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Linking employee engagement to customer satisfaction at Starwood

When Jeff Cava became CHRO for Starwood Hotels and Resorts Worldwide, he partnered with the Marketing and Guest Intelligence Teams—groups focused on measuring guest experience and loyalty—to fundamentally rethink the way Starwood served its guests by unlocking the potential of its employees.
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Leads performance transformations in the energy, industry, and healthcare sectors; guides culture change; and advises executives across industries as they make crucial leadership transitions

In 2008, when Jeff Cava became CHRO for Starwood Hotels and Resorts Worldwide, he partnered with the Marketing and Guest Intelligence Teams—groups focused on measuring guest experience and loyalty—to fundamentally rethink the way Starwood served its guests by unlocking the potential of its employees.

Previously identified linkages between employee engagement and guest satisfaction had been descriptive rather than action oriented. This underlines the importance of both gathering and analyzing employee data and providing clear direction on what to do with it. Jeff made it his and his team’s mission to do so, and today, Starwood brands continue to stand out as distinctive for both the guest and employee experience.

In this interview, Jeff shares his perspective on changing the experience at Starwood—from identifying and analyzing the problem to driving change across a diverse, global and highly property-focused organization.

Question: Previously, you worked with The Walt Disney Company, Nike and Wendy’s—B2C companies that differentiate themselves through the experiences they create for customers. How was the approach different with Starwood?

Cava: I started in business 40 years ago and was always looking for competitive differentiators. When I started my career, I managed young adults. We realized the key differentiation was the emotional intelligence of the people we hired, but at the time it was all based on intuition.

Fast forward 30 years—I was at Starwood and realized we had high quality data to work with...I had several very talented industrial psychologists on my team, and we decided to prove the link between terrific customer experience and our HR function.

Q: What were your first findings?

Cava: Increased collaboration between departments in the hotel, self-reported by employees, was very predictive of reduction of customer complaints and associated increases in occupancy rate. We intuitively knew that employees’ attitudes had a massive impact on client satisfaction, but this time it was real data!

Q: Once you understood collaboration was key, what did you do?

Cava: We wanted to start with what would truly help people work together, and we wanted to make people’s jobs easier. A great example was communication among the front desk, housekeeping and engineering/maintenance. To start, we gave them new communication devices so they could communicate in real time. We also encouraged people to take on the appropriate level of autonomy in their jobs—to diversify the skills they use to do their jobs—to make it more engaging. And we aimed to offer an immediate feedback loop to show that these efforts were producing results.

Q: What was critical to overcome the challenges?

Cava: There were four very important success factors. First, very strong alignment with and support from the CEO. Second, robust partnership between HR and our guest intelligence and marketing teams—a commitment to continuously show the value that customer-centricity creates. Third, aligning incentives for GMs and their leadership teams. The Guest Intelligence team created a new guest experience index that integrated employee experience and included both in the reward structure. Finally, data, data, data. The ability to show actual, measurable results along the way really helped to change the culture.

Q: How did you manage the scale?

Cava: We had over 200,000 people around the world that needed to buy in and change their ways of working!

We chose to work with pilots. We devised a good methodology to improve ways to collaborate; test, refine and improve in one pilot area; then expand. We had divisional meetings on a quarterly basis to share the progress.

All in all, it took about two years to introduce the revised guest experience index and another year to introduce a standardized way of using it. HR was key to defining a methodology on how to use the findings to work with and train associates.

Q: Two years seems like a long time. What allowed you to keep the momentum and maintain course for so long?

Cava: We had a great partnership with marketing and guest intelligence, and it was working. There were real results. We relentlessly looked for evidence in the data and communicated it. And while passion may fail to create results, results can create passion! This really helped us to keep the momentum.

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