by Matt Alderton | December 13, 2017
On stage at conferences, in meetings with partners, in presentations to colleagues, and even at dinner parties with friends, Alex Cabañas asks in earnest the same question over and over again: When was the last time you had a great customer-service experience? More often than not, the answer to his query is a blank stare, a wrinkled nose, or a furrowed brow. Usually, all three.

Because positive customer-service experiences are so infrequent, Cabañas has made it his mission to create more of them. His business, global hospitality company Benchmark, operates nearly 70 hotels and resorts around the world which are known for superior customer service. As CEO, he attributes his properties' reputation not just to their facilities or their amenities, but rather to their people. When they feel cared for by their employer, Cabañas says, his employees in turn take care of his guests.

To learn more about his philosophy, and how companies in other industries can emulate the Benchmark way, Incentive asked Cabañas to share his strategies for turning employee rewards and recognition into customer satisfaction.

First of all, what's your "philosophy"? What underlies your approach to customer service?

We don't make anything physical. I can't go home to my kids, pick up a physical object, and say, "This is what daddy does when he leaves. This is what I make." I have to tell them stories. I have to tell them that we create joy and happiness. That we make people happy. That we help companies get better. That we help people get married. That we help families go on vacation and make businesspeople feel refreshed for their meetings. My kids are 12 and 8, so I have to describe it in very realistic terms. So in the end, I tell them that we make memories and emotion for a living. Our purpose is to create memorable experiences in the lives of those we serve. That is our passion, and it requires people to be emotionally engaged in service.

And how exactly do you make employees feel "emotionally engaged" in the customer experience?

Again, it's storytelling. You can train to specifications that can be repeated all the time. What you can't train for is the moment where there's an opportunity for an employee to do something above and beyond. That's moment-to-moment. That's where our employees need to be inspired, not instructed. They need to be inspired to believe they have the authority and the opportunity to be able to provide that little extra level of service, and that really comes from storytelling at the property level. At every daily meeting with every department, every general manager has got to set the tone by telling stories, because that's what inspires people to provide that unique level of service.

Storytelling -- illustrating the impact of good service -- clearly helps you inspire employees. But how do you go from inspiring good service to incentivizing it?

Our industry is not the highest-paying industry in the world, so we need to be high-paying to our employees' emotional bank accounts by making them feel valued. And that comes down to communication. The communication that we expect at our properties is the biggest driving factor to employee satisfaction and to making people feeling valued so they can deliver great service. For example, we conduct an employee survey every single year so that employees' voices are heard. A lot of times, those types of surveys ask things like, "Are you given all the tools and resources you need in order to do your job?" Who would say yes to that? Most employees would say no. Because the reality is, we always have to make choices about what we can and can't give our employees to make their jobs easier or better, whether that's because of capital constraints or other limitations. What we do, however, is we create value by telling employees "why." We're transparent. We engage them to help them understand what the business situations are that lead us to make certain decisions or to prioritize one thing over another. By doing that, everybody feels like they're on the same team and nobody thinks, "So and so got what they wanted but I didn't get what I wanted."

Where does employee recognition come in? Is that an important cog in Benchmark's service machine?

Again, storytelling is a huge part of that. We reward people by telling stories about them. We do that in our daily stand-ups, for example, and in "Be the Difference," an email that goes out every once in a while that's just stories that we share within the company highlight unique moments that happen throughout our portfolio. When and if I get those emails, I usually try to write the employee myself, personally, to say, "Thanks for doing what you did." It usually blows the employee away that I would actually care or take the time to do that. Another thing I do is, every month I sign anniversary letters and birthday cards for our "Best of the Best" program, which is our highest on-property recognition of people who get nominated and selected at the property level for being "Best of the Best" employees. Also, we have a series of awards. Those awards matter because they're programmatic, but it's how we handle the delivery and the execution of those awards that matters the most. For example, I was at a property last week where somebody was nominated for our Chairman's Award, which is our highest honor. She didn't receive the award because we only give one a year, but we threw a party for her anyway because I was there and because she was nominated. Out of 8,000 employees, 15 employees were nominated. She was one of them, so we threw an event and read her nomination and talked about how great she was. It was just a celebration of her. That was completely impromptu because the team there decided that they wanted to recognize her. Those moments last a lifetime, so we encourage doing more of those kinds of things. Because of that, our employees' emotional bank accounts are quite full.

You mentioned your "Best of the Best" program. Tell us about it.

It's the equivalent to "Employee of the Year." Each property is managed at the property level, and each of their senior leadership teams makes "Best of the Best" nominations. It's usually no more than a couple of employees each year. Those employees are part of our overall Benchmark "Best of the Best" program. They are offered some additional benefits that come with that and they are recognized every single year when new nominees are brought into the program. There is constant recognition of people who were "Best of the Best" in past. A lot of our properties actually designate their "Best of the Best" with a "10" or some other type of recognition on their name tag so they can be identified and recognized as they walk around the property. Like I mentioned, they all get a letter on their anniversary from me that I personally sign and a birthday card from me that I personally sign. It's funny. Every single time I sign those cards I think to myself, "Do people really care? All I'm doing is signing my name. Is this really adding any value?" And I swear to you, every single time I do it someone sends me a note or comes up to me at a property and says, "Thank you so much for that letter or that birthday card. You have no idea how much it meant to me." At a company of our size, just by sheer math alone I'm going to be distant in certain circumstances. But those are our best employees; a little touch point from me matters to them, and therefore it matters to me.

You also mentioned your Chairman's Award. At most companies, those kinds of awards are reserved for salespeople and executives. Past recipients of yours, however, have worked in maintenance, meeting services, IT, and even foodservice. Why?

It's the highest honor in the company, and I don't think a single salesperson has won it so far. To win it, there are certain criteria, some of which include: providing a truly outstanding act of community service that is recognized by the community; initiating a service or idea that exemplifies the company's entrepreneurial spirit; and delivering performance during extremely difficult circumstances that far exceeds job description and job expectations. It requires substantial community engagement on top of being a grade-A employee. It's not just about being a good employee; it's about being exceptional.

The current winner is a bellman at one of our properties in New Jersey. He consistently gets the most comments from guests every single year, year after year. This guy just blows it away all the time with humility and kindness, even though he's been in the same job for years. On top of that, he is fully engaged in his community. And he's a bellman, right? He's not in a leadership position. He's not making people's schedules or building a business model or selling. He's just making it happen.

At the end of the day, your approach boils down to two fundamental strategies: filling employees' emotional bank accounts and using storytelling to teach and inspire. What results has your approach yielded?

Guest satisfaction scores across our portfolio are 94 to 95 percent. We see results there, and we see them in our TripAdvisor rankings. Where we see them most, however, are in the stories that we hear from guests. Filling out survey and giving us a ranking is one thing. Turning people into superfans is another thing. We want our guests to be willing to scream from the mountaintop to their friends and family, "Oh my gosh, you'll never believe what happened to me at this place," and we see that. Our guests are willing to recommend us. They're willing to come back. They tell people our properties are worthwhile places to go. That's how we know we've made a successful product -- because we've made a fan. We've made somebody who's willing to tell a story about us when they go home.