An MGM Mirage housekeeper

I am obsessed with the “waver” at Barona Resort & Casino. Obsessed. I never knew such a job existed, and now that I do, I’m amazed at those individuals who can actually do it.

What is a “waver”? At the entrance to Barona’s ranch-like property outside San Diego there is a sort of guardhouse that is staffed 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 52 weeks a year with an employee whose sole job is to smile and wave at cars as they enter. There is no gate at this guardhouse, no reason to stop or slow down, but on each and every visit you can be assured that someone will be there, smiling and waving. Whether you show up a 2 p.m. or 2 a.m. Whether it is sunny or rainy. In winter and summer. Smiling and waving.

Did I already mention I’m obsessed with this?

Why does Barona spend hundreds of thousands a year to staff a position a half-mile away from the closest slot machine? Because they are a property that embraces outstanding service at their core and recognize that the first interaction - a happy member of their team smiling and waving to a customer as they enter the “Barona Experience” - sets a service tone and standard they hope will carry through the entire visit. Barona, as much as any facility I have ever visited, walks the walk of providing great service.

Yet if you were to compare Barona’s public statements about service to that of just about any other casino you will find they generally read the same. Virtually every casino describes the quality of their customer service as one of their key strengths. The fact is, it is easy to say that you care about service, it is far harder to actually provide it. I could make up some cheesy acronym about how to do it, full of platitudes about smiling and using guest names three times per interaction, etc., etc. Instead I’d like to share a counter-intuitive model that cuts through the baloney of providing great service and isolates on those, like Barona, that actually do.  

PRINCIPLE 1: We Aren't in Business To Make our Customers Happy

Amazing statement to make, isn’t it? Let me be clear, the inverse is not true either, we aren’t in business to make our customers unhappy. Then what are we in business for?  To make money for our states that tax us and our tribes and shareholders that own us.  Period. Making customers happy is a necessary input in order to make money. It is a means to an end, not an end in itself.

Why the distinction? Because if the end were to make customers happy we would do my favorite all-time promotional idea for every customer every day - let them run through the cage with a brown paper bag.

This distinction is important because in many other industries making the customer happy and maximizing profitability are not at loggerheads.

So what makes gaming different?

Our business is often compared to the hotel business, so let’s use them as an example. And within that industry few are as respected as service providers as Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts. When one purchases the Four Seasons product the transaction is straightforward - you fork over somewhere in the neighborhood of $400 per night in the expectation that you will have a beautiful room, fantastic amenities and, of course, bespoke service. And 99 times out of 100 that is exactly what you get. Both sides of the transaction are happy. The customer got what they paid for, the company made a profit, and, best of all, the customer will be back.

So why shouldn’t we expect the same in our business? Gaming operates without clear-cut, transparent prices. In fact, quite the opposite. A customer in our business shows up to buy $400 of our product and expects to walk out with $1,000. You don’t need a Harvard MBA to theorize that if you expect to lose you won’t visit a casino. Yet in at least two out of every three visits the customer leaves with less money than they came in with and sometimes none of it. Now they may have had friendly service, a free meal and some great entertainment, but their expectation of the experience - walk in with some money, walk out with more - was not met. This explains why gaming customers are among the most disloyal and why there is such overlap in gaming data bases. After you get beat a certain number of times, no matter how great the service, you are going to seek out a new place to “try your luck”. As a result, we have to be realistic about what great service can do for us. It may extend a three-trip losing streak into a four-trip streak. But, in the end, if we continually compare ourselves to the Four Seasons of the world we are just going to be disappointed.

To get back to the key principle - because unlike Four Seasons we cannot always deliver what the customer wants - we have to accept that our goal must be to make the customer as happy as we can. Once we accept our unique limitations we can begin to build the foundation of a service culture. 

PRINCIPLE 2: Shut Up and Deliver

The concept here is that there are some things that you can speak about credibly and others that have to be seen to be believed. Service is something that we experience, it isn’t something you can show in an advertisement. In the same way that the guy who brags about all his dates is the one least likely to have a girlfriend, he who brags the most about service is least likely to provide it. Talk is easy, delivering takes commitment.

I have discovered one exception to this rule, developed and executed by none other than the inventor of the “waver”- Barona Resort & Casino. Barona has for a number of years now won the J.D. Power award for service in their local gaming market. So when Barona advertises the fact that they have won these awards it is not simply talk but an external validation by someone who theoretically has already experienced the service. Barona takes it one step further. The first thing you see after entering the casino and passing a “greeter” (yes, that is in addition to the “waver”) is their J.D. Power trophies sitting in a glass case.

PRINCIPLE 3: CEOs Provide Service too

Every CEO talks about service, but few actually realize that their decisions affect the way service is delivered. The CEO’s impact on the delivery of service, and more importantly the culture of service, is more important than anyone else’s.

In brief, senior management can’t expect to treat their employees one way and expect them to treat customers a different way. Let me use a specific (though nameless) example. One of the larger gaming companies, one that loves to talk about its service (see Principle 2), conducted a series of layoffs among its line-level staff. Layoffs are always going to stress service delivery capabilities, but this company handled it terribly. They made the cardinal sin of continually telling employees, “This is the last round of layoffs,” and then launching another round. Even worse, instead of rallying the survivors to step up to fill the void, they required substantial pay cuts from each.

Assuming these draconian measures were needed, a smart CEO would have relaxed the service talk for a period of time, recognizing that holding feet to the fire on service would be hypocritical after massive reductions in the resources required to provide it. But not here. In this instance, employees were told services levels could not be lowered one iota, further angering and demoralizing those so critical to providing service. I didn’t discover the notion that happy employees create happy customers, but I do understand that the reverse can be true as well. So when CEOs start talking the talk about providing great service, hold them accountable for providing the tools to get the job done.

PRINCIPLE 4: Comment Cards Are Worthless

Burn them, shred them, or for those who think sustainability initiatives are a way to excite your employees, recycle them - but get rid of comment cards because they are absolutely, positively worthless.  

We work with clients every day to ensure that robust quantitative analysis drives decision-making, whether it is on marketing initiatives, slot floor optimization, labor and staffing or, yes, customer service. You can only control what you can measure, and without rigorous customer-service surveying programs, base-lining and analysis you have neither measurement nor control.   

There are numerous companies, including ours, that can help you design a quantitative service measurement program, deploy it and track the results both month to month and year over year to ensure that your service levels constantly improve. Which brings me back to the evil that is the comment card. Comment cards are purely anecdotal data collectors. You only hear from the most vocal “haters” or, rarely, the vocal “fawners”. And while the comments they contain may include some nuggets that bear follow-up, they do not provide the depth or breadth to give yourself an overall grade for service, or, more importantly, to allow you to see whether or not you are moving in the right direction.

So save some paper and invest some time in a system that truly benchmarks your performance and allows you to set measurable goals for your front-line staff.

These four principles are by no means an exhaustive solution to providing world-class service, but they do achieve the following:  First, they allow us to understand the limitations to providing service that are inherent in our product. Second, they stress the importance of actions over words and demonstrate that the actions of the senior-most executives can have monumental impact on the performance of front-line staff. Third, they ask us to shift the way we measure service from the anecdotal to the quantitative. They lay the foundation for transformative service experiences as we improve what we measure and we value what we experience.

It is a long journey from these principles to being willing to spend money on the “waver”. But even Barona had to start that journey somewhere.

So can you.


Randall A. Fine is the founder and managing director of The Fine Point Group, a leading gaming industry strategy consultancy and management company. A former senior executive with Harrah’s Entertainment and Carl Icahn’s gaming holdings, Fine has served clients in 18 U.S. jurisdictions, including Station Casinos, Seminole Hard Rock, Greektown Casino Hotel, Isle of Capri Casinos and Barona Resort & Casino. He can be reached at