The Customer Experience

What the heck is it?

Have you noticed over the past five years or so that it has become increasingly fashionable among casino executives to talk about the “customer experience?” Several gaming companies have included the term in their mission statements. Yet, when you probe most executives on what they specifically mean by “experience,” chances are, you will get a vacuous response.
If gaming companies are serious about providing the customer with the right “experience,” they’d better be sure of what they are talking about.
All this talk about customer experience was triggered by the influential book The Experience Economy: Work is Theatre and Every Business a Stage, published in 1999, and co-authored by Joseph Pine and Jim Gilmore. The authors engaged in very savvy marketing of their book and are now regarded as among the premier thought leaders in business.
With the kind of hype this book has generated, one would expect these experience gurus to shed light on the phenomenon that they discuss. The most they do, however, is to differentiate experiences from commodities, goods and services: While commodities are fungible, goods tangible, and services intangible, experiences are memorable.
Well, I had my wallet stolen at a casino in Macau, and it certainly made for a memorable experience, but I don’t think the casino would pride itself in providing its patrons with this kind of memorable experience.
Lack of definition notwithstanding, marketers of every conceivable ilk have jumped on to the experience bandwagon. From the Forum Shops at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas to Weljekset Keskinen (the Village Shops) in the 500-inhabitant town of Tuuri in Finland, stores are now routinely practicing one-upmanship in inducing more store visits by making shopping fun and entertaining.
Mark Rivers of the Mills Corporation, a company known for designing shopping malls embedded with all kinds of experiences, attests, “The buzzword is experience. People don’t just want to be entertained. They want to participate. Creating experiences is a good way to connect with consumers.”
So what exactly is an experience, and how does it play out in the context of gaming? Answering this question requires delimiting of the term “experience.” We will need to separate commercial experiences from most other kinds of experiences (such as the experience of love, of abandonment, of self-realization, and the like). Next, we need a precise definition of what constitutes a commercial experience.
While examples in this category readily come to mind (a trip to Disneyland, a Broadway show, a helicopter ride over the Grand Canyon, and yes, a flutter at the casino), defining the commercial experience is a bit of a challenge. In 2004, my colleague Susanne Poulsson and I offered this definition: “an engaging act of co-creation between a provider and a consumer wherein the consumer perceives value in the encounter and in the subsequent memory of that encounter.”
Having teased out the concept, we next began to uncover the ingredients of a desired commercial experience. Our research suggests that for an experience to be positively memorable from a customer’s point of view, it needs to offer one or more of the following-personal relevance, novelty, surprise, learning and engagement. With this list in hand, casino management comes a step closer to conceptualizing the ideal gaming experience. But this is just the beginning.
It is the customer who will have the experience, and if the experience is judged as thrilling or engaging, he or she will experience delight, not just satisfaction with the visit. Also recall that when it comes to commercial experiences, the customer is not a passive bystander but a co-creator of experiences. Obviously, it makes little sense to decide on the experience the casino operator wishes to provide without carefully considering consumers of the experience.
Young, hip visitors may consider a visit to the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas to be an engaging experience, whereas middle-aged patrons serious about gaming may consider many of the experiential attributes as distracting, if not forbidding.
You simply cannot talk about the customer experience unless you pointedly define the customer you want to target. Station Casinos and Harrah’s have followed this edict for quite some time and have experienced significant bottom-line success as a result.
Having identified the prime consumer of the gaming experience, ongoing research is required to monitor what precisely this consumer is seeking from the experience. The wants of the target segment need to be uncovered and categorized, and this information should be used as the starting point for designing compelling experiences.
Experiences need to be constantly tweaked because people’s wants evolve and change over time; competitive offerings can and do change rapidly as well. It is therefore vital that captains of the entertainment industry (gambling included) continue to monitor the pulse of their target market and alter their offerings accordingly.
And remember, every experience you offer your guests is a performance. Your employees are the actors and stars in this performance. You want to make sure that the actors understand and buy into the script. They are the ones who breathe life into the experience, and transform the consumer into becoming a co-creator. Their engagement is pivotal to delivering a memorable experience.

Sudhir H. Kale, Ph.D., is the founder and CEO of GamePlan Consultants, a full-service marketing consultancy that offers high-value training and consulting on the marketing and customer service aspects of casinos. He is also professor of marketing at Bond University in Australia. For more information, visit his website, www.gameplanconsultants.com, or e-mail him at skale@gameplanconsultants.com.

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