Why Hospitality Employee Engagement Equals Customer Experience

June 19, 2019 - 6 minute read

"Motivate them, train them, care about them, and make winners out of them… they'll treat the customers right. And if customers are treated right, they'll come back." — Bill Marriott

That's the Bill Marriott. Or John Willard "Bill" Marriott Jr to give him his full title. The Bill Marriott who transformed his family's restaurant chain into, well, Marriott. The Bill Marriott credited with revolutionizing the hospitality industry by introducing new practices like revenue management. One more thing: he's also regarded as one of the great people managers.

Employees, or "associates" in Marriott parlance, are vital to the company's success. Marriott talks about itself as a "family" and, in an industry with turnover rates as high as 70%, Marriott has some of the most loyal and longest-serving employees in hospitality.

Why focus on employees over customers?

Why does a company with more than 1.2 million rooms and annual revenues north of US$20 billion care so much about what its employees think about it?

There are three things that Marriott knows only too well:

  1. High staff turnover is not only costly due to the expenses associated with employing and training new employees, but it also negatively impacts the productivity and morale of the employees who remain.
  2. Reduced engagement levels result in more quality issues, increased numbers of health and safety incidents, and significantly more absenteeism.
  3. Finally, while hotels, bars and restaurants will spend vast sums on design, refits, facilities upgrades, menus and even social media strategies, it is the frontline employee responsible for delivering the service who has the most significant impact on customer satisfaction and loyalty.
"In particular, various studies have noted that employee engagement is able to predict employee turnover intention, employee productivity, financial performance, customer satisfaction, and so forth… In this view, the success of hospitality organizations as well as of service organizations in general depends upon the performance of its frontline employees..." — Terje Slatten and Mehmet Mehmetoglu, Antecedents and effects of engaged frontline employees: A study from the hospitality industry

Diving into the link between employee engagement and customer experience

In the book Services Marketing: Integrating Customer Focus Across the Firm, the authors argue that, in any service organization, frontline employees are actually:

  • The brand
  • The service
  • The organization in the customers’ eyes
  • Marketers

It's impossible to escape the fact that your frontline employees are critical to your guest experience. As HR influencer Bill Kitik commented on LinkedIn recently:

"The Employee Experience (and the broader Workforce Experience) are hotter topics than the Customer Experience now that we finally realize the first two are required and necessary to create the third! It's all HR can talk about."

Ironically, thanks to technology's role in automating, speeding and scaling several processes — admittedly led by customer demand — there are fewer opportunities than ever before for hospitality organizations to provide those moments of interaction that create a memorable customer experience.

However, they're certainly worth looking for. One study discovered that hotel and airline customers were more likely to show loyal behavioral intentions to specific brands if their customer experiences satisfied five categories:

  • Identification
  • Enthusiasm
  • Attention
  • Absorption
  • Interaction

Examples from the industry

One Speakap customer, Kimpton Hotel & Restaurants, continually scores highly for guest satisfaction (93%) – a figure that places Kimpton amongst the very highest scorers in the industry, as well as earning them some of the most loyal customers in the industry. So how do they manage to do that?

Kimpton consistently outscores competitors in three key areas:

  1. Value for money
  2. Superior product
  3. Excellent service

It's clearly not a coincidence then that employee satisfaction at Kimpton comes in at 89%, which is staggering for a transient, fast-turnover industry. In the US, Kimpton has been named on Fortune's list of the 100 Best Companies to Work for a decade, including several years in the top 10.

Coyle Hospitality, a firm that gathers and crunches mystery shopper data for the hospitality industry, says that Kimpton's frontline employees particularly excel in the arrival experience, anticipating guests' needs, and service recovery. That last point, service recovery, means how employees act and react when something goes wrong or when a guest complains. Interestingly, the ability to deal with and resolve these situations empathetically, thoughtfully and successfully leads not only to the guest feeling increased loyalty to the brand but the employee feeling more engaged with their role too.

5 ways to engage hospitality employees

Given the high rate of employee churn in hospitality, engaging employees in the industry is clearly easier said than done. What can senior managers do or introduce to start changing those high turnover figures?

Organizational psychologists Greg R. Oldham and J. Richard Hackman theorized that there are five key characteristics associated with every job that lead to employee engagement:

  1. Skill variety: Putting just the right amount of your skills into use.
  2. Identifying with the task: Knowing what you're doing and why.
  3. Task significance: Knowing that what you do matters in the greater context of your business.
  4. Getting feedback: Knowing the results of your efforts and how they're related to your department or branch's outcomes.
  5. Autonomy: Being given the right amount of freedom, independence and discretion to carry out your job to the best of your ability.

Think about your workforce now. If you're a manager, think about the team you manage. How many of your employees' roles satisfy these criteria?

Research conducted by the Cornell University School of Hotel Administration found that task significance was the most critical point for engaging and satisfying frontline hospitality workers. Employees who believe their job performance improves the experiences of guests are more committed to positive customer experience behaviors.

This discovery is undoubtedly the definition of a win-win. The more employees feel they improve customer experience, the happier they'll be in their jobs. So maybe managers need to create the environment and adopt the tools for their employees to feel like they can deliver excellence and then get out of their way while employees and customers delight each other.

Research Study - Culture Factor: Improving Employee Loyalty & Relationships
Matt Warnock

Written by Matt Warnock

Matt is an experienced journalist-turned-content marketer who writes about all things tech, SAAS and B2B.