Experienced gaming industry stalwart Michael Josem shares his views on the art of customer service, why he gets out of bed, and his views on value.
When it comes to choosing the right company, it seemed for the longest time, that Michael Josem was a ‘one company man’.
He began working in PokerStars’ Sydney service offices in Australia as a Senior Game Security Specialist close to a decade ago. The love affair strengthened when he immigrated to the Isle of Man HQ to take up a senior position in the Game Security Team, before serving most recently as the Head of Public Relations.
As a customer of PokerStars, I always felt special when dealing with Josem. He answered my emails promptly and delivered requests for information efficiently.
Upon hearing of his departure from PokerStars, I offered him the opportunity to have dinner. I wanted to dig deep into that wealth of knowledge, and this is what he had to say:
Who is Michael Josem?
“I think that Michael Josem is essentially a nobody. I only have even a trivial level of prominence in the online poker world because ten years ago, some friends of mine suspected they were having some money stolen from Absolute Poker and Ultimate Bet. I have a deep belief that fundamentally customers make good decisions when they have access to useful information. I believed that by informing customers what was happening with Absolute Poker and Ultimate Bet that customers could make better decisions about whether they should play there.
” Absolute Poker made some claims that the cheater was some player who just got lucky, and I did some very trivial High School math to show just how lucky they were. I translated basic math into what people can understand – showing that the alleged cheater was winning at 15 standard deviations above the mean, which had the same chance as being the same as winning one in a million lottery on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday. Once I did those calculations, and published it, it showed that Absolute Poker’s denials just weren’t credible.
“I had a trivial level of prominence in the poker world as a result of that. Then for the last nine years, I have continued to have some prominence simply because I happen to be one of the custodians of the PokerStars brand.”
Where did you share the information you uncovered about Absolute Poker?
“I created a website and did a series of interviews with poker media outlets and also global media outlets: 60 Minutes, Sydney Morning Herald, NY Times, Washington Post and so on. It also gained coverage in a whole host of German newspapers, bizarrely.
“All I did was simplify the message in ways that normal people could understand. I think being able to tell that narrative was important for me when I served in the Game Security Team for PokerStars and then in Public Relations. Those different roles were about looking at information and building and telling a narrative.
“My role in the PokerStars machine was a very small one, and the only reason people know who I am is because I get involved on 2+2, and that’s entirely up to the power of the PokerStars brand rather than any particular specialness on my part.”
Is it a wise for an online poker room to communicate to customers via a forum Like 2+2?
“I think the job of a company is to speak to its customers in a good way. What is a good way? It should be open and honest. But it also needs to speak the language and format that’s appropriate to its customers.
“For example, it makes sense for Twitter to communicate to its customers on Twitter. And I think as a general principle companies need to communicate where their customers are, but be mindful that in 2017 with the rise of email, social media, and a whole gamut of how you can communicate that there are many customers you can speak directly to. If I were running an online gaming company at some stage in the future, I would want to communicate with my customers in places like forums, Twitter, at live events, and so it needs to be part of a broader framework.
“It’s very difficult, we spoke before the interview about how a lot of customers have high demands and want answers immediately, and it’s tough. But it should be tough. It should inspire the business to work harder to earn the trust and respect of its customers. It comes back to how I got involved in the online gaming business through my website showing cheating at Absolute Poker: If you have well-informed consumers, they make good decisions, and the successful operators will prosper, and the crappy dodgy ones that steal your money should fail.”
I know I am over-generalising, but I look at online poker room customers and can’t help but feel that the professional grinder is the 1%, and the recreational players are the 99%. How do you market and behave to the customers when there is this disparity?
“Different customers have different needs. There are some customers who you will have deep and intimate relationships with and those that log on every few months, play some poker and log off. There is not one silver bullet to communicate with your customers in the same way. Instead, you need to have a framework – a coordinated strategy that speaks to customers in a deep and meaningful way.
“The 1% also speak to other customers so it’s important if you are communicating about deep, meaningful strategic changes you need to take that 1% with you so they can communicate to your broader customer base. If you have a broader team of people, you can communicate to different people on different things.”
If the pros have the loudest voices and have the more intimate connections with the online poker room, doesn’t this affect the framework you spoke about in as much as it could change based on the customer that has the loudest voice and not the largest customer demographic?
“You are right in your poker world example, that there is a small group of people who are vocal in that community. However, that 99% have more power and can be more vocal as customers because they are funding the whole thing. They might not post on 2+2 or Twitter, but they might take their $20 and use it to go to the movies, or play Candy Crush, or watch Netflix, or find some other entertainment.
“In many ways that’s more powerful. They are the ones that make this whole world of poker possible. They might write less and speak less about it, but their voice as customers is more powerful. In that sense the people who are paid to play on an online site and are taking money out of the system – which they have every right to do – they have a lot less power as a customer.
To use a metaphor, if Cristiano Ronaldo says, “I don’t like the game of soccer, and I’m not playing anymore,” how else is he going to earn millions of dollars a year? On the other hand, if a parent of two kids says, “I don’t like the game of soccer anymore, and I won’t buy my kids the merchandise.” The aggregated parents of the world have more power because they can go and have their children play something else. She can take her money and go somewhere else. Ronaldo is stuck in the game of soccer forever, because he can’t credibly go play rugby, or basketball, or some other sport for big money.
“In the poker world, pro poker players will profit when recreational players get value for the money they deposit. For someone who spends very little time playing poker these days my choice is: do I spend $10 on a Sit n Go or on a monthly subscription to Netflix? And I think people will make that decision to put it into the poker economy if they get value. I think the 1% of poker players need online poker sites to work very hard to introduce new players and new money. The pros can only pay their rent from winnings if the recreational players get value when they deposit.”
But isn’t there an issue that the recreational players are attracted to the new types of games, that provide them with value, and the pros don’t play those games, and therefore lose value?
“I think the perfect metaphor here is fishing. It would be great if all the fish were delivered outside your house in an orderly row and they threw themselves out of the water and onto your grill and you could eat them easily, all day, every day. But that’s not what fish do. You need to go where the fish are, you may have to go to the ocean, you may have to move around, you may have to learn how to catch different fish, and so on: that’s the way the world works. If you run a business, you have to go where your customers are. If you are a winning poker player, you have to go where the losing poker players are.”
When travelling to Wales for this interview and you start thinking about the world, what do you see?
“In a literal sense, I see the beautiful countryside. The UK is a really nice place to live, and when I say ‘nice place’ I don’t only mean the scenery but the community and culture. It’s one of the world’s greatest forces for good in the history of this planet. These islands were the first to say that everyone had to live by the law – including the kings.
“The Magna Carta was signed, and it was the first document that said even the kings needed to abide by the law. Before then, people accepted that there was a divine right of monarchs to rule. These islands spread this concept throughout the world. In that sense, if you look at the scenery, it’s not the rocks and trees that spread those ideas, it’s the people and community.”
What are you passionate about?
“I had a very strong view on the EU Referendum, in that I am a strong believer that this community, this United Kingdom, has a very strong and vibrant future ahead. And when the UK was engaged with the world and doing great things: the original Kingdom of Great Britain, and then the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, spread their ideas around the world: to New Zealand, Australia, USA and Canada, this Anglosphere – are unreservedly a force for good in the world.
“I want to build and spread those values in my community and to a certain extent throughout the world. So If I am blessed to have children or a family of my own one day, I hope they will grow up in a community richer, more prosperous and freer than my community today.”
How does it manifest itself in your actions and potential choice of career
” I am less young than I used to be, and there are a lot of opportunities to make the world a better place. Working in the online gaming industry, Lee Jones tells a good metaphor in that obviously we aren’t paramedics; I’m not saving people’s lives, I am not a soldier on a wall defending a nation. In that sense, I have very little comparative moral strength because I greatly admire people who sacrifice themselves and their livelihoods in such an obvious and physical way.
“But there are also people such as the Eric Claptons of the world, and let me be very clear that I am not comparing myself with Eric Clapton as he is a towering achievement of cultural success. That makes me a miserable little ant of relatively little importance. But hopefully in terms of what I did in the online gaming world as a little ant is providing some people with entertainment, and working towards people having fun but safe, secure, and fair pastime.
“And I wouldn’t want to live in a world that didn’t have the Eric Claptons or even the Michael Josems. One of the thing that disappoints me about Australia is there is a lot less respect for the inherent human dignity of people to choose how to live their lives. We have a disappointingly paternalist community in Australia that has so much opportunity and is blessed with so much good fortune and yet it could do so much better.
“There is a very disappointing intellectual strain in the Australian community especially in gambling and to a lesser extent alcohol, drinking, and that where there is a whole bunch of restrictions and rules on gaming pastimes that are essentially favoured by poor people. Like the Pokies, which I don’t like, and poker has suffered as an association to Pokies when there is no meaningful connection.
“Australia has this very paternalistic view amongst elites who think they can control how we live our lives better than we can. And as Ronald Reagan said, “If we are not fit enough to govern our own lives, how can anyone be fit enough to govern anyone else’s?”
I hope Australia becomes more liberated and develops a classic liberal view of the world that allows people to live their lives as they wish. As a wise man once said that people should be able to lead their lives if “it neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.” If people want to gamble and do anything else they want to, it should generally be up to them.”
Who do you create value for in your life?
“Hopefully, I create value for my family and friends. I suspect if I didn’t, they would quite reasonably cut me out of their lives. What is the purpose of life? I think it’s some form of creating happiness. And I did a bit of a degree, a Masters in Professional Ethics, and in that, I learned about what different people think is good or bad. Essentially, there are two and half major streams of thought.
“The first is this utilitarian idea of creating happiness; making lives better for as many people as possible. The second major strain of thought is the idea of service, duty and honour, and this is the ethical duty that is very obvious in the Bible with the Ten Commandments. For me, I was the son of a Jewish man and a Lutheran woman, and I went to a Church of England school in suburban Melbourne. I grew up without a strong connection to a religion, so I have tended towards the sort of utilitarian idea of the purpose of life being to create happiness with a deep and abiding respect to the other.”
Did the addiction side of gambling bother you when you decided to work in the industry?
“When I joined the company, I had that conversation with my friends and family, and they asked me similar questions. Poker is a game where you play each other. PokerStars were providing a place for people to play but wasn’t a participant in those games. It was like owning a tennis court and renting it out to two people to play tennis. That was easy for me to rationalise.
“What I think is important now as I look to other forms of online gambling is to do everything you can to minimise the harm as much as possible while respecting people’s wishes to take control of their own lives.
“The vast majority of online poker hands are played for trivial stakes. Anyone can open up an online account and see how many people are playing for cents. But there is also a real obligation for companies to act responsibly in protecting those people who need help.
“Yesterday, I started a thread on 2+2, whereby Zynga had issued a job advert for a Poker Product Manager and talked about wanting to find someone who could provide addictive user experiences. I thought that was deeply scary. Gambling is a special category of entertainment that is different from a video game. Companies like Zynga allow children as young as 13 to play their poker games – so for a company to talk about hiring someone with experience in creating addictive user experiences, I thought that was appalling, and they should be held accountable. It was deeply irresponsible. They don’t steal from their customers like Ultimate Bet and Absolute Poker, but they should be held accountable by their stakeholders for not treating addiction with the respect that it deserves.”
Isn’t there an argument that all companies want someone who can create an addictive product, they just don’t put it into print?
“A company should provide experiences that their customers want. However, I think that gambling is a special situation and if a tobacco company said they wanted to find someone to make our nicotine more addictive, they would be a morally bankrupt organisation to do that.
Especially, in this example, because out of all the poker operators around the world, Zynga are one of a very small group who cater for children. They need to be even more caring and sensitive. I don’t have the power to hold Zynga to account, or power to change the laws, so hopefully, by me noticing it, other people will hold them to account for what I see to be a deeply troubling development.”