Marriott's Secret Sauce for Loyalty: Its Employees

LAS VEGAS — When it comes to providing outstanding customer service, a positive company culture that holds its employees in high esteem is more valuable than most organizations realize. That was the message delivered by Nell Williams, senior vice president of global sales and customer care at Marriott International, at the Call Center Week conference this week.

Williams's 30-year career at Marriott is an anomaly in the hospitality industry but not for the company—Marriot has a quarter-century club, of which she is a member. Marriott employs approximately 4,000 associates with 24,000 years of combined experience, Williams explained, which translates into a far less rapid turnover rate.

"That means that our average tenure in call center operations is actually over five and a half years," Williams said. "That's a little bit unusual."

The hotel giant operates 14 contact centers that handle 42 million contacts annually; in spite of such huge volume, there is a culture of connectedness, to which Marriott’s agent longevity attests, Williams said. "Our people feel connected with the people they work with, connected with the work that we do—they feel connected with the company."

Given Marriott's expansive global properties, the sense of being connected is noteworthy. The company operates more than 4,100 properties in 79 countries and has 19 brands, including the Gaylord chain as well as luxury hotels such as the Ritz-Carlton and Bulgari.

Williams spoke about the importance of taking risks in business—at one time the company operated a theme park and a cruise line, unsuccessfully. Most recently, the 88-year-old company shed its stodgy image with the launch of the Moxy boutique hotel line. After finding success in Europe, Moxy hotels are coming to eight U.S. cities. Spare, urban-styled rooms were designed by former Studio 54 co-owner and founder Ian Schrager, now a well-known hotelier. The Moxy concept is aimed at millennials, Williams says. Clearly not your father's hotel, Moxy emphasizes self-service and places the hashtag #AttheMoxy front and center on its Web site.  

Another endeavor by Marriott is the remote agent division, myPlace, which operates in the U.S. and Canada. Just because they work from home doesn't mean agents slack off—Williams says that compared to contact center agents, remote agents perform at the same level or above in every category of metric. For instance, in engagement, at-home agents had better scores than their brethren, who were already performing at a high level.

Given its diversified global operations, one might assume that the hotel conglomerate's employees were faceless workers, but that's not the case and it shows. Marriott has been named as one of the 100 best companies to work for by Fortune magazine.

What lies underneath the mutual love affair is another rarity: the emphasis on recognition for a job well done. Best-performing workers are publicly acknowledged; high achievers have been treated to perks such as trips to Mexico, for instance. The company's philosophy was instilled by founder J.W. Marriott, who said, "Take care of associates and they'll take care of your customers."

"That is something that permeates our culture," Williams said. "It's a very important part of our customer engagement center. Our culture creates passionate associates who create loyal customers."

Williams also noted that Marriott's customer engagement model has changed. "Now we're in a world where our customers have very high expectations and it's all about making it easy to do business [with us]." Whether customers go to Marriott's Web site, call, or visit their hotels, "we want to make that journey as seamless as it can be."

At the highest level of customer engagement, the most loyal customers—whom Marriott calls "raving brand fans"—have an emotional connection with the brand, Williams explained.

"That often comes from a relationship," Williams said. "Our people in our call centers interacting with our customers and the associates at hotels as well, it's that human element, making that emotional connection so that the customer can feel good about having an interaction."

With that in mind, Marriott changed the standard customer engagement pyramid model into an associate engagement model. That includes investing in new technology that makes it easier to get the job done. "It's about making it more enjoyable working with their managers and peers and having great resources to do the job the right way.

"If we're looking to have fully engaged associates, then the values that they hold match the company's goals. That’s how you drive engagement. As you drive associates up in the pyramid, [you're] taking care of them, [you're] driving that passion, which makes them go the extra mile. They take good care of the customer, and that's what drives loyalty.”    

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