'If a customer started betting £200 each-way you'd say, that's not like you'
Sandra Gilmartin, betting shop manager of the year, on safeguarding customers
It's not difficult to work out how Sandra Gilmartin became the Racing Post/SIS Betting Shop Manager of the Year, having captured the title in 2019 and currently enjoying an extended reign thanks to the pandemic-induced hiatus.
"We do Safer Gambling Week 52 weeks of the year," is her rapid response when asked what her new job entails after having graduated to join Paddy Power's field-based team ensuring staff in every betting shop in their estate are interacting with customers on safer gambling, safeguarding and age verification.
It's a role she was born for, having started in betting shops in her native County Meath 20 years ago. "I was doing it then and I didn't know I was doing it," says Gilmartin.
"You knew all the guys who came into the shop and their wives and uncles and what they worked at and that they had a family wedding the next week."
But how did that translate to a busy shop in Coventry when she ended up in Britain?
"It's the same thing," she replies. "You might not know their aunties and uncles and cousins but you know what bet types customers have, what stakes they put on, what time they come in and how long they usually stay, then if something changes you might have the conversation with them."
The "conversation" that Gilmartin would have had then, instinctively, and which she now ensures is part of the skillset of every betting shop team on her beat, would be one to express concern rather than to challenge.
She explains: "If someone usually puts on £50 each-way two or three times a week and that suddenly changes to £200 each-way you'd say, 'That's not like you, what's going on here?' It's that simple. It's all about getting to know these guys and making sure they're all right.
"Betting shops are a safe place for people to bet. You not only have shop staff keeping an eye on you, you have your fellow punters.
"It's all about human contact in betting shops, not only with us, the staff, but with each other. Anybody can bet online at any time but we can watch and guide and interact with customers. It's a safer environment in that regard, in that we look after them and they look after each other."
But what happens when you need to have a more serious conversation, suggesting a customer stops betting or asking them to provide evidence they can afford to continue at the stakes at which they are playing?
"We might notice they're spending too much time on a machine and we would go out and ask them if they're doing okay, if they'd like to have a coffee and take a break or maybe set a spending limit," she says. "If you know your customers, then that sort of interaction is second nature."
But what if you don't know anything about the newcomer to your shop? And what happens if you feel you have to ask more difficult, personal questions about whether a customer can afford to bet and have they evidence to prove it?
"Those questions are asked on a daily basis now," says Gilmartin. "The majority of those asked don't like to show a wage slip or P60, but we give them the Betting and Gaming Council leaflet which explains it to them and the staff would say, 'Listen guys, this is for your own good. We need to make sure you can afford the amount you're spending'. They're reluctant, there's no doubt about that, but the majority are okay in the end.
"An important part is getting proof of ID and we'd conduct further checks and investigate proof of funds if there were flags.
"If a customer was paying in cash and then took out a card to go to the cash machine, that would be a clear interaction straight away. 'Are you sure you want to do that?'
"And we're constantly checking to make sure we're not letting any under-18s bet. We think 21 all the time but some staff might be better at spotting under-21s. It's not all about the face, it may be how they dress or act.
"It's about teaching them how to broach the subject with thorough training. They might be nervous about challenging them. Some are very young themselves and might feel a bit intimidated by customers.
"As soon as you turn 18 you can work in shops, so you might have an 18-year-old challenging a 21-year-old. You can understand their trepidation.
"When I started in betting shops my priority was how to calculate a Rule 4 deduction. You could be stuck behind the counter with a pile of bets in front of you, never getting a chance to glance up. Now it's all about interactions with customers.
"Things have changed, dramatically, that's for sure."
Safer Gambling Week runs from November 1-7 and is an initiative that the Racing Post fully supports. The Racing Post will be playing its part in ensuring the messages of this important week are conveyed to all our customers. If you are concerned about your gambling, more details on actions to take can be found at safergamblinguk.org.