A colleague called me the other day. He was frustrated. He was consulting on marketing issues for two particular casinos – one small operation, the other new and large but with principals inexperienced in gaming.

I listened while my colleague complained about clients that didn’t “get it,” who took his high-priced marketing advice and did nothing with it; or worse, did exactly the opposite. Finally, in a fit of exasperation and totally unexpectedly he threw me The Question.

“If you could tell a client to do one single thing that would make the biggest difference in the casino’s marketing and operations performance,” he asked, “what would it be?”

I like to get these big picture difference-making challenges thrown at me, but still I was taken aback. I stalled for time. “Gee, that really depends on the individual circumstances of the casino,” I lied. But as the enormity of the question began to sink in and a hundred different marketing thoughts raced through my mind, I knew I could do better. And my colleague really just wanted a professional opinion, not an ultimate, unassailable truth soaked in blood.

I thought about the power of a casino’s database and the business development upside if the information in it could be manipulated and understood to its fullest. Important, yes; but single most important? My gut wasn’t buying it.

Then I flashed on the value of great casino customer service. Certainly that is a critical component of a successful casino and instrumental in building player loyalty. I almost blurted out “Service!” to my colleague, but something held me back. Maybe it was knowing how difficult that is for a casino to achieve, and how undifferentiated most casino customer service currently is.

I considered telling my associate that having a great, value-adding players club was the single most important difference maker. And then I thought about what most players clubs have become – expensive entitlements that have lost much of their power to motivate players and speak less and less to what players really want, which is more time in action.

I considered “casino promotions.” Now, they have their place, but there’s too much fluff for too little bang. Perhaps it was “casino branding.” Important, but a little fuzzy to me – plus a great brand must necessarily focus on the “one great thing” my associate was looking for.

Yes, my mind raced through everything I thought was important to the success of a casino: a great facility; desirable amenities; a killer food product; the most popular slot games; being a great corporate citizen; having an enlightened management team; being easy to do business with… my god, so many possibilities. Was it even possible to answer my associate’s question?

And then it was suddenly clear. After all of this wild pondering and off the cuff culling of my decades of experience as a casino customer, frontline employee, mid-level manager, senior executive and industry observer – it hit me. And I answered my associate immediately.

“I think that the biggest difference maker for a casino is getting everyone on the same page – who they are, what they stand for with their customers, what defines success and how that gets measured – you know, everyone having shared goals,” I said. “You know, I have seen many casinos that could do database management well. Many that had good customer service. Many that could execute killer promotions. Some that could execute a pretty good branding strategy and have meaningful advertising. Even some that could do some of it, or even all of it. But what I have rarely seen is the casino company that could do all of these things and more, and could push it down into the organization so that every customer, every manager, every frontline employee, every shareholder, every community member could say in a sentence or two what this casino was all about and why it mattered.”

“I agree with you,” my associate responded, “but that’s the Holy Grail. And if a casino can’t even articulate how to do effective and measurable direct mail, how can they all get on the same page?”

“I never said the one thing was easy,” I answered. “But I’d suggest they start learning and goal setting together right now.

Or they could just go visit Barona and start taking notes.”