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IN-DEPTH 15 November 2019
The customer is always right
By Owain Flanders
Owain Flanders looks into the number of customer complaints in the UK gambling industry over the past six years, and how customer care might be utilised to reduce it

Before stepping foot inside the Gambling Insider office, I worked in a call centre for one of the UK’s leading operators. There, I spoke daily with all types of players; from VIPs to customers placing their first ever bets. While advice may be the name of the game, sadly most of these customers were far from accepting of any guidance my colleagues and I were able to offer, despite our best efforts to solve customer queries and quell any heated situations; we all raised our fair share of complaints.

For this reason, when watching BBC Panorama’s recent investigation into UK problem gambling, one particular figure jumped out at me. Although shocking, it wasn’t the 430,000 people in the UK thought to be problem gamblers, and it wasn’t the 4% of players contributing to 78% of gaming revenue; it was the 5,000% increase in complaints raised on behalf of gambling customers across the past six years.

At first, I took issue with this number, primarily because the figure doesn’t take into account industry growth. Within that same period the UK’s annual gross gambling yield increased 47% from £9.87bn ($8.8bn) from March 2013 to April 2014, to 14.53bn for October 2017 to September 2018. An increase in customers is going to mean an increase in complaints, and the UK gambling industry is evidently a growing one.

Despite this, 5,000% still seems excessive, when a 100% rise would be more consistent with actual revenue growth. The industry is facing 50 times that amount, and while complaints are unavoidable in a business in which a company gains from its customers’ losses, this figure brings into question the industry’s treatment of customer care.

Customer care has become increasingly vital for an operator’s reputation in a world in which opinion is so easily and broadly shared. If a customer feels they have been “scammed” or “robbed” (both words often used by customers often in my own experience) they will not be returning and furthermore, will share their negative experience with friends, family and co-workers. I lost count of the number of times a customer informed me they were going to “tell anybody who’ll listen” not to bet with the operator. Now, the accessibility of social media only amplifies the literality of these threats.

Similarly, in an ever-growing market, ‘good’ customer care can be vital for customer retention. As evidence of this, while working in customer care myself, my colleagues and I would deal with account closure requests on a daily basis as unhappy customers chose to take their business to different operators. Often with helpful and polite treatment, it was possible to change their minds, otherwise the account was closed and the business lost. A happy customer is a returning customer.

This is certainly something Enteractive Co-founder and CEO Mikael Hansson agrees with. His company has developed a reactivation process, prioritising player retention through a method of one-on-one contact with customers, usually via phone calls. Speaking with Gambling Insider Hansson explains the importance of this kind of personal treatment.

He says: “Online gaming is no different to any other industry. I will leave a company because I feel I am just a number in the statistics, they don’t care about me and all the products look the same anyway. Trying to understand your customers and where they come from and then just talking to them is extremely powerful.”

According to Hansson, Enteractive is looking at around 150% growth year-on-year as the company starts to focus less on product development and more on sales. With this in mind, it seems operators are beginning to discover the necessity of a personal touch in the modern market. Hansson believes the need for one-on-one care is more evident than ever, as automated text messages and spam emails become more and more outdated. Not even satisfied with the personal touch of a phone call, he insists “the most effective thing would be to go and knock on doors... but how are you going to do that?”

Industry veteran Kevin Dale has spent more than 20 years in the online gaming business. Like Hansson, he believes more focus should be placed on player retention.

Speaking to Gambling Insider, he says: “I wouldn’t be the first to argue for increasing our focus on retention as opposed to acquisition. Even if business models show the same amount of money spent yields more when switched to a retention model, budgets continue to be weighted towards driving new customers.”

However, Dale argues simply re-categorising customer service costs under a retention budget won’t do much to redress this balance: “A transformation of accountabilities is needed. With the right budget and targets, for example, a retention director who also looks after customer services staff can make a difference.”

The 5000% increase could also be attributed to a shifting focus from pleasing customers to maintaining licenses in stricter regulatory environments. Recently, an increase in public scrutiny and the resultant tightening of regulations has created a difficult balancing act as operators struggle between retaining customers and ensuring the protection of players. The balance tipped last year, resulting in a total of £19.2m in fines for a number of UK operators found to be failing to protect the vulnerable. Now, with an increased focus on responsible gambling, Dale argues player retention is suffering.

He said: “With so much focus on social responsibility, customer services departments have little hope of picking up any new retention-focussed KPIs and improving on retention metrics. They have enough on their plate absorbing their new responsible gambling responsibilities, as they face the big stick or the high road if they get this bit wrong.”

Despite this increased focus on responsible gambling,  Dale argues this has little impact on public opinion as ‘bad’ customer care attracts negative media coverage while ‘good’ customer care goes unnoticed. As an example of this, BBC Panorama’s investigation focused on Jackpotjoy’s failure to protect a certain vulnerable customer as she gambled away £633,000. Supported by recordings of phone calls with customer service, Jackpot Joy bettor Amanda explained how she would sometimes bet up to £5,000 to £10,000 in a day, tempted back in to play with free bonuses and cash when she took time out.

The public image of these kinds of incentives has changed dramatically in recent years, but Dale explains how this was a regular occurrence not so long ago: “In the past, customer service staff were able to offer free credits to customers having issues or to reward loyalty,” he says. “Now, they have to tread carefully, since these same bonuses could be classed as incentivising problem gambling.”

The Jackpotjoy investigation highlighted important failings which needed to be addressed, but Dale suggests these behaviours are now the anomaly, with most operators towing the line. For this reason, BBC Panorama’s proposed link between the 5,000% increase in complaints to the prevalence of this kind of customer treatment seems flawed.

The complaints I raised while working in customer care were rarely in relation to problem gambling, and with operators now working harder than ever to meet stricter regulatory guidelines at risk of losing their licenses, you might be hard-pressed to blame the increase in complaints on failures to protect the vulnerable.

In contrast, Dale attributes the rise to a whole host of possible reasons, including primarily: an increased ease of the complaints process; intrusive questions of affordability often leading to account closures or suspensions; and the newly-enforced verification process. Personally, I found the latter to be one of the most prominent culprits, but also a necessary precaution taken by any operator hoping to protect its vulnerable customers.

With this in mind, an increase in complaints seems to be an inevitable result of the struggle between meeting regulations and retaining a customer base. However, with an increased onus on a personal touch and with a shift in focus towards player retention, this is a number we could see decline some time soon.

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