It is my belief that today’s racetrack executives are prone to treating patrons as a commodity. They don’t honor the fact that fostered by familiarity and memories of days gone by, most fans have a strong identification with their local tracks. This attitude is not unlike the allegiance that fans often have to their local sports franchise. However, it is a double-edged sword, since the same fans may, at times, be harshly critical and vocal about the problems suffered and mistakes committed by such entities.
Such criticism is not, in itself, a bad thing. Anyone who has studied modern management principles will tell you that customers who complain are your best friends—because research shows that the majority of people do not bother to report their unsatisfactory experiences. Meaning that most patrons instead become ticking time bombs—if you disappoint them, they are more likely to just not come back rather than bother finding someone to whom they should voice their complaints.
The key, then, is to encourage your customer base to provide feedback directly to management. Part and parcel of that is for track executives to be visible and accessible to patrons on a daily basis. Many tracks employ “hosts and hostesses” to greet customers and help acquaint novice horseplayers with some of the intricacies of handicapping and wagering. That is all well and fine, but it is not a substitute for direct management involvement in being both visible to and approachable by customers.
While I thoroughly understand how busy track managers can be on a daily basis, it is still crucial that they spend at least half the race day in the clubhouse, grandstand, track apron, and simulcast area rather than retreat to their offices for the majority of that time. The importance of this cannot be overstated. In addition, it is not sufficient to simply walk around in a suit, looking important but entirely unapproachable (perhaps due to ongoing discussions with other staff members, cell phone conversations, or an otherwise occupied manner or appearance). Instead, the manager should have a large and conspicuous name tag with his or her name and title and be wearing an inviting smile while continuously greeting and speaking with persons young and old, those dressed casually or more formally, and those attending solo or in groups.
The prominent presence of high-level managers is something I fail to see at the vast majority of racetrack facilities I visit and, yet, I view it as a genuinely delinquent shortcoming. Suggestion boxes are not a substitute for sympathetic and understanding faces. If the visible, friendly, approachable manager profile I suggest is employed, the track’s patrons will indeed recognize and appreciate the attention given to customer satisfaction. A secondary benefit, of course, is that track employees also get to witness this sort of interest and involvement on the part of management and they take notice of the example of managers “walking the customer service talk” as well.
One of the things that I, as a track manager, used to do at the end of the race day was to position myself outside the main exit prior to the running of the final race on the card. Then as the crowd filtered out after the race, I would smile to people and thank them for coming—almost as if every one of them were a visiting dignitary who had been sent a personal invitation to attend on that day.
This sort of personal attention can take significant time out of a busy manager’s schedule, but while the benefits might not be readily measurable, they are nevertheless substantial. We operate in an entertainment industry with plenty of competition for the consumer’s dollar. In this sort of competitive environment, any differentiator you can place between you and that other alternative is important. And human nature being what it is, people will always recognize and appreciate warm, friendly, and sincere contact with someone who aptly conveys that the customer’s patronage is very much appreciated.
Jeff Klenner is a former management professor and consultant to Fortune 500 corporations. He has worked in several capacities in the horse racing industry, including a stint as director of operations at The Downs at Albuquerque and The Downs at Santa Fe. Jeff can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org