The Perspective 
Tuesday, 23 September 2008
Although I'll never be selected to get anywhere near the U.S. Ryder Cup Team, I do love the game of golf. In fact, I recently had the opportunity to enjoy it at Torrey Pines in San Diego, Calif., as I strolled up and down the dunes and watched the play at the USGA's 2008 U.S. Open.
This is where I found myself this past June.
When some very generous friends from the Digital Signage Association invited me to join them to see how the pros swing (thanks Ed Hovsepian of Visual Incite!), I couldn’t resist stealing some time away from the office. Besides, it would give me a chance to visit with two of my favorite San Diegonians: Sylvia and Peter Berens, co-founders of Apunix.
Sylvia Berens (pictured right) shows off an Apunix deli-ordering kiosk with an Apunix executive employee.
If you're an association member and you've never heard Sylvia's name mentioned, you probably haven't been an association member for very long. She was there when we started the Self-Service & Kiosk Association at Bay Hill in Orlando back in 2001. Sylvia is practically a matriarch of the self-service industry, and has been an SSKA board and executive committee member for all these years. I can't count the number of times Sylvia has piped in to contribute valuable insight to our association meetings, and we've only benefited from her pearls of wisdom.
So it was a no-brainer for me to swing by Apunix while I was in the neighborhood.
I have to say, the first thing I discovered was that there's much more to Sylvia than entrepreneurship, software and revenue projections. In fact her company (co-founded with husband, Peter) is no longer her most precious commodity. For that distinction, you have to look to the three rambunctious bundles of joy that light up her home: daughters Malika, 15; Madina, 12; and Zarina, 9.
Sylvia and Peter travelled all the way to Kazakhstan to adopt these precious youngsters — children who didn't know a word of English. Today, they speak it fluently. They're going through all the wonderful experiences that kids their age should — making new friends, enjoying sports and excelling in school. When I met with Sylvia, she was coordinating a last-day-of-school party to catapult the kids into summer vacation. Not exactly what you'd expect from a hard-nosed capitalist, but in the Berens family, kids come before dollar signs.
Sylvia was kind enough to give me the grand tour of the Apunix facility — and it's very professional! Located in the northern suburbs of San Diego, the series of offices practically buzzes with quiet activity from its workforce of 20 employees working on some of the most interesting self-service applications around.
There's a lot going on at Apunix. One of the most interesting projects they've been involved with is the creation of a customized, made-from-scratch software platform for Sun Microsystems' visitor check-in kiosks. That platform — which does not run on the Windows operating system — makes use of Linux and Sun's Java solution and was created using a toolkit Apunix developed for the self-service industry. It's a totally unique system, and we covered it extensively on Self-Service World. Click here to read more about it. When I think back on my IBM days, I recognize just how difficult it is to build something like that from the ground up. Peter and Sylvia have reason to take pride in their work.
Another thing that struck me was the sheer breadth of self-service options they have. Sylvia showed me kiosks of all shapes and sizes, from a $500 handset used to place food orders, to hefty play-and-win kiosks destined for casino game rooms. If anyone ever thought the self-service industry was slowing down, one visit to Apunix would blow those misconceptions away.
Ever the good steward, Sylvia is even getting into the environmental protection business. In conjunction with UC Davis, Apunix has developed touchscreen kiosks that show users how to take care of home and garden pests — prairie dogs, ground squirrels, groundhogs and the like — in an environmentally-friendly manner. They're already appearing in county offices, county fairs and Home Depots in the area.
I left Apunix confident in the company's leadership position and in the self-service industry as a whole. What a privilege it is to be working with innovators like Sylvia and Peter Berens. Thank you both for the direction you've given the association thus far – and here's to many more years of collaboration in the future.
Now if only I could find someone to help me with my putting!
Posted by: Dick Good AT 12:00 pm   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  
Monday, 20 August 2007
Self-service. The term carries a connotation of sterile efficiency, of buying a product or service with little or no human interaction. Unfortunately, with self-service, customer service sometimes gets left out of the equation.
But gaming giant Harrah’s Entertainment Inc. has found that self-service actually is helping it improve customer service.
When the Las Vegas-based casino operator first ventured into self-service technology in the 1990s, the company had its eye on reducing labor costs. The company introduced ticket-based slot machines, where winnings were dispensed by way of a printed ticket rather than a stream of quarters.
When players were ready to cash out, they simply walked up to a payment kiosk, inserted their ticket, and walked away with their winnings.
“We didn’t need as many people to run around and fill machine with coins and so forth, and when we put the kiosks in, there was less of a need for cage cashiers because most of that became self-service,” said Tim Stanley, Harrah’s chief information officer. “The tradeoff was that the floor became very vacant of employees because you didn’t need all those transactional people, and it became a bit boring.”
Harrah’s invested some of the savings it gained through the new technology and created a new position in the operation, that of customer service ambassador.
“Even though we had a lot more people on the floor before self-service, they weren’t actually being friendly and talking to the customer; they were just trying to get through the transaction,” Stanley said. “We were able to create a warmer and more engaging environment, and we ended up getting better customer service and satisfaction scores as a result.”
Slots drive self-service
Harrah’s Entertainment is the largest gaming company in the world, with more than 80,000 employees and, in 2006, revenue of about $7.1 billion. The company, which merged with rival Caesars Entertainment in 2005, operates more than 40 casinos around the world, along with an assortment of hotels and golf courses.
Slot machines, long recognized as one of the most profitable areas of a casino operation, became an early target for self-service technology at Harrah’s.
“Everything around the slot experience lends itself [to self-service] and is desirable because there are a lot of them. It is a fairly interactive activity and the guests are kind of on their own and spread out,” Stanley said. “We continue to try to allow the customer to do more with self-service, whether it is ticketing, ticket redemption kiosks, bonusing or downloadable credits.”
Much of Harrah’s work in the self-service arena revolves around Total Rewards, the company’s card-based loyalty program. Harrah’s, which first introduced the program in 1997, was the first company in the industry to adopt a loyalty program.
Customers receive Total Rewards credit for the type of game they play, the average bet and length of play. Credits are then redeemable for everything from free meals at the buffet to complementary rooms and free airfare to visit a Harrah’s property.
“We were an early adopter of kiosks in the late 1990s when we first rolled out Total Gold, which eventually became Total Rewards,” Stanley said. “You would use the Total Gold card where you play, then go to a kiosk and put your card in and see the points you earned, and it would print out a coupon or a receipt that you would then be able to use at the restaurant or elsewhere in the casino.”
A bright future
Over time, many of those reward functions moved to the game itself, Stanley said. Guests now can view their Total Rewards information on the slot machine display.
The printed ticket also is falling by the wayside, Stanley said. Restaurants and shops on the casino property now have card readers so guests can swipe their cards directly.
“We’ve now taken those kiosks out for that purpose, but they are making their way back in for other reasons.” Stanley said. “We’ve begun using kiosk and self-service technology for restaurants, particularly the high-volume restaurants — buffets and the like.”
In May, the company began deploying Microsoft Surface computers in its Las Vegas properties. Initially, the coffee table-shaped computers will be used to guide guests around various Harrah’s properties, but Stanley already is planning a host of other applications for the machines.
Anything that keeps the guest from doing what they really came there to do has become a target for self-service, he said.
“We are enabling interactive displays on the games themselves, and through that you can do some basic stuff such as check your reward-card balance and the like,” he said.
“We are also adding features enabling you to request a beverage, ask for help, listen to music, watch TV, all sorts of interesting stuff, and the technology remembers your favorites and makes them available to you at whatever slot you happen to be at,” he said. “That is the evolution of where we are going now.”
Posted by: Richard Slawsky AT 12:13 pm   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  
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