CX Insight Magazine

July 2020

When the Going Gets Tough – Strong Teams Get Going!

A story of amazing leadership, teamwork, creativity, and perseverance in the face of adversity.

By: Execs In The Know

The reality that COVID-19 negatively impacted the hotel industry early and significantly likely comes as no surprise. In fact, according to the American Hotel and Lodging Association, occupancy rates as of May 2020 are as low as 20%, while 70% of hotel employees have been laid off or furloughed. For hotels, this could mean an overall revenue decline of roughly 50% in 2020.

While this statistic may feel discouraging, there are many stories that instill hope during these uncertain times. We feel it is important to focus on the stories where businesses and leaders are finding ways to thrive. We want to share one individual’s uplifting story with you.

Meet Brandon Linton, Vice President of Workforce Optimization and Performance Management for Marriott International. If someone were to tell Brandon in early March that he would be involved not only in saving hundreds of Marriott jobs, but also helping tens of thousands of fellow Americans in a meaningful way, he might not have believed it.

Although Marriott has had to make some difficult decisions to protect the company, its customers, and associates, that has not stopped the company from tirelessly trying to find creative solutions to minimize the impact of the devastating economic toll taken by COVID-19. Here is one of those solutions we want to highlight.


A Creative Partnership

Let’s get back to our lead in this story, Brandon. He oversees four Centers of Excellence for Marriott’s Customer Engagement Centers – Quality, Knowledge Management, Workforce Management, and Analytics. Returning home from the Execs In The Know Customer Response Summit in early March, Brandon said, “I remember thinking to myself that this is likely the last trip I will take for a while.  It hit me in that very moment what the company, including our 22 customer engagement centers, were facing.”

As with many travel industry contact centers, Marriott’s initial transaction volume increased as customers began canceling reservations in the wake of COVID-19. In April, Revenue Per Available Room dropped by 90%, which in turn contributed to a significant reduction in contact volume. As a result, Marriott found itself looking directly at the possibility of laying off hundreds of in-house contact center associates.

At that point, the leadership team, including Brandon, proactively began the search for solutions to prevent this from happening. The objective was to find opportunities with outside organizations experiencing sudden volume increases that might consider sub-contracting to Marriott to assist with that influx in volume. Although they found some possibilities, none of them seemed to be the right fit. Technology was a big part of the decision to ensure sensitive customer information was protected. The company could not take the risk of installing third party systems on its infrastructure, so the ideal partner would need to provide a virtual desktop interface. Additionally, executives wanted to ensure staff remained Marriott associates and could be on-boarded seamlessly with limited financial risk to the company. They found this was not as easy as they had hoped.

Fate seemed to intervene at the last minute as a Marriott partner brought an opportunity to them – a State Agency that needed assistance processing unemployment insurance applications. COVID-19 unfortunately created this need as the number of Americans needing unemployment insurance continued to rise. Marriott found themselves in a position to help while at the same time retaining its own staff.

The organizations needed each other and the leadership teams were determined to make it happen.  Uncharacteristically, especially for a large corporation or a State Agency, it only took a matter of days from the time the opportunity was brought to Brandon and his team that the contract was written and signed.

Lightning Speed Implementation Planning

While the turnaround on the contract signing was an amazing feat, the gigantic effort to plan the implementation immediately began. Brandon and his team needed to identify Marriott staff to support the program, deliver training, implement required technology, upskill both management and support staff, create operational management processes, and start taking calls all within two weeks. Seriously, t-w-o weeks!

So how did they do this?  According to Brandon, it was not all “smooth sailing.”  They adjusted in real-time and he is incredibly proud of how the team came together to execute the following:

  • Staffing – Marriott asked its staff for volunteers to support this program, and initially 300 associates came forward, ramping to 650 in less than six weeks. Team members from Human Resources and Communications played a critical role, including coordination with Operations leaders in the centers.
  • Technology – The hope was the State Agency technology would be a seamless “plug and play” solution, but there were a few initial hurdles. Getting access to all required systems proved to be a challenging process. To make this happen, a one-on-one session had to take place between each associate and a technician, which in turn took many hours to complete. The Technology team went to incredible lengths to coordinate and staff “virtual system provisioning rooms.”
  • Training – The State Agency conducted a Train-the-Trainer session with Marriott trainers. Within 12 hours, Marriott trainers were remotely delivering the two-day training course to associates. Marriott leaders and trainers found that some of the training content was not completely “lift and shift.” Some customization was required based on the call types being handled and to adapt the content for remote (versus in-person) delivery of the material. However, the Training team was nimble enough to make these changes in real-time to ensure it was relevant and effective for the associates.
  • Management and Support Processes – Brandon’s team was focused on making this as seamless as possible, ensuring alignment with the Marriott way of operations. For example, quality evaluations are loaded into a Marriott system. They are using the same auxiliary codes and processes for workforce management, and coaching/performance tools have not changed. Additionally, the knowledge management tool is integrated into the associates’ environment, so it is a “one stop shop” for associates.
Ramping and Post Implementation Adjustments

With a highly expedited implementation and considering the typical time to competency for associates on any new program, one might wonder about additional training, support, and (of course) performance as they continued to ramp. Here are a few examples of how they responded:

Training Approach – The initial launch included 300 volunteers, and again they quickly ramped to about 650 volunteers within six weeks. While the initial goal was to on-board as many as possible, Brandon and his team quickly realized the more effective way to on-board this number of associates was to do so in smaller groups of about 20-25. Each of these “classes” would report to a specific supervisor, who would attend training a few days prior to the associates. This adjusted training plan was a four-day process that included program orientation/onboarding, system setup, self-paced training, and then virtual classroom training. By the end of day four, associates were taking calls.

Subject Matter Expert (SME) Support – Some associates quickly picked up the material, had extremely low transfer rates, and were proactively offering to help struggling associates. Because this level of support was effective, the team formalized it as a structured SME program, with half of the SMEs’ day spent answering questions and supporting other associates. In addition, a post training nesting program was implemented in which live call support for operational, technical or program questions was added. An escalation process was developed to ensure associates have a clear path to answers, starting with the knowledge management system, then internal escalation to SMEs, and lastly as an escalation to the State Agency.

Performance – One of the State Agency’s key performance indicators (KPI) is escalations to a higher tier based at the State operations. Within a few weeks, the Marriott team’s escalation/transfer rate was on par with the State’s own employees, a KPI Marriott has been able to sustain. To achieve this level so quickly, team members from Training, Knowledge Management, and Operations Support developed the best practice tools to assist associates, which they will be sharing with the State Agency for on-going use. Based on this success, Marriott associates are now being trained on additional skills and call types, meaning they will be able to help even more claimants and reduce the burden of additional transfers.


Brandon makes it clear that this was an incredible effort where strong leaders from across Marriott’s Customer Engagement Centers came together on the project team, including Operations, HR, Training, Technology, Communications, Deployment, Workforce, Analytics, Knowledge, Quality, and Finance. “We were only successful because of the cross-functional partnership and efforts of every leader and associate on the team.

Although the recent pandemic has been an incredibly difficult time for Marriott, its associates, and everyone alike, there is also a lot of good that has come from this particular experience. The company found ways to help not only Marriott and its associates but also the State’s citizens.

By making this happen, associates and support staff have guaranteed hours, continue as Marriott associates, and continue to receive benefits,” Brandon explained. “Assigning hundreds of associates to this program also took our core network’s slack capacity out, which meant more of the remaining Marriott associates were fully utilized and supporting Marriott customers without reduced hours.

An added Marriott benefit is the significant personal growth and development for everyone on the team, from associates taking calls to those in support and leadership roles. It has helped the management team identify top performers and leaders-in-the-making, putting them in positions of growth, and increased responsibility. The team has also benefited from key learnings that will help them as they think about what life looks like after COVID-19 in a virtual environment. They can approach situations in ways they might not have considered in the past, from being better able to support language requirements to more effective remote training capabilities.

There are also benefits to the State Agency that cannot be understated. “We are helping residents of the state, who were laid off or had received reduced hours due to the pandemic, receive money that helps them care for their families,” explained Brandon. “Claimants are grateful and happy to get through to someone, which has made this an extremely rewarding experience amid so much uncertainty.” This team has taken over 400,000 calls, which represents tens of thousands of individuals and families who would have otherwise struggled to get timely and critical help. The State made that happen for their citizens by partnering outside the box as well.

What’s Next?

According to Brandon, the agreement with the State Agency is open-ended as both organizations work diligently to manage through this point in time. Both partners hope the need for unemployment insurance begins to decline. If that happens, hopefully it is a direct result of businesses re-opening and people returning to work and travel.

This creative partnership between Marriott and the State Agency, which could only be implemented with the collaboration of every single person involved, has contributed to morale and financial security in a time where it is sometimes hard to find. While saving jobs, they have also helped thousands secure financial assistance they so desperately needed.

As for Brandon, he said, “This experience has made us realize, at Marriott, we can be faster and even more nimble than we imagined, which will only help us in the future. We are incredibly proud of what we accomplished through this effort, thanks to the team’s flexibility, adaptability, and resiliency.

Five Key Takeaways

When facing adversity, there is no question it can be complicated and overwhelming to know how to respond.  Do you do the best you can to keep your head above water?  Or can you be creative and think outside the box to minimize the negative impact, while ideally creating a positive outcome? This is a story of the latter, which inspires all of us for what we can be doing to position teams for success now and in the future. Here are five key leadership takeaways to consider:

  1. Get Out of Your Own WayThis starts from the top down. Signing a contract in a matter of days and implementing technology with almost zero roadblocks in less than two weeks are prime examples. As a leadership team, you need commitment to “make things happen” by empowering your team to make decisions and take decisive action. This often means changes to policies, approval processes, and management philosophies. Most importantly, resist the urge to require “perfection” – develop a goal with a plan and allow your team to execute.
  2. Challenge the Status Quo The world is a different place than it was three months ago. Customer needs and expectations are evolving in real-time. Work environments have dramatically changed. The ways in which companies manage and train staff must shift. “Outside the box” thinking, like Marriott employed, will need to be the new normal in how companies prepare for the future. In other words, do not be afraid to “mix it up.”
  3. Ensure Flexibility and Adaptability It is clear from the story that the entire Marriott team is open to change, both strategically and tactically. This allows them to adjust in real-time to the day-to-day realities of the situation, contributing to the quick ramp and sustained performance levels. The importance of creating a culture with processes and management approaches that allow staff to thrive in a changing environment cannot be underestimated.
  4. Keep it SimpleTo respond quickly and effectively, it is important to avoid over complicating the approach. Although Marriott took a calculated risk with this solution, the team recognized the importance of simplifying the approach to align with current processes where appropriate. This ensures a seamless, smooth, and effective implementation with the ability to remain nimble.  
  5. Encourage Staff to be Part of the SolutionStaff, at all levels, were part of the solution in this story. Leadership removed barriers, associates stepped up to assist others, trainers identified and remedied issues with training content, supervisors stepped in to adjust the on-boarding approach, and management adjusted supporting processes in real-time. Every single member of the team was empowered and involved in making this a success and all gained an experience that provided professional growth.



Thank you to Brandon Linton of Marriott for providing leadership insights.



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