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Dealing with Customers’ Excessive Gambling: Every Gambling Provider’s Challenge

Dealing with Customers’ Excessive Gambling: Every Gambling Provider’s Challenge

This article is part of the Perspective series by the Responsible Gambling Council, which is intended to inform policy makers and industry leaders.

Also in this series: Time to Shift Gears ; RG=Prevention=Persuasion ; Working with a Creative Agency ; RG and Corporate Culture

By Jon Kelly, Ph.D., Senior Advisor

Most gambling providers these days—certainly all the mainstream providers in established jurisdictions—have developed significant and multi-faceted responsible gambling programs. Many of these programs are preventative in nature; they are attempts to reduce the chance that people will lose control. That is good and necessary. But in spite of even the best devised safeguards, some people will develop gambling problems—some quite severe ones. So what should providers do for those people? Or, put another way, what do they owe these customers? In the past two decades, the gambling industry response to players who appear to have gambling problems has evolved considerably. So what have we learned?

It’s a Universal Challenge

All gambling providers are confronted with what to do if they believe a customer may have a problem. Companies use different labels for such problems. Some talk about excessive gambling; some refer to ‘at-risk’ gamblers or patrons displaying signs of a problem. Whatever the terminology, all companies are faced with the same challenge.

These players come to the attention of operators through a variety of channels. The least common way is through actual disclosure, as RGC found in its 2012 examination of how to respond to players with potential gambling problems. More commonly, in venues, staff see certain behaviours that have been identified as red flags—like people begging for money or sleeping or visibly upset. In some cases, family members approach operators seeking help for relatives.

There is a tendency to assume that, in the online environment, it is less likely that a player with potential problems will be identified. That is not the case. Online gambling providers often have better information available to them due to the identity verification technology that is built into online gambling. As Jeanne David, Senior Manager of Responsible Gambling at Pokerstars, points out, though there are no real-life dealers to observe players, there are many ways to spot someone who may be in trouble. It may be through a dispute over money, repeatedly seeking deposit limit increases, talking about their financial distress, or perhaps even blaming the online operator. Some have been known to harass other players through social media or abuse staff.

Tex Rees sees similar patterns. She is the Fair Gaming Advocate at eCOGRA, a gambling testing and certification agency, where she has overseen responsible gambling initiatives since 2003 and, more recently, an alternative dispute mediation service. According to Rees, players who may have problems often present through disputes or by contacting the call centre seeking deposit increases and bonuses for perceived poor payouts or services.

Recognition Is Just the Beginning

Over time, gambling providers have got better at recognizing such issues with customers. And, when it comes to well-defined incidents like crying or begging, there has been significant progress in responses. For the most part, gambling operators are less comfortable interacting with players who demonstrate potential gambling problems but do not disclose them or cause incidents. This pattern is evident in the RG Check accreditation process, where sites consistently score noticeably higher on responding to incidents than to initiating any form of intervention in the absence of an incident.

For the most part, gambling operators are less comfortable interacting with players who demonstrate potential gambling problems but do not disclose them or cause incidents.

Anecdotally, RGC has also heard from gaming staff who have encouraged family members worried about a loved one’s gambling to precipitate an incident—because that would give security personnel a reason to respond.

Responding Is Difficult for Many Reasons

It is not surprising that this area of gaming operations is problematic. First and foremost, it is a natural human inclination to avoid potentially messy personal issues. Those of us who have had to address addiction issues firsthand in our families will attest to the difficulty of talking about such topics. So, what are we to expect from a frontline staff member? Nerilee Hing, in her 2011 study of gaming staff in sports clubs found considerable reticence and misgivings among staff about their competence to respond to such high-risk situations.

We know that many staff members see and have sympathy for people they believe are gambling excessively. We also know that the risks associated with addressing a patron who appears to have a gambling problem are high. What if we are wrong and lose a good customer? What about the person’s privacy? What if we embarrass them? What if the person reacts aggressively or abusively? “We are trained and ready to be compassionate,” says Jeanne David of her 13 years of interacting with players. ‘But” she adds, “we have to balance several factors, respecting personal choices and differing circumstances and the potential for incorrectly suggesting a person may have a problem in the absence of significant indicators.”

Interestingly, RGC focus groups with people in treatment for gambling problems found a similar level of ambivalence about interventions by staff members. They expressed worry about embarrassment, about how it would be done—and whether or not the staff would have the right skills. Some people who have experienced gambling problems can recount terrible stories about their reactions to staff who so much as hinted that it might be time for a break.

Some people who have experienced gambling problems can recount terrible stories about their reactions to staff who so much as hinted that it might be time for a break.

There is no easy answer for dealing with these situations but there are several ways to manage them more effectively.

Don’t Ignore the Problem

One of the key best practices from the RGC report on responding to patrons is: take action if you think there may be a problem. Do not ignore the warning signs. If someone has a significant problem it is likely that the problem will continue and get worse. It is also likely that the customer will undermine the enjoyment of other players and take up inordinate amounts of staff time.

Build Staff Capability

Over time, most gaming companies have developed policies and training programs to enable staff, usually more senior staff, to take action if they perceive a patron who may have a gambling problem. Some, often called RG Ambassadors, receive enhanced training to deal with potentially sensitive situations. Online, companies like Pokerstars have call-centre staff who field a range of player issues including those that appear to be gambling problems.

Over the years, RGC has met many individual gambling staff with skills more highly developed than most, who are used to addressing particularly sensitive or volatile circumstances. For large gaming providers, it is probably worth investing in an enhanced level of expertise among a small number of staff members who are particularly skilled in managing such issues.

Whoever initiates sensitive conversations with players needs support. Part of that support, Rees suggests a debrief. Those debriefs help the staff members to manage their stress. And remember that skills get rusty. After all, the need to employ these skills is still relatively rare. Debriefs can help colleagues learn from each other about how best to manage similar situations in the future.

Don’t Assume You Understand the Problem

Gaming providers have told us for years that their staff are not social workers or psychologists. They are not competent to diagnose a gambling problem. For the most part, that is true—although some, like Jeanne David, come with social work backgrounds. But approaching someone is not about a diagnosis, or even counselling. It is about good customer service. Both David and Rees strongly recommend asking questions and getting the individual to talk. “Are you OK? You look like you are upset, is there anything I can do? Do you need anything?”

Approaching someone is not about a diagnosis, or even counselling. It is about good customer service.

The idea is to approach with questions and probes rather than assumptions. It’s best to keep an open mind if you perceive that the person is showing signs of a gambling problem. A person who is crying might have a gambling problem, but he or she might be upset for any number of other reasons.

Words Matter

Jeanne David and Tex Rees stress the critical importance of word choice in these conversations. David suggests that staff not say outright that they are concerned about someone’s gambling. She views this as potentially accusatory and therefore unhelpful.

Words like “problem gambler” or “gambling problem” are also unhelpful unless the individual discloses a problem. Why? These terms are unnecessary labels. They can be seen by customers as accusatory or judgemental. And, in the end, as I explored in this article on persuasion, they are not needed.

Rees also recommends using the term “advice” rather than “help” when advising people about resources they might access. “Help” implies that you are in some kind of trouble, whereas “advice” has a more supportive and gentler tone.

Get the Whole Picture

People who have gambling problems usually display patterns of problematic action over time. That’s why it is important to observe behaviours, document incidents and look for patterns. A patron database that enables staff to record customer information provides the operator with a fuller picture of the customer.

A Patron with a Gambling Problem Requires an Organizational Response

The decision to take action to address a perceived problem is a corporate decision, not an individual one. It requires a thoughtful and respectful strategy for interaction with the customer that is in keeping with the company’s overall approach to its customers.

The decision to take action to address a perceived problem is a corporate decision, not an individual one.

What is the necessary evidence? What will we do? Who is the best person to make the contact? Sometimes the best contact is a person who has a pre-existing relationship with the customer. Sometimes it is a senior staff member with greater training or skill in dealing with sensitive situations.

To Intervene or Not to Intervene

There is a wide range of corporate policies about intervening with patrons. Some, like Pokerstars, have created explicit polices about what to do. At Pokerstars, if responsible gaming staff spot patterns of erratic play or noticeable escalation, they will initiate a discussion with players and even temporarily suspend their accounts if they are concerned about patterns they see. They also have a range of tools they can recommend to players such as deposit limits, setting limits for table stakes or self-exclusion.

Many jurisdictions now require operators to have in place protocols to identify players who may have problems and to take action, though most regulations stop short of prescribing a specific action. Some, like Queensland, have regulations that set out specific processes for interventions where the operator has “reasonable grounds” to believe that an individual may be a “problem gambler.” Singapore has taken an aggressive approach based not on the suspicion of a gambling problem but rather in response to specific behaviours. Patrons who exhibit specific behaviours like begging for money or sleeping can be removed from the venues for a specified period of time, using something called “persona non grata” orders.

In the past 20 years, there has been a marked shift away from “turning a blind eye” to better play monitoring, response protocols and staff training. But the work is not done. Among several other challenges for the next 20 years, the task here is to refine and better execute player interventions in a way that maximizes their benefits to the player and minimizes the stress on gaming staff.

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