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.”