Inn Dependent Thinking: What Executives Can Learn from Starwood Hotel’s Voice Command Offering

Starwood Hotels and Resorts, an American hotel company with brands including Aloft, St. Regis, and Sheraton in its collection, recently unveiled plans to roll out voice command technology in hotel rooms.

Being able to tell your room to turn on the air conditioning, turn off the lights, or provide a dinner recommendation is an exciting one. News around the pilot program was covered by Bloomberg and USA Today, accruing over 350 shares within a few hours. Additionally, SPG’s own release tweet received 180% more retweets and 50% more likes than a control group of their most recent 20 tweets.

Companies that understand how to drive value from digital consistently outperform the market with 9% higher revenue, 26% higher net profits, and 12% greater market valuations than their analog peers.

Enabling an organizational culture that can drive excellence in product development isn’t easy. Here’s three things executives can learn from Starwood’s best-in-class approach:

1. Prioritize action over perfection

Companies with risk-averse cultures often focus on perfection before exposing new products and campaigns to the public. While necessary in regulatory-heavy industries such as pharmaceuticals and finance, the results of this approach can be prohibitive to fast-moving, competitive industries like retail and hospitality.

Starwood’s voice command pilot program was rolled out in only two hotels — one in Boston, and the other in Santa Clara. It’s a smart approach that balances risk and reward well. Cost and downside risk from failure is minimized. At the same time, by exposing the product to sample populations from two crucial markets (California and New England), Starwood receives important customer feedback.

This allows the program to validate product hypotheses — and more importantly, to prioritize winning features in the feature roadmap and deprioritize others based on actual users.

This isn’t the first time Starwood has used this approach. In November 2014, SPG Keyless Entry, a program enabling users to unlock their hotel rooms with phones, was implemented in ten hotels. Today, the program is a great success and has been rolled out to over 160 hotels in 30 countries, and boasts 350,000 user downloads. Having solid user feedback from the field allows for agile development and should be prioritized over hypothesizing in meeting rooms.

To enable effective growth for their companies, executives will need to build a risk-taking culture that encourages innovation and accepts measured, recoverable failures.

Doing this isn’t easy — but it is necessary.

A 2015 Boston Consulting Group survey found that risk-averse culture was one of the top three obstacles to product innovation. By setting up a culture of risk-taking, executives can cultivate a robust, value-adding pipeline.

2. Focus on customers

In traditional companies, products are often developed in a bubble — driven either by business intuition or by a feature checklist. The symptoms of this are long development times and cost overruns. Worse, many products fail to deliver business value.

A focus on customer-centric product design is the alternative.

An end-to-end process that starts with nuancing quantitative analysis with quantitative understanding of the consumer via contextual interviews, empathy maps, personas, and journey mapping is invaluable here to identify pain points, preferences, and emotive triggers.

Starwood’s pilot evidences the fruits of this approach in three main areas. Firstly, the solution addresses a real pain point users have: inconvenience over accessibility and ease of use. Secondly, voice command is intuitive and mirrors the way a user might request the task to be done if there were another person in the room. Finally, it’s delightfully simple. Voice command is close enough to the norm to be easy to grasp in moments, but far enough to be unusual and interesting.

Executives need to encourage design-driven thinking within their organizations in order to enable full value to be delivered. While the traditional culture driven by quantitative business analysis remain needed, design thinking offers valuable new tools to the product development pipeline.

3. Identify win-wins

Ultimately, every decision around profit is driven either by revenue or cost. Decisions in high-touch consumer-facing industries that are driven solely by cost, however, put products in peril.

A better approach is to identify key areas of overlap where products deliver value to both the business and the consumer.

Starwood’s voice command pilot is a great example of this. If successfully rolled out at scale, Starwood stands to realize automation-driven cost savings from hotel-level labor and scheduling costs (guest services and concierge support), as well as gain the data required to drive additional optimization of indirect spending (utilities, energy and waste management). At the same time, they’re providing an exciting service that is appealing to their user base and addresses pain points of road warriors across the country.

Executives can create a culture that can synthesize these needs in two ways. Firstly, by anointing customer champions within the organization to be the voice of the user. Secondly, they need to recruit t-shaped talent with the ability to speak the language both of business and of design.

All too often, leaders see cultural efforts as a Band-Aid. But the market performance of digital natives shows the game has changed. A product-driven company culture that prioritizes action, focuses on customers, and identifies win-wins is crucial for delivering successful products to the market.


Daniel Q. Wong is a senior product owner at McKinsey & Company specializing in the fashion and luxury goods industry. The views expressed in this piece are those of the author and do not represent those of the company.