research operations happened quite by chance. Back in the late 80s as I was beginning my career, I was fortunate to land a role at Walt Disney World. After working for about a year in Epcot park operations (by far my favorite Disney theme park!), I learned from a friend about a position in the “Research and Statistics” department—still sounds very intimidating to this day! At the time, the department was very small consisting of less than ten people. What I didn’t know at the time and would quickly learn is that the fledgling department would see exponential growth during my 27-year career in research at Disney.
To provide some perspective on how much growth, when I left Disney nearly 6 years ago, the team I lead alone consisted of nearly 150 data collectors, coders, survey programmers, and account service managers supporting worldwide theme parks and resorts, Disney Cruise Line, and Walt Disney Parks and Resorts Online.
I’ll never forget my VERY first day taking surveys way back in 1988. In the good ole days, we collected surveys on paper, and on this particular day, we were collecting Theme Park Entry surveys among guests entering the park. Nervous and apprehensive about intercepting people, I marched out to the main entrance at Epcot with my clipboard, pencil, and 80 surveys.
I positioned myself as though I was a hungry grizzly in an Alaskan river waiting for the salmon to swim upstream to me, and after only a few moments intercepted my first victim…I mean respondent.
I confidently introduced myself and started the survey. As I completed the first several questions, I prepared to flip the paper over and at that moment, a gust of wind blew through and all 80 surveys blew off of my clipboard scattering all over the main entrance of Epcot. If you are familiar with Epcot you know that the area under Spaceship Earth is a bit of a wind tunnel. At that moment, I recall thinking, I’m not going to make it to the end of the day. I was mortified. I immediately began collecting all of my surveys and it was at this moment, I remember thinking to myself, you’ll never be as bad at this as you are at this moment.
3. What are some of the accomplishments you’re most proud of?
Wow, this is a difficult question for someone who’s worked in one industry as long as I have!
There are several for sure, but here are a few that stand out:
The first would have to be the implementation of a daily survey program in support of the massive Guest Satisfaction Measurement program Disney implemented in the mid-1990s. Before this rollout, we collected ‘snapshot’ surveys–think surveying one week out of the month and that week represented the entire month. I’ll never forget the conversation I had with Joni Newkirk who at the time was the Director of Research at Disney, now CEO at Integrated Insight. I distinctly remember her asking me what it would take to implement and I paused, chuckled nervously, and sort of flippantly said I’d run the staffing numbers, but that it would likely take a 100 Cast Members to make it happen. Joni calmly said, “Do it!” Within two months, we successfully hired and trained a team of Cast Members and successfully implemented a survey program that would quickly grow to over 500K in-person surveys per year.
Another accomplishment that I am incredibly proud of is the behind the scenes work we did as a leadership team while I was at Disney to put in place the ‘on-boarding’ and training infrastructure to support the rapidly growing operation we were building.
With our rapid growth, we quickly realized that our turnover was very high. It became evident that we needed to identify and develop ‘right fit’ talent for data collector roles. As a result, we worked with partners in Disney Casting to help them understand and hone in on the attributes that make data collectors successful. Things such as an outgoing personality as well as the ability to work well independently in a quota-driven environment to name a few. We then began working with Human Resources partners to build a thorough two-week training program that consisted of both hands-on as well as classroom learning opportunities.
Once we implemented these strategies, we saw our turnover plummet. In addition, we saw our Cast Excellence survey results (an annual survey Disney conducted among employees) increase dramatically.
Lastly, there is a more recent accomplishment I am particularly proud of and that is the work we did to safely and successfully re-launch in-person surveys for our LaGuardia Airport partner a few months back. For a few years we have been fielding ongoing passenger satisfaction surveys at LGA using iPad devices however, as a result of the pandemic, we paused data collection in mid-March of this year. Timing being what it was the beautiful new terminal opened in June and our LGA client wanted to safely re-launch ongoing data collection and more specifically, needed to obtain passenger feedback on a daily basis for a two-week period immediately after opening to understand perceptions of the new terminal.
After several conversations, we developed a plan that would enable us to safely re-launch with some significant changes to our intercept approach. First, we purchased a URL and we created a QR code. This enabled us to move away from using our iPad devices and enabled passengers to complete the survey using their device; thus avoiding the need to repeatedly clean our devices. We also needed to create a way for our data collectors to remain a safe distance from passengers. To aid with this we created large card stock images of the QR code and URL to enable our data collectors to hold up the image while maintaining a safe social distance.
With our new approach, we’ve actually been able to increase the number of surveys we complete each day, even with lower passenger volume due to COVID-19. So, it’s been a win-win for passengers and our partners at LGA.
4. Tell me about a particularly challenging project you have been a part of. What made it challenging and how were you able to successfully complete it?
Geez, another hard one!
Again, there are several I could mention, but one that stands out is a combined quant/qual study we conducted for a major cruise line client a little over a year ago.
Our client was interested in understanding some complex pricing as well as passenger perceptions around some potential products they were considering offering across a variety of ships.
With this in mind, we knew going in communication and flexibility would be key to our success and we’d need to be prepared to make changes to our sampling plan at a moment’s notice on a ship in the middle of the ocean.
I’m proud to say that by listening to our client to deeply understand specific needs, we were able to make all of the required adjustments and we successfully delivered on the project.
5. Over your 30+ years in research operations what are some of the most significant changes you’ve observed and how have you been able to adjust?
By far the most significant change I’ve observed over my thirty plus years in the field has been the overwhelming influence technology has had on our industry. As I noted earlier, when I started my career in-person surveys were collected on paper and online surveys were unheard of.
Technology has had numerous positive impacts on data collection from improvements in the quality of data collected to dramatically improved efficiency with online and SMS surveys.
There aren’t many firms today that are successful in both worlds – leveraging the latest in technology-based and online methodologies, while also staying grounded in high quality in-person research. I’m excited to see more of our partners planning for a post-pandemic world, and I’m looking forward to working with them to meet their evolving research needs.
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