Corporate Cultures

Building a Service Culture

by Ray Knight and Rob Sanders

Gaming is in transition, evolving from a supply-driven industry to a customer service focus. Led by visionaries such as Mirage's Steve Wynn, forward-thinking casino management is placing a high premium on keeping customers happy. For many skeptics, this seems a waste of time and money. They keep making money just by opening their doors. The visionaries see the future, however, and know the penalties of ignoring the customer. Tunica, the Gulf Coast, New Orleans...the bones of dead casinos give silent testimony to the consequences of failing to win the customer's mind. 

As consumers gain experience in a category and competition provides them with more choices, they become far more demanding. Just opening the doors won't cut it anymore. By then, it's too late to make it up with good customer service...especially if a competitor has been courting them all along. The "build-it-and-they-will-come" supply mentality that prevails in Las Vegas, for example, deals with the way the market is. The visionaries are preparing for the way the market is going to be. 

Lyn Baxter, Executive Vice President of Operations at MGM Grand in Las Vegas, says "It used to be that game protection was 70% of the job. Customer relations got 30% of the attention. That has flip-flopped. For us, it's now more like 60% customer service and 40% game protection." 

The trend applies, to greater or lesser degree, in all gaming environments -- traditional, emerging, and tribal. However, the evolution is not universal nor is the path smooth.  There are numerous obstacles. Some are more prevalent in certain types of gaming, but most are present in some measure in all environments. 

In mature markets -- primarily Nevada and New Jersey -- the most common problem is habit. Even though mobsters have been replaced by business school graduates in management, old habits die hard. Hard-edged traditions and cultures persist. The macho "cool" image of gold cufflinks and pinstripe suits stills holds appeal for some. 

Veteran employees and managers often hold onto the old familiar ways of doing things, "protecting the game" at the expense of customer satisfaction. If top management only gives lip service to customer service -- a common condition -- nothing much changes or is likely to. 

It was possible to get away with this mindset until recently. There weren't many places to gamble legally; players accepted what they could get. Customers now demand more. They'll take their money where they get more. Players have more choices and greater variety of choices than ever before with the proliferation of gaming jurisdictions throughout the country. They can hop over to the nearby local casino, take a drive to the Indian casino out in the country, or pack up for a junket to the bigtime action in Las Vegas or Atlantic City. 

In Las Vegas, one of the most visible responses to the changing competitive environment is the Great Brick-and-Mortar War. But the battle is expensive and the victories shortlived. The novelty of the latest facade fades as soon as the next one opens. 

Take Tropicana as a case in point. Anchoring one of the two hottest corners in Las Vegas, Tropicana a decade ago was a hotspot, a classy place. Now, surrounded by MGM Grand, Luxor, Excalibur -- plus the planned New York, New York and Monte Carlo -- "The Trop" is still respectable but seems somewhat dowdy by comparison. 

The consumer appetite for novelty is something like an addiction. The craving demands ever larger amounts of the stuff just to maintain the same thrill level. The cost of continually re-inventing oneself to keep up with the demand for novelty gets to be prohibitive. The spiraling escalation of building costs must eventually outrun the fascination customers have for the latest gadgets. Then what do you do? 

A less apparent but perhaps more effective response (in the long run) is the emphasis on customer service found in the more progressive companies like the Rio, Mirage, and MGM Grand. It isn't a new subject; Bill Harrah established his company's reputation on good service, a legacy still carried on at Harrah's. What is new is the manner in which customer service is being instilled into the organizations. Far more than a couple of training sessions on smiling and being friendly, the process requires radical re-engineering, effecting a fundamental change in the culture of the organizations. That means building an atmosphere where superior customer service is a natural way of life, not a matter of special exertion. 

MGM Grand's Lyn Baxter believes it's a matter of focusing on basics in communicating customer service principles to employees. "When they hear 'customer service' at every meeting, they begin to understand and believe." The co-author of Casino Customer Service, Michelle Comeau, calls Baxter "the Architect of the Service Culture." Baxter contends, "We have to pay as much attention to our employees as we do brick-and-mortar. We want to turn employees into a sales force with the energy and desire to please our guests, reinforcing their decision to play with us." What are the "basics"?  "It's the same in T-ball or the big leagues -- keep your eye on the ball, all the way in; never take your eye off the ball. Remember what got you there," says Baxter. To him, customer service is what gets you there and keeps you there. 

MGM Grand applies vertically-integrated service standards, service ratings, and service goals set by the employees themselves and regularly evaluated. In talks with departmental supervisors, employees define "on your worst day, what is the minimum level of service you can provide." That becomes part of their job description and is the very least that is expected of them; more is better and is rewarded to reinforce it. In table games, a pilot program of job-specific performance evaluations are being administered in mini-appraisals quarterly with a full annual review. Customer service attitudes and understanding are a major element of the reviews. 

The results don't show up suddenly or even in a quarter or two. It takes time to build a culture of customer service. It isn't a matter of saying all the right buzzwords about "commitment to customer service" and doing the right training programs and giving out team t-shirts. By themselves, these are empty gestures that are viewed as phony by cynics. They must be part of a total commitment that flows non-stop from the top. It is said by some observers that the staff at Treasure Island and Mirage don't smile any more than anywhere else, but there is just something about "the way it feels" at these casinos that seems better than others. "The way it feels" is a reflection of the strong, clear, unwavering direction from the man at the top. 

Emerging gaming markets present somewhat different obstacles to building a customer service culture. The casinos have little incentive at first to be concerned about customer service. They open the doors, people flood in and leave their money. But then reality sets in. The novelty wears off, other competitors open up, and employees realize it isn't so glamorous working in a casino after all. Business plunges, and the weak die (Mississippi's Gulf Coast and Tunica markets claimed several victims in the last two years). The survivors have a number of strategies, but the one that seems to be common to the most successful ones is a focus on customer service. They say it isn't easy to keep the focus. 

Most of the labor pool grew up in traditional heartland America communities, where the 8-5 workday is standard, with no work on weekends and holidays. Working the graveyard shift on Christmas Day is something totally foreign and generally unacceptable to them. Culture clashes flare when managers and supervisors from mature markets are imported. When they try to use some of the tough tactics that were acceptable in the old-line casinos, there is a backlash of resentment. 

At Casino Magic in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, Casino Manager Joe Bilheimer observed that pit bosses brought in from Las Vegas and Atlantic City tended to be stiff and cold.  He realized it was partly the result of the strict regulatory climate in Nevada and New Jersey, which discourages any interaction between casino employees and guests.  Bilheimer also realized that such aloofness wouldn't work in the friendly, outgoing Gulf Coast area. "People are naturally talkative here. It's considered rude if you don't chat with the customers. We encourage our dealers, all our staff, to make friends with customers, call them by their first names." 

He instituted the "Manager-In-Touch" program which randomly pairs supervisors and managers with customers from Casino Magic's database. The managers must call the customers, identify themselves, and get the customers' feedback on what they like and what they'd like to see improved. "Putting the managers in direct contact with the customers erased the barriers. The pit bosses unfolded their arms and even started to smile," Bilheimer added. 

Joe Canfora, President of Station Casinos Missouri Operations (Kansas City), agrees with Baxter about going back to basics. For Station Casinos, the basics revolve around two big ideas: hiring the right people and making them feel part of the process (they can make a difference). Canfora says the company screens employees with a close-up lens to find the ones who fit the "Station profile," the kind of person with the outlook and temperament who enjoys serving other people. One problem he's run into in this respect is ethnic cultural differences. "Twenty-five percent of our workforce is minority. Many of them look upon service as servitude," Canfora observes. Another challenge is overexpectations. "A salesclerk from Dillard's Department Store thinks casino work is all glamor. She doesn't understand the demands of the profession." 

He uses group interviewing techniques which put applicants into people-interaction situations. Applicants are observed by a panel of Station employees, who note how the applicants respond to the circumstance. Do they take the lead, work as a team, try to contribute? Are they flexible, spirited, upbeat, energetic? At the same time, Canfora says, recruiters go to some pains to encourage applicants to opt out of applying. The point is to paint a realistic picture of what life is really like working in a casino. Some people are better off working on an automobile assembly line. 

Once hired, employees get encouragement to participate at every turn. There are Station-sponsored employee golf tournaments, picnics, and community involvement projects. 

Tribal casinos are, as often as not, in relatively remote places. This creates a unique set of customer service challenges. "We're not across the street from Caesar's," says Randy Takemoto, Chief Operations Officer for Cache Creek Indian Bingo and Casino in Brooks, California, near Sacramento. How do you communicate to employees that customer service is important when there are no other casinos in town? "We have one-on-one talks with them. Managers spend an inordinate amount of time training people.  We have to convince them that there are other entertainment competitors that aren't casinos. We also try to get them to understand that the regulations may change and there could be other casinos across the street." California law only permits full-service gaming in tribal casinos now, but there are rumblings about changing that. Takemoto wants to claim the high ground of customer service long before that happens. 

Like Canfora, Takemoto has also encountered ethnic challenges with regard to customer service. Cache Creek has a large Asian customer base -- more than 50%. He also has a large number of Asian employees. For certain segments of the Asian population, a service job is a demeaning position in life. It is also difficult for females to be accepted in any leadership positions in the male-dominated Asian cultures. "We teach the Golden Rule. We try to lead by example. They have to see it in action on the floor to understand it," says Takemoto in describing how the customer service message is sold in to employees at Cache Creek. He emphasizes keeping employees informed, answering any questions they have. "The more they can know about our business, the better it is for our business," he says. 

Visionaries in the gaming industry say superior customer service is the ticket to continued success in casinos now and into the future. Even though there are barriers to getting there, more and more casino executives are becoming convinced they must try. 

"We're all tourists at some time or another," says MGM Grand's Baxter. "We all know what it feels like to be treated well...and what it's like to be treated badly. We use the '1 Minute More' philosophy. If we treat guests well enough for them to stay one minute longer than they would have otherwise, it amounts to millions of dollars a year more in revenue."

10 Building Blocks for a Customer-Focused Culture

(This article appeared in the July 1996 issue.)