Doug Davidson has many tales to tell about his life as a ski bum, chef, caterer, restaurateur, and card game operator, but thinking back on my visit to the front partner of Horizon Sports what stuck in my mind was his casual mention of having once managed a McDonalds. It was the one on the LSU campus, and in the time before a football game Doug would be responsible for seeing to it that fifteen hundred Tiger fans an hour got what they ordered. In a world where "flipping burgers" has become an economic slur designating work thought to be beneath human dignity, it.s easy to forget that what made McDonalds McDonalds was the company.s unprecedented commitment to training employees. They even started a school with its own campus to teach the McDonald.s way to franchise owners. Nowadays when "training" and "human resources" are standard terms of business school jargon, it.s easy to forget just how revolutionary the notion of "teams" and "leadership skills" were when McDonald.s introduced them into corporate culture. It.s easy to forget, too, that "flipping burgers" turned out to be the opposite of a dead end job for thousands of McDonald.s employees.including one bookie.
When Doug went offshore to work with JR and Roger at Heritage in 1994 his experience seeing to it that the right number of Big Macs got into the right bag right now was part of his equipment. When you imagine a book with several hundred active accounts all clambering in the hours before the weekend kick-offs to put in orders for sides, totals, and props, you see the relevance of this training. What you would also see, if you talked to the customer service staff Doug has trained at Horizon, is a rare understanding of what it is sports bettors need from sports book personnel. Taking bets and handling funds transfers is repetitive work, and it.s often done under stressful conditions. On the day I was there, for example, an irate gambler wanted to know why money that was supposed to reach him in three days hadn.t gotten to him yet, on the morning of the third day. Under these conditions it would be hard for anyone working the long hours of the football season not to get ground down by the cumulative demands of the job. That.s why sarcasm and pal-ism ("You got it pal") and outright snippiness can easily get into one.s voice when dealing with customers who might themselves be a bit cranky should they be in the position to have to reload their account. If you have dealt with a lot of offshore books you know that dealing with attitude on the part of sports book employees is a normal part of transacting business. Every sports book operator focused on post-up business knows the importance of having people on the phone capable of dealing knowledgeably and pleasantly with customers, but training and keeping such employees is a constant challenge. Getting the hang of the how bets are taken and put into the system, what paper work is required to transfer funds, what kinds of questions people have who call up interested in opening an account, all that can take some time. And once you.ve got it down, then you might have the other problem of thinking that you know the answer to every question before it.s asked and picking up on hostile tones in the customer.s voices and mirroring them back.
Horizon has a reputation for training people who know how not to do this, who can answer almost any question, and who manage to present a genuine, non-slick politeness. So on my visit I not only discussed with Doug how he and his partners run their sports book, I also asked him if I could talk to some of his customer service staff privately. My goal was to get some insight into how they learned to do their jobs. Doug let me interview the staff in a little closet of a room where they keep the machines that tape the phone calls, and it.s from those interviews that I offer these outtakes. One of the interviewees was a Tica, the other two were Americans.
Q. As you began to learn this job, what surprised you the most?
A. How much money people bet! I mean, I knew there was such a thing as sports betting but I thought people would bet maybe twenty or fifty dollars on a game, but our phone minimums here are a hundred. I remember being surprised when they told us that, but it didn.t really hit me. During training I worked at learning all the terms and how the different bets worked because I wanted the job, but it wasn.t until I got on the phone that I realized there were so many people who bet so much money on a weekly and sometimes daily basis. Once I really experienced how much money a mistake would cost, I became a lot more interested in the different types of bets. I mean it was kind of scary to be taking thousands of dollars of bets on a phone call that you knew was being taped, but that scariness made it interesting.
Q. What is the hardest sport to train clerks to take action on.
A. No doubt it.s baseball. The moneyline idea keeps hard-boiled football and hoops bettors away, so it.s not surprising that new clerks might take a while to catch on. Also the run-line seems to cause a lot of problems. I.m not sure why, but I guess it.s because it combines both the odds and pointspread idea.
Q. What.s different about Horizon from other places you.ve worked?
A. One thing is that Horizon lets players do a lot more with if-bets than the last place I worked, and those can be kind of tricky to put into the system and you also have to be a little more on your toes to watch out for correlations. But like I said, because they get played so much around here we get pretty used to them. The other thing is that we.re encouraged to talk to customers about whatever they want to talk about, and to develop what I would say are like little friendships with them. I like talking about sports, in fact that.s why I do this job, so when a customer wants to re-live his bad beat or exchange a handicapping opinion with me we.re free to do that here. In fact it.s encouraged and as a result customers who call will often ask for one of us by name. That.s not something that was true of the last place I worked where the owner figured if we spent twenty minutes talking to a customer to do a five minute piece of business we were wasting company money. Of course I.m more interesting in talking on a Wednesday afternoon than I am on a Saturday, but even then I don.t feel rushed and the fact that I may have talked to a regular customer at length helps all our transactions.
Q. Sometimes people doing what you do make mistakes. Thinking back over ones you.ve made and talked to others about having made, what do you think are the most common reasons for mistakes?
A. I think with newer clerks it.s that they try too fast. There are different steps to each transaction, and sometimes they want to try to get them all done at the same time. That goes back to the thing I was saying about the money. If you.re taking several bets for several thousand dollars you so don.t want to make a mistake that you just want the transaction to be over. So sometimes you hurry it a little even without knowing you.re doing it and it and that causes a mistake. I think the other thing that happens is that guys might like to tease you a little or try to throw you off. And sometimes what happens is they actually confuse themselves and agree to a read-back with different plays than what they meant to bet. This becomes obvious when you listen to the tapes. I.m not saying that it.s a big problem, but I.ve seen it happen.
Q. Was there any one particular thing that happened to you when you first promoted over [from wagering to customer service] that helped you focus on what it takes to do this job?
A. I remember this one guy who was a good customer had some question about limits for cross sport parlays. I don.t even remember the question exactly because now it probably wouldn.t seem hard to me. Anyway, I didn.t know the answer and it was early in the morning so I told him I.d find out. Then I forgot, and the next day he called back and I happened to answer the phone and he asked the same question and I said I didn.t know again. And he said, "Look, lady, this is the second time I asked you. Tomorrow I.m gonna call back and if you don.t explain it to me real clear I.m gonna close my account and tell them it.s because you are clueless." I felt so ashamed! I mean I wasn.t so much worried about keeping my job, but I really should have found out the answer. And from that time on I started looking for stuff I didn.t know even before people asked.
It.s probably the case that the best teacher of any job is doing the job, but what was striking in these interviews was the way in which Doug.s crew wanted to learn what the job had to teach. Good training can prepare you to show up, but to perform well you have to want to, and the question of questions for any service business is how do you get your people to want to. Doug seems to do it in several ways. First, he lets them know that knowing the customer is part of their job by in fact spending a lot of time on the phone getting to know his customers. You will hear him doing this if you spend time at his office, and it.s clear that he.s good at it and enjoys it. Second, he gives his staff time to imitate his cordial ways and even grants them some small autonomy to extend to known customers the courtesy of putting money in an account in advance of all the T.s being crossed on the paperwork or an after-the-bell bet. And finally Doug shows how to be interested in people by being alert and aware of his employees beyond what they do for Horizon. Someone has a new lip-ring, and on their cigarette break Doug asks seriously what led the kid to get it and non-seriously how it will effect him as a kisser. Someone who has been off work for a few weeks because she fell off her horse and broke her leg comes back to visit her compañs, and Doug gets the details of her recovery. The company Christmas party is coming up, and the details of the last one are teasingly recalled for a young staffer who would just as soon forget them. There are donuts waiting when you get there on a weekend morning, and help yourself to coffee. The point is that for Doug there.s little tension between socializing and conducting business. That.s a personal strength of his that has become a strength of his business.
I.m writing the week after the Aces Gold debacle, and I will now make a comment about Horizon that I might not have thought to make two weeks ago. The comment is this: Horizon is a very conservative book. Why haven.t they gone to browser-based wagering? Though they.re planning to finally go that way soon, their IT people had told them that browser-based systems are less secure than network links made through downloaded software, and they decided not to assume the security risk. Why doesn.t Horizon ever offer any more than the industry standard ten percent sign-up bonus? They.ve had a loyal base of customers from before they moved offshore, and their priority has been servicing that base and picking up new business through referrals, not through loss-leading incentives. "We don.t want to grow so fast we.d lose the advantage of doing what we do best," one of the partners told me, "which is customer retention." Why doesn.t Horizon advertise on MajorWager and other such sites? Once again the answer is that while the book welcomes new accounts, at this hyper-competitive time in the industry.s history it has elected not to go head to head with companies that give away their current margin to build a future volume. Although other shops need to be more aggressive signing people up because they don.t yet have a client base to serve, Horizon.s conservative approach works for them. In the light of recent events, the steadiness with which they.ve followed their plan seems more admirable than ever.