Why is Service So Great at the USS Midway Museum?

Let's start with a few facts about the USS Midway Museum.

The decommissioned aircraft carrier has operated as a museum in San Diego since 2004. Visitors can explore the flight deck, crew quarters, and other areas of the ship while enjoying a self-guided audio tour narrated by Midway sailors. Well-informed volunteer docents are on hand to answer questions.

It's become the top-rated tourist attraction in San Diego.

The museum offers visitors a unique opportunity to see what it was like to live and serve aboard a US Navy aircraft carrier. It features an incredible service culture where volunteers and employees go out of their way to create a special experience for guests. 

Here are just a few of the Midway's online ratings:

  • 4.8 (out of 5) stars on Google
  • 4.5 (out of 5) stars on TripAdvisor
  • 4.8 (out of 5) stars on Facebook
  • 4.5 (out of 5) stars on Yelp
  • 4.8 (out of 5) stars on Expedia

Keep reading to learn the secrets behind the Midway's powerful service culture.

 Photo courtesy of the USS Midway Museum

Photo courtesy of the USS Midway Museum

Mission-Focused

Last year, I had the honor of working with the Midway to help revise its customer service vision. This is a shared definition of outstanding service that gets everyone on the same page.

We used the process outlined in The Service Culture Handbook. The first step is gathering input from all employees via a survey that asked, "What do you want our customers to think of when they think of the service they receive?"

The museum's more than 800 volunteers were asked to weigh-in, too.

The feedback was overwhelmingly conclusive. Employees and volunteers alike were already using the organization's mission statement as a guide when serving customers:

Preserve the historic USS Midway and the legacy of those who serve; Inspire and Educate future generations; and Entertain our museum guests.

When a cross-functional group met to draft the vision statement, everyone agreed the mission should serve as the customer service vision. There was no need to craft a separate statement. One thing that makes the Midway so special is how people are aligned around the mission.

 

Hiring for Culture Fit

It's not surprising that a lot of people want to work at the Midway.

Liane Morton, the museum's director of human resources, told me the organization is developing a reputation as an employer of choice. "The number of applicants sourced directly through our website, versus a public posting on Indeed, for example, has steadily increased over the past seven years." Current employees are also eager to recommend the Midway to others. "Our number one source of candidates is through employee referral."

The Midway shares a lot of information about the culture on its website. This lets potential applicants know up front what they can expect from working there.

My friend, Jaime, is a great example. I remember her excitement when she went through the application process and she couldn't have been happier when she finally landed a job. The enthusiasm you see from Jaime in this promotional video is absolutely real.

The biggest challenge for Morton is finding people like Jaime among such a large pool of potential applicants. "People are complex," says Morton. "Some people are really good at interviewing and will say all the right things, but they aren't really a great culture fit. Others are not good interviewers even though they would make a great addition."

Morton tries to overcome this challenge by getting people comfortable so they reveal their real selves. "I like to walk people out of the room after the interview. It feels like the formal interview is now over, so people often loosen up and are more themselves while we walk and talk."

Another technique is what Morton calls the "Garometer." 

Prospective applicants check in with an employee named Gary at the visitor information center. Successful applicants must make a good first impression. Morton explains that the way you treat the person who greets you is a good indicator of how you will actually interact with people. Feedback from Gary’s interaction with candidates proves very useful.

 

Onboarding New Hires

New employees are quickly indoctrinated into the culture.

Most of new hire orientation focuses on the culture, rather than rules and work procedures. Countless stories and examples are shared to help people understand what's expected. There's even a section that explains why the culture is so important to the Midway and how it helps the organization succeed.

Employees also take the museum tour. "We want every employee to have had the experience of being a customer," says Morton.

The museum's approximately 400 volunteer docents are also a key part of the service culture. They go through an eight week training program (one day a week for eight weeks) that includes several hours spent on how to interact with customers.

 

Leadership

The service culture at the USS Midway Museum starts at the very top, where CEO John "Mac" McLaughlin is a culture champion.

Morton explains that McLaughlin is constantly talking about the culture with employees. "He is the best leader I have ever worked for. He makes my job in HR so much easier because his is always promoting the culture."

It's essential for leaders like McLaughlin and Morton to model the culture since employees will take their cue from them. 

Occasionally, a leader at the museum might struggle to emulate the culture. Morton describes a proactive approach. "It’s so important to address leaders working against your culture and ultimately help them transition from the organization if they cannot align with the organization's values.  A leader makes such a big impact, and employees will not embrace the culture if their leader doesn't embrace it."

 

Service Culture Challenges

Every organization faces challenges when trying to build and maintain a service culture.

At the USS Midway Museum, one challenge is the bad habits new employees bring with them from past employers. A lot of employees are taught in previous jobs that rules are more important than customers.

"We have policies, too," says Morton, "but we break them when we need to. For example, museum members can get into the museum for free when they show their membership card. Members sometimes forget their cards, but we just let them in anyway. We trust them.

"New employees will sometimes have difficulty just trusting the member like that. That's because they would get in trouble at their last job if they didn't follow the policy precisely. We really have to work with employees to let them know its okay."

Another challenge is maintaining employees' passion for the job. 

Morton and other leaders work hard to identify and fix any issues that might make employees unhappy. There are sometimes, though, when passion just fades and working at the Midway is no longer a fit for the employee.

"If you are no longer having fun and enjoying working here, that’s okay, and we can help you transition," says Morton. "It doesn't do the employee or the USS Midway Museum any good for the employee to stick around if they are unhappy."

She will often help employees move on to another role or even another organization with no hard feelings.

 

Conclusion

I must admit I'm a big fan. I've spent countless hours exploring the museum and its one of my favorite places to send people who are visiting from out of town.

If you're in San Diego, I encourage you to visit the museum and see for yourself!