AN ANCIENT ART OF CUSTOMER SERVICE: THE UNCOMMON COMMON SENSE

By Vahe Baloulian, CGI

It seems so logical – don’t fix something that's not broken.
Unfortunately, not everyone can resist the temptation and one day, many years ago, I received a phone call. It was regarding the customer service department at what was at that time the world’s largest online gaming company. A newly minted MBA graduate was flown in by our company to one of the customer service centers we ran. His task was to see if there was anything that could be done to improve what was at that time widely regarded as the best customer service operation in the industry.

He came up with some ‘sophisticated’ suggestions from the books he had read, but the most important discovery that he made was that we treated all players equally, whether they played with real money or just practice chips. This had to be cured immediately, he said. Since we had already been providing superior service, the brilliant solution offered was to treat those playing with practice chips worse than those contributing to the bottom line with hard cash. Common sense, one might say. However, after contemplating this exercise, the most unanticipated for him and expected by us outcome was that there were no costs to be cut as we would still need the same number of service personnel on every shift to serve our real money players.

The problem with common sense, as Voltaire taught, is that it is not very common. This MBA graduate was trained to sell products in the retail world and he was convinced that there was no difference between gambling and, let’s say, shoes. The predicament with his thinking and attempted restructuring of the way we handled players’ concerns was that we knew otherwise, and not from books but from experience - gamblers are a different breed. The same person buying retail turns into a totally different person when buying gambling entertainment, especially when it is offered online.
Online gaming is not a very old industry and obviously in those days, it was even younger. Most  owners and executives didn’t boast scientific or management degrees beyond bachelors or just high school diplomas. When it came to the degreed outsiders, there was this peculiar combination of arrogance (I don’t need a degree to run this company) and fascination (this MBA chap may actually know something that I don’t since he paid so much for his education).

My experience, yet to be proven wrong, is that no academic degree can cure the lack of common sense and the abundance of overconfidence.

Over the years of working with online gamblers, I learned some basic concepts and rules. Although I don’t think that any of these are unique, I came to learn most of them while communicating with the people we served.

One of the main principles that I've adopted in providing customer service to players comes from Aristotle. "Think as the wise men do, but speak as the common people do." This one has never failed me. Take a look at the many pieces of communication delivered by service personnel to their customers in any industry. The language is convoluted and the substance, if there is one, uninformed. That’s the exact opposite of what Aristotle was arguing for.

Before serving someone, we have to learn who that someone is. Is he the bottom-line guy who would come in and say “Here is what’s wrong, let’s solve it”? Is he the big-picture person who is not easily satisfied even with the best of solutions unless you tell him why things work that way? Is he the gentle-soul ready to apologize for disturbing you and needing you to go slow with him and make him feel comfortable? Is he the numbers-and-facts fellow who just needs hard data?

How does one deal with these people? There are many ‘firsts’ in customer service and it is hard to say what’s more important when working with players and what’s not. For starters, finding commonalities is essential. Players are fond of people who are similar to them, and players believe and trust people they are fond of. To come across someone whose job is to take care of your concerns and find out that he or she is so similar to you is unexpectedly satisfying. We live in such a small world nowadays that finding commonalities (without faking them) should not be hard thing to do for any customer service person.

Showing concern and compassion is another important skill that should be used generously. Players will hear your words and will trust you if they feel your concern about them. Gaining this trust is very critical if you want them to accept your solution to their problems, especially if it is not a completely agreeable one.

To be credible, you must demonstrate that you are acting in good faith and to the best of your knowledge and ability. Players may forgive you for poor judgment, but hardly ever for poor intentions. Demonstrating good intentions while trying to resolve their problems works great when assisted by undivided attention. Making notes of seemingly unimportant facts from a player’s story and repeating them later will show that your mind was not wondering around while they were pouring their hearts out. One of the most annoying service issues for me is the disconnect that occurs between a company’s message and its employees’ performance. To be credible, our words have to match our policies, our welcome message, our ‘customer is god’ story that we've spent so much money and effort selling.

Demonstrating competence does not equal looking down on your players. Players trust experts and accept your solutions if they have faith in your competence. Just make sure to avoid arrogance when sharing your expertise. Be careful when making assumptions to cover for lack of information. Always be ready to provide the source of your information or reason for your conclusions, regardless of their importance. What’s not important to you or seems self-evident may leave your players in total bewilderment. Providing correct and full details builds credibility for all of the information and conclusions coming from you. If you don’t know something - admit it. It’s OK. Honesty may not always work in customer service but in this case it does. Players will push when they smell a bluff. Nothing makes your customers believe what you do know like admitting what you don’t.

To be useful and avoid misleading your customers, make certain to stay current. Outdated information becomes incorrect and leads to misunderstandings and loss of trust. Double-check when in doubt. It’s always better to provide correct information with a little delay than to provide wrong details promptly.

You may be very experienced and know your ‘subject’ inside-out but do not allow your familiarity to make you careless in describing it. Vagueness and uncertainty sneak in when we least expect it. Meanings depend on context, tone, timing, personal experience, and reference points. Be clear to avoid unintentional ambiguity. Unless warranted, avoid intentionally nonsensical explanations with convoluted details or irrelevant facts that aim to obscure rather than enlighten. Be clear and don’t pretend to communicate when you are not actually doing it. Not only will you ‘succeed’ in shirking your responsibilities, you may end up losing the player for good.

Even when you are itching to make a long-lasting impression on your customer - avoid exaggeration. It may make a great show but may also destroy your credibility. In your personal life you can take that chance, but with customers, particularly online customers, you are the company. There is no way around it.

Your credibility will also be at risk if you reject criticisms and objections without evaluating them. Show your customers that you are a reflective rather than a reactive thinker. You can always reject their negative comments but doing so after having given them due consideration will carry more weight. Managing to find something in their comments that you can agree with, however insignificant, is even better. Any objection that starts with “I agree with you” has a much better chance of being accepted.

Unless it is absolutely true, do not deny your responsibility. Always accept responsibility for decisions, actions, and results where you have or had some control. Sometimes even take responsibility for the actions of others. This often changes a player’s attitude from offensive to apologetic.

In order to believe you, the players take a risk. If they risk trust, they want to know that you share their risk: the risk of being honest; the risk of exposing your own weaknesses and shortcomings; the risk of telling things that can be used against you; etc. Taking risk by being transparent inspires players to risk taking you at face value. It’s a two way street.

In some cultures people just can’t accept that they don’t know all the answers and they will give you the answer to the question they know and not the question you asked. Avoid this classic mistake of answering the question you wanted the player to ask. If you don’t understand the question, request that they elaborate. In any case, always answer the question your player is actually asking.

Before you speak, make sure what you are about to say doesn’t contain words or expressions that imply your superiority to the player. That immediate but momentary satisfaction from placing your customer a few levels below you will pass very quickly but the respect you were expecting to get will never materialize.

To avoid awkward situations be meticulous when assessing the knowledge and experiences of others. If you assume that players are more knowledgeable than they really are, they may misunderstand your message, give up on trying to understand your explanations, and become frustrated or angry because they think you are posturing.

On the other hand, if you assume that members know less than they actually do, you may insult their intelligence, bore them, or waste their time with already-known information. To meet them exactly at their knowledge and interest level, I ask myself certain questions. What is their primary interest in this situation, event, issue, etc? How much do they already know and from what likely source and perspective have they received this information? How will they use this information for themselves? Why would they want to know this? What reaction will they have to the subject – skepticism, embarrassment, doubt, defensiveness, support? Finding correct answers to these questions will save you from apologizing later on.

You can find many answers and solutions by being interested in your players, not just being interesting for them. Interesting people amuse and entertain us. Interested people win us, create magnetism and we tend to stick to them. For players, nothing is as flattering as a show of your personal interest in their relationship with the casino or cardroom, their background, their experience and views. Soften down to get your interest through. Softening communicates openness. Soften your voice, soften your tone, and soften your smile.

Allow players to get to know you as well. Members feel loyal to you only when you are willing to let them learn more about you. They can’t like and trust someone they do not know. During conversation, put in a word or two from your relevant experiences. Disclose your emotions too but do it sensibly.

Often after a few successful cases assisting the players, we forget that we are not doing them a favor by helping. They are doing us a favor by allowing us, and not our competitors, to help them. Don’t make the player feel stupid. Superior, arrogant manner drives them argue with you, even if they are in agreement with you. This is the best case scenario. The worst case – they simply leave.

It is hard to accept but sometimes when dealing with gamblers being logical may be very ineffective. Your communication with the player involves emotions as well as intellect. Emotional arguments may prove very effective where logic has failed to persuade. An emotional appeal to player’s self-interest may deliver more conceding attitude from him than a logical explanation of fairness to all concerned. The English novelist Samuel Butler said, “No mistake is more common and more fatuous than appealing to logic in cases which are beyond her jurisdiction.” He knew something we often forget.

Although the adage “the end justifies the means” is often used in a negative way, I learned that one of the best ways to serve the customer in distress is to visualize the end, and then create the means.

Take a quick moment to decide what reaction you want from the player and then think how to structure your answer to get that reaction. If you want the player to be emotional about the decision, choose anecdotes and stories to bring him to action. Use the notes you made during your contacts with him to bring about the emotional response. If you want them to come to a logical conclusion, choose facts and reason to deliver your message.

An often neglected aspect of customer service is the between-the-lines messages. They come from the context, the relationship, the timing, the purpose, and the player’s personality. Use a lot of common sense when dealing with these messages. In some cases you can hide behind your words to avoid hearing the real message. In others, you do need to respond according to the player’s tone and subliminal point delivered with his or her words. In both cases be aware of true meaning of the message received.

You may also send these between-the-lines messages with your answers, whether you realize that or not. Use your awareness both to employ and to avoid them, depending on the situation.

I have witnessed situations, seldom as they may be, where the employee intended to give support gets carried away moralizing. In the casino business, this is one of the worst things you can do. You are not here to teach players how to live. You are here to make their gaming experience comfortable and fun.

In one of these situations, a player simply kept silent and the support person failed to hear his silence as it was intended. When your message, statement, or answer is met with silence, it can have several meanings. The player may be reflecting on what you said; in complete agreement with you; mistakenly thinking he understands what you said; too angry to speak; confused, but doesn’t want to sound ignorant by asking another question; in a state of shock; feeling too powerless to respond. It’s up to you to probe for the meaning of the silence.

Last but not least - do not ignore your ‘gut feeling.’ Before taking any action consider all implications and consult your ‘gut feeling.’ Do you have a racing heart, sweaty palms, knots in the stomach, etc? Your body is telling you to look behind the words.

Customer service is an art, just like every other functionality in your gambling establishment – but only if you do it right. It’s not a simple task. I often compare it to raising a child. Every one of your actions with a child places a stamp on your relationship, defining your happiness and success. Be as considerate with your customers as you are with children.