Some Wisdom from Casino Veteran

Readers of my blog have become accustomed to hearing me go on and on about the many ways they can improve the performance of their properties.  My ideas have ranged from such simple things as smiling more for guests to the complex notion of having a vision of how a casino should operate five years from now.  I’ve even written about the new and exciting concept of casino guest and employee advocacy.


I realized recently it’s one thing to hear all this from me and an entirely different matter to hear it from a real casino insider, someone who has been in the trenches.  I asked Jim McKennon, a 20-year veteran of the gaming industry, to help me out because I know he understands why it’s important to always looks for ways to improve.  I also know he realizes that change, improvement and new ideas can be challenging.  Jim’s career has spanned Westin Hotels, Caesars World, the new Aladdin and other associated gaming operations, including the Internet, mostly at the president or CEO level.


I asked Jim a series of questions and here are his answers.  As you read, I know you will realize you are not alone in your struggles to make your casino stand out in a very competitive industry.


MB:  Casino executives are expected to provide the “vision” for their casino but many of them have difficulty selling it down to managers and front-line employees.  Why?


JM:  The challenge with organizational commitment to a vision is just that – it’s a vision, an intangible, a concept.  The challenge of the management staff is to bring life to the vision through personal commitment.  They must be consistent and persistent with the vision regardless of near-tem consequences and pitfalls.  Too many times, circumstances overwhelm the management team and the essence of the vision is compromised, neglected or relegated to one of convenience.  Finally, the vision must be reasonable and make sense to everyone as something worth the organizational commitment.  Rewarding behavior for individual success in implementing the vision will help incorporate it into the company culture.


MB:  Embracing a new vision often means accepting change.  Why do casino teams find change so difficult?


JM:  I think there are a few reasons why change challenges casinos.  One is that the casino business, as a whole, is tightly regulated and, in large part, procedural and rules driven.  Many activities of a gaming operation must follow approved procedures and policies without deviation and that permeates the culture of the organization.  The second reason is that change takes effort.  It adds to the burden of a hard-working staff. Employees need to recognize the value of a new vision, to know that it’s not a “whim du jour” someone thought up as the new hot issue.  They need to understand it will bring strength and success to the organization in the long term.  Effectively communicating to the staff the value of the change to the broader organization, to their department, to their customers and, finally, to them personally is of the essence.  A great vision should ultimately mean greater success, increased market share, improved revenues and profits, greater employment opportunities, improved gratuities and so on.  Organizations can and will change if given good a reason to do so.  But be sure you never make your organization change weary.


MB:  One thing casinos might want to change is their reliance on satisfaction surveys.  I’ve seen research that says there is no correlation between customer satisfaction and the growth of any business, yet casinos spend considerable sums on guest and employee satisfaction surveys.  Do you believe that is a wise use of their money?


JM:  Surveys, as in all management tools, are only as effective as the effort put forth by the organization to use the information to solve an issue or problem.  After all, customer and employee satisfaction surveys are a snapshot in time providing some insight as to how well you are doing.  Satisfied customers and employees are born from the commitment of the organization to develop and train its staff, to adhere to sound human resource practices and to treat each employee with dignity and respect.  Each of our staff members is a measure of the culture of the company.  Positive, upbeat organizations looking to the success of everyone within the company need only survey to see how well they are succeeding.  Great employees guarantee great customer satisfaction.


MB:  One way to improve a casino’s performance is to create employee advocates who spread positive word about the property of their own free will.  As an executive, how did you go about turning your employees into advocates for your casino?


JM:  The key to an advocacy program is finding a few rallying points that are relevant, pertinent and inspire people’s support.  Communicating those points through easy-to-understand language, promotions, communications, etc., is critical.  Be sure your entire management team has bought into supporting the effort.  The easy part is finding employees within your organization who are evangelists for the company.  Give those formal and informal leaders the time and tools necessary to let them do their thing.  Support their actions and you will see amazing things happen.  Before you know it, the evangelists have enlisted an army of advocates!  Remember your customers in the process.  I have found that the gaming industry’s customers are the most involved in helping us succeed.  Help them help you accomplish your goals.  They are willing enlistees.


MB:  Turning both employees and guests into advocates involves making internal improvements.  Do most casino executives see improvement as an investment or an expense?


JM:  When a company invests its capital for an expansion or renovation, it does so with the expectation that the investment will have a positive impact on the future financial viability of the company.  This holds true with investing in your staff.  Look to your staff as the most important asset entrusted to the company.  The caring and nurturing of your staff should be of paramount concern. Incorporating training, development, promotions and rewards programs into the company culture will enhance employee satisfaction.  Companies that invest in their staffs may find that kind of return far better than the return on hard assets.  Those companies that look at employee investment as only an expense will find hiring and retaining good employees difficult, if not impossible, and they will suffer the consequences of high employee turnover and poor customer service.


MB:  Vision, improvement, advocacy – these represent a high level of performance.  Will the increased gaming competition of today be the end of casinos that don’t deliver such a superior gaming experience for guests?


JM:  I don’t know if I would foretell the end of those whose customer and employee satisfaction is not a cornerstone of their culture. What I do believe to be the case – and I have seen examples time after time – is that great service equates to improved market share and better revenues and profitability when compared to those within one’s competitive set.  Those companies that pride themselves on staff development and service training will succeed at a greater rate than those that do not embrace these philosophies.  Ultimately, our customers are the harbinger of our success and they can and will vote with their feet.


Martin R. Baird
Robinson & Associates, Inc.