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Connecting with customers is Number One

A male and a female standing in front of a building

by Leith Hillard

‘I’m a people person,’ says Dianne Grimble, a venue support worker covering Gippsland’s 43 electronic gaming machine (pokies) venues for Gambler’s Help, Latrobe Community Health Service. With 20 years in gaming venues before moving into this educative and support role, she understands every aspect of working in-venue from the range of emotions in the room to the responsible service of gambling.

Bairnsdale RSL Operations Manager Andrew Guy oversees a venue with 70 staff, three function rooms, a bistro, cafe and 51 gaming machines, Keno and TAB. He regularly talks through issues and challenges with Di.

Training through COVID-19

While the Bairnsdale venue closed on and off across 10 months during the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic, all staff remained employed. Venue workers must update their Responsible Service of Gaming (RSG) qualifications every three years. Staff who completed their RSG module one online at the start of 2020 had to complete module two face-to-face within six months, so Di’s work didn’t let up.

‘There’s nothing like face-to-face training for engagement.’ Di Grimble

‘We delivered online training from March to November 2020 and were fortunate that that allowed us to operate during the restrictions,’ says Di, ‘but there’s nothing like face-to-face training for engagement.

‘It’s a very hands-on industry; staff bounce ideas off one another and there’s a lot of conversation. Engaging is their job. We look at practice scenarios and they need to show they’re competent to deal with a range of customer behaviours.’

The signs of gambling harm

Venue staff are taught to identify signs and behaviours associated with potential gambling harm across six categories.

Loss of control might begin with a customer sitting on one machine for a number of hours ‘because it’s due to pay,’ and escalate to gambling through mealtimes and finding it difficult to stop at closing time.

Money seeking begins with likely low-level signs of gambling harm such as scrabbling around in a purse or wallet for additional money. At its most extreme level, a patron may be observed or heard trying to borrow money from another customer or they may ask the venue for credit.

Irrational and superstitious behaviour describes a customer blaming the venue or machine for losing, but also using lucky charms and carrying out rituals such as rubbing the machine or talking to it.

Emotional responses identify indicators of distress such as appearing upset or stressed or playing aggressively, swearing and hitting and kicking the machines.

Staff are also taught to be on the lookout for social behaviours such as a customer staying on at a venue to gamble after friends leave. The more concerning signs of harm in this category range from being rude to venue staff, to showing a noticeable decline in grooming and hygiene or hiding their presence at the venue by, for example, ignoring phone calls or asking staff to not let others know they’re there.

Intensity and duration may begin with the observation that a customer has significantly increased their gambling spend and might escalate to gambling most days or for more than three hours without a proper break.

Building trust and rapport

‘The crux is how well you know your customers and have a connection with them,’ says Di. ‘That’s the number one priority. What are their habits and has there been a change in behaviour?’

‘We know our regulars inside out,’ says Andrew. ‘It’s only when you know someone that you can tell whether their behaviour is out of character. There’s no judgement. Our staff don’t impose themselves but build trust and a rapport over time and it’s often exactly what the customer is looking for. It makes them feel comfortable enough to approach us for help.

‘Our staff don’t impose themselves.’ Andrew Guy

‘Coming into the RSL is their day out and they look forward to it. It’s that sense of belonging and social interaction; the gaming isn’t the whole of it.’

Every venue has a responsible gambling code of conduct and it’s also a regulatory requirement that responses to concerning customer behaviour are logged in a responsible gambling register. Venue staff must be observant and report anything of concern to a Responsible Gaming Officer who must be present in the gaming room at all times.

Andrew called Di in after staff observed a young man spending a lot of time in the venue each day. Gambler’s Help material was passed on while staff engaged with him supportively and he ended up putting himself on a deed of self-exclusion.

It was really rewarding for Di and Andrew to help that customer access support. ‘A great outcome,’ they agree.

Work as a social outlet

The pandemic also confirmed that work is a social outlet for staff. The venue responded to low morale during closure by maintaining that ‘team feeling’ through regular contact. Staff were also provided with contact details for mental health support services.

‘The staff and the venue have a duty of care to our community.’ Andrew Guy

Once the venue reopened with reduced hours and every second gaming machine turned off to enable physical distancing, Di had leaflets ready for customers addressing issues from elder abuse and family violence to mental health.

‘And because we kept all our staff, we’ve maintained that link now our regular customers are back,’ says Andrew.

‘The staff and the venue have a duty of care to our community. When people see us around town, they need to know that we look after our patrons.’