Newly hired associates at the Westin Ottawa are greeted with highly unusual service-sector advice from the hotel's top executive.
"I tell them, 'We did not hire you to provide service,'" explains John Jarvis, the hotel's chief experience officer, who dropped his GM title upon the launch of a new customer experience initiative about 18 months ago. "If that's what they think, I tell them they need to rethink. And then I tell them that they're here to create incredible experiences for our customers."
Jarvis's unconventional approach extends beyond employee orientation - he equips each of his hotel's 14 departments with a "storybook" and recently stopped sharing most financial performance information with most employees - and has yielded, quite literally, unbelievable results.
Taken as a whole, however, Jarvis' unconventional tactics begin to look quite familiar to anyone acquainted with successful customer experience transformations.
Westin Ottawa's cultural transformation took root almost two years ago, around the time that Jarvis experienced an "ah-ha" moment while clicking through the hotel-review website Trip Advisor. Among the site's other options, guests can rate their hotel visit and share brief accounts of their positive or negative experiences. The site enables visitors to search for hotels in specific locations (city, region, country, etc.) and sort the hotels according to popularity and price.
It was the opportunity for hotel guests to share their story that resonated with Jarvis. "It struck me as a very interesting tool," he recalls, "because it gives customers the opportunity to tell their stories."
In mid-2009 Jarvis launched a culture transformation effort, underpinned by ongoing training, designed to shift the hotel from a "providing-service paradigm" to a customer experience paradigm. Jarvis, the general manager of the hotel for 14 years at the time, rechristened himself "chief experience officer" to help convey the importance of the shift.
The first step of the transformation centers on employees.
"This begins with one very straightforward concept: highly engaged associates," Jarvis explains. "If we have highly engaged associates, we know that our customer satisfaction will be much better than average."
To foster and increase employee engagement, Jarvis and his management team measure it twice a year, provide extensive training (through a very busy human resources department), and employ some story-telling of their own inside the hotel. Associates are taught that customer perception is reality. If a customer complains, associates do not invest time trying to uncover "what really happened." Instead, they immediately address the issue and then determine how similar problems can be prevented in the future.
The training also includes associates working through the "12 Experience Commitments," a collection of tenets, rules, and tactics that help associates create memorable customer experiences. The "10 and five rule," for example, instructs associates to make eye contact with approaching customers at 10 feet and to greet everyone at five. "Never say 'no' to a customer; always find a way to say 'yes,'" is another commitment. The employees carry a list of these commitments in their pockets every day.
Every employee has a story
Through the training and adherence to these commitments, the staff is better positioned to create unique stories for customers. "We believe in each associate going out and creating a story every time they work," Jarvis says. "As an associate, you should be able to tell that story as a quick elevator speech."
Associates are also responsible for jotting their anecdotes in the story booklets that each of the hotel's 14 departments maintain.
Jarvis flips through a storybook with a recent entry from a restaurant associate. The associate was in the process of clearing tables and preparing for lunch when a guest arrived at 11 a.m. and ordered breakfast. The restaurant closes at 11 a.m., but the kitchen stops serving breakfast at 10:30 a.m. "I explained this to the guest," Jarvis reads from the associate's account, "and then I gave her a menu and said, 'I'll stay a little later and get you anything off the breakfast menu you want.'"
This story, Jarvis asserts, is "brilliant - because the associate went out of her way to do exactly what our mission statement encourages us to do."
Experience, not numbers
To help fulfill the mission Jarvis, an admitted data hound, continually tracks the latest measures. However, he takes great care not to overload his staff with figures, instead choosing to winnow down the hotel's key performance measures to a "vital few."
He measures and reports to the staff employee-engagement scores, the results of an ongoing supervisory effectiveness survey (completed by associates), and an ongoing customer satisfaction survey conducted by an independent vendor.
Jarvis and his senior management team track several key financial metrics (Westin is part of Starwood Hotels & Resorts Inc., a Fortune 500 company), but they do not share financial progress reports with the rest of the staff, unless asked. "In the past I always believed that our employees should know everything about everything," Jarvis explains. "We shared the financials for many years, but the truth of the matter is that many of the associates did not relate the financials to their daily activities, and some thought we were too focused on profits. So we changed that."
Today, Jarvis says, he and his senior team shares only performance measures that "directly relate to the guest experience that associates are delivering every day."
Jarvis describes another measure he watches closely: In August 2009, shortly after the customer experience transformation began, Jarvis noticed that his hotel was ranked 16 out of 58 properties in the greater Ottawa area. By April 2010 Westin Ottawa was ranked fourth on the same list - a leap so extraordinary that a Trip Advisor algorithm generated an automated email response indicating that the sudden increase did not compute. Jarvis shared this with his staff as confirmation of their hard work and as motivation for creating more incredible experiences.
Jarvis invited the Trip Advisor staff to visit his hotel and also review the independent customer satisfaction reports (which showed a similar surge upward over the same time). So far, Trip Advisor has not responded to the offer. Nonetheless, the hotel remains wholly focused on customer experience excellence.
"At the Westin Ottawa, our goal is make everyone feel special," Jarvis says. "We will continue to provide memorable experiences and personalized service through innovation, empowerment, and passion for excellence."