John Acres

John Acres has been in gaming for four decades, witnessing great change and progress – but not all of it forward. John spoke to Casino International about his brilliant ideas regarding automation and customer service, and his experiences in our industry.

Casino International: I’ve always thought Vegas does service very, very well – as does America overall, generally. It’s a nice cultural transplant that can happen when other countries look to Vegas for regulatory guidelines, they adopt a similar level of service but with their own cultural twist. I know you’re passionate about customer service levels and about empowering staff with information that can enhance the end user experience.
John Acres: We’ve developed a product we call Kai; in the early stages, we had it installed in one casino and in the first six weeks it did really well. The staff feedback was great because they could satisfy the customer’s needs before the customer got upset, for example. But the issue is to automate processes in a way that does not leave the customer feeling unappreciated. If we just do automation we can ruin the entire experience for that player. Part of the experience is feeling that you have personal value, it’s someone knowing your name, getting affirmation of yourself, getting great service. We want to make sure we provide automation that helps assist in the economical delivery of that feeling, and not replace it with a computer transaction.

CI: Would you agree that streamlining and the resultant cost savings which are at the expense of human interaction are perhaps not always a good thing for the casino, or the community it exists within?
JA: When we look at that, the jobs we provide have to be sustainable; if a competitive environment can provide it for less that job probably has to be changed. But what I see happening is that if we can automate some of the sub-functions… For example, here in the US, handling a hand-pay jackpot requires an immense amount of organisation and paperwork; if we can streamline that, and if the casino is smart and takes those people and instead of getting rid of them, redeploy them to help make the customer even more welcome and increase their level of hospitality, we can provide a much more welcoming environment for the same price.
A whole new level of service can be established that has never been affordable before.

CI: …And the staff feel more valuable as well, if they are the customer-facing employees.
JA: Absolutely, that’s a great point, a really powerful point; we often forget that our staff are people as well, and that they need the same affirmation and gratification as our customers need. We load them up with paperwork and so many ways to get something wrong, pretty soon they start to feel overwhelmed and no longer put all their effort into the job. That’s just a shame for everybody, and nobody wins. But if we can help them and make it so that instead of being required to remember a whole bunch of things they are guided through the process, everybody comes out ahead. In fact, on our automation product, Kai, we see that as potentially providing employee rewards for good service. The automation of sending employees to customer problems is good in that technically we can measure how efficient each employee is, but that’s bad if we just leave it there. Instead, we make each employee’s shift into a game, a competition, so that from the moment they log in for their shift they are accumulating points, they’re aiming for a personal best, trying to achieve a certain level of service… At the end of their shift or at their break they can take those points and play games just like customers play, but instead of winning cash they might win Friday afternoon off, a better parking space, things like that.
Our business is about providing motivations for human beings to take an action that is enjoyable for them and profitable for us. Paying-customer or employee, if we can motivate them to take those actions and feel good about it, we all come out ahead. Where we have got it wrong in the past is that automation has made processes cold and inhuman, where the human serves the computer; technology is far enough along now that we can flip that around, and the computer is there to assist the human, to make things easier, more enjoyable, more gratifying. If we can get there, I think we have an opportunity to truly revolutionise how things work.

CI: Do you think a lot of local perception of a casino in a community is down to how much the casino engages with the community and works to be a part of it?
JA: We see that casinos that are involved in the community and that demonstrate that money lost is not all for profit, or personal gain, that helps with that affirmation.
When I look at how we used to treat customers in the old days, it was always an adversarial relationship – you’re the customer, I want your money, you want to win my money, let’s go to war – and really it is not that and it has never been about winning money. If it was, no customer would ever return because typically they are going to leave with less than they arrived with; or won’t win that much. We’re selling that entertainment experience, and there’s a fee for it; as long as we provide that service, the customer will return. And if we price our product to fit within each person’s budget so people are not encouraged to overspend.
When I was starting Acres Gaming I had done some work with Steve Wynn before and went to speak with him. I said “Okay, here’s the way I see the gaming industry: you grab the customer by the ankles, shake all the money out of their pockets and toss them back out on the street.” Steve laughed and said, “You know, I hate to admit, but probably in the 70s that’s what we did because we didn’t have to worry too much. But now, I have to treat my customers like renewable resources.” He had just built the Mirage, a groundbreaking property in the late 80s-early 90s. He said, “I want customers to come in to my property, to have a nice room to stay in, to spend time out by the pool, to enjoy a great dinner, to gamble. I want them to leave my casino with money in their pocket, so they have not exceeded their budget, and I want them to drive away thinking about how soon they can come again. If I can have that, I have a successful business; if I take too much money from my customers on any visit, they’re not coming back.”
That perspective, which is selfish in a way, of looking at customers as a renewable resource, is the right way.

CI: What are you working on at the moment aside from Kai?
JA: We’ve been working for several years to create a technology base so we don’t have much on the market right now but that will change very, very soon. We begin with the precept that to entertain a customer properly, the experience needs to be personalised: the experience you seek is different from what the next customer in line wants. Everyone has a difference in budget, in desire for the kind of games they want to play, and levels of interactivity. So what we really want to do is to understand each person as an individual, and to shape that experience accordingly. We believe that begins with a game. If you walk in to a casino today in the US, you walk in and you see a big room full of thousands of machines. The casino’s marketing is designed to drive you to the front door. What do you do next? You look out at the ocean of bright lights and bill acceptors, how do you decide where to play? When you start with that kind of mentality, you realise that we leave a lot of people cold. In the US, 75% of adults do not visit a casino in a 12-month period; of the 25% that do, a third of them go into the casino and never gamble. We believe this is because they are overwhelmed; they’re there to have dinner with a friend, they look at the gaming floor, and either they think it’s a lousy deal, they don’t think it’s going to be fun or they don’t know what to do. So we look at how to overcome that problem, how to drive someone from the front door to a particular game.
And there we have a problem, because all of these different games are designed with different math models, denominations, symbols and such, and we have slot managers who very carefully choose the mix on their floor to appeal to the broadest range of people possible. But we don’t give these potential players any clue as to which game might be right for them, we just leave them to figure it out. One manager told me “All my players figure it out eventually”. I said, “Yes, all your players figured it out – but your non-players didn’t!” There’s an ocean of people that didn’t figure it out and won’t come back, and if we want to grow we have to appeal to them. So we started working a couple of years ago on how we would match people up with their games. We tried all kinds of ideas – and realised we were heading down the wrong track. The answer is to change the game according to the person sitting in front of it. Because we have player tracking and it is fairly prevalent  now, when you insert your card or make yourself known to that game, we should be able to look up your personality, and to adapt the volatility and type of game to your experience level, your wallet, and your psychographic profile. That’s what we have been working on for all this time – how to make the game change to match the player.
We took the idea to the big manufacturers and were told, “Great idea but not now.” Since we couldn’t get much traction, we went off and started to look at building our own games. At the time the iPad had just come along and we saw we could develop a new kind of experience that was far easier to develop than the traditional games and far, far more flexible if we have every game exist in the server somewhere, and we have the player information in that same server – so we can use one to influence the other. Even though you pick as a player a certain game theme, I can then alter that game’s math model according to what I think you will like; I can learn as you play what you like and do not like, and record those desires; I can take your psychographic profile of my known players and make a prediction of what you will enjoy or not enjoy, and I can make those modifications in the game. That’s where we’re heading, toward a dynamic game environment that adapts to you and not just in one game, but across the casino floor. Right now games have no memory of where you have been, but we believe we can tailor your entire playing experience, for that evening, and adjust it as you go along so you have a really gratifying experience.
Let’s say you come in with $100; when you first walk in you’re probably going to be a much more aggressive gambler and play with a higher volatility. But if an hour in to your night, you’re down to $20 and you had planned to be there for three or four hours, your appetite just changed and we need to help you make that $20 last and even earn some back.