Hello shoppers...


And the next thing ya know, your son is playing for money in a pinch-back suit!

And listenin to some big out-a-town jasper, Hearin him tell about horse race gamblin!

Not a wholesome trottin race, no! But a race where they set down right on the horse!

                                                                                                                                                                         -Harold Hill, The Music Man


First, let's establish that horses are a) fun animals that run real fast and poop a lot; and b) gambling is fun games that move real fast and make you lose a lot.

Let us further establish (this is "Second," if you're scoring at home) that any establishment that claims to be "your favorite place to play" is making a promise to us that an experience there will be a fun-drenched smile-filled joy soaked barrel full of monkeys thrill-ride.

The third deal (the cards) io is that we Iowans should be low hanging fruit for such an endeavor; as gentle people of the corn, we require little more to be entertained than a crossword puzzle, some lukewarm Hawaiian Punch and hourly weather updates.

So is there such a magical place designed to blows our Central Iowa minds (and busts our wallets)?

Yes, Jimmy The Greek, there is such a self-designated Santa Claus: Prairie Meadows Racetrack and Casino - the focus of today's Secret Shopper review. (Click here to read Secret Shopper reviews of other Des Moines area businesses.)

Prairie Meadows, along with pari-mutuel betting was pitched by civic leaders and legislators in 1983 and opened for business in '89 as a way out of our Iowa-stubborn emotional and economic morass. ("There's nothing to do here!") Those morasses were voted out of office by 1991, when the struggling track went (horse) belly up. 

The track supporters had the last whinny; the addition of slot machines and table games in '95 and '04 not only saved Prairie Meadows, but led to the explosion of Iowa's gaming industry. (Last count: 17 casinos, 3 horse and dog tracks and a penny a hand Cribbage game at Shady Acres Retirement Villa in Boone.) 

Today, Prairie Meadows generates $200 million in revenue annually (which it didn't just do today, since it takes 12 months to do something annually) through the kind donations of visitors who want the excitement of Vegas without the $50 martinis and Celine Dion concert.

Flashing lights, ringing bells, toe-tapping music, tons of action, colorfully dressed staff - sounds like Disneyworld! (Without the pit bosses)

Speaking of Walt (Disney, not a pit boss) here's a quote:

"You can design and create, and build the most wonderful place in the world. But it takes people to make the dream a reality. "

 I may be Goofy, but I think ole' Walt was talking about customer service.

"If we don't take care of our customers, someone else will."

Like he did there.

The red carpet and slot machines and card tables and TV monitors and teller windows and restaurants that fill the three floors of Prairie Meadows are designed to stimulate visitor's senses and maximize their fun; does the staff follow suit? Do employees smile, greet, engage, thank (four of the Six Pillars of Great Customer Service) and help Prairie Meadows live up to the promise of its marketing, as Iowa's Favorite Place To Play?

That's the question your friendly neighborhood Unsecret Shopper set out (and crapped out) to find out.

It's an especially important question (to  the owners) because Prairie Meadows plays in a crowded sandbox (shaped like a roulette wheel) that includes other gaming facilities, online gambling, Powerball and scratch games, bookies, Bingo night at church and thousands of other ways to toss our money down the drain in the interest of staving off boredom.

It should be equally important to you, me and every tax-paying Iowan who kept PM afloat when it risked sinking in a sea of debt. We own it, too.

A point to be made here: I am neither a proponent nor opponent of gambling, unless someone bets me $10 that I can't stuff 42 tater tots in my mouth and read decipherably from TV Guide. That's the kind of gambling this town needs more of.

I Secret Shopped Prairie Meadows twice - on a Friday late afternoon and a Sunday around lunch. I went dressed like a guy with money to burn, and like a guy who needed to burn what he was dressed in:



                    "Jonathan"                                     "Jonnie"    


My rating for each visit is based upon the following scale, which will seem funnier if you imagine the masks appearing as icons on a slot machine:


  Horrific - a customer service nuclear bomb that's every owner's worst nightmare. The kind of service you call your friends to complain about.       

   Weak - a lot of work to be done, but there's hope.       

   Forgettable - not great, not bad. This is where most businesses end up.       

   Strong - some very good things are going on. Just needs some tweaking.       

   Stellar - first-rate, exceptional, off the hizzle. The kind of exemplary service you call your friends to brag about.    


I've got a wallet full of jack and a pocket full of notes from Gambling For Dummies. Let us see if Prairie Meadows' employees will make it uber-fun, even while I'm losing my shirt.

(Click to hear my conversation with Peter Demos, casino consultant, on the state of customer service in the gaming industry - on The Unsecret Shopper Radio Show.)


Staff interaction/Jonathan    



Huey Lewis was singing about the power of love as I entered Prairie Meadows through a revolving door at 3:50pm, ready to be welcomed like a movie (okay, blogging) star to a private island of excitement and escapism.

Mary Jane, working the Gold Club booth, wasn't exactly Mr. Rourke as I approached and slowly walked past her; she didn't smile and didn't engage although I later heard her pleasant southern accent and thought it would have been wonderful to have been greeted by it.

John, one of the many security detail scattered throughout Prairie Meadows, looked away from me as I looked at him but had a friendly aura and was very helpful in finding me a pen and even flashed a slight smile as I thanked him. One quick tip on the greet rhyme, John: it's completely acceptable to say "you're welcome" instead of just sort of grunting. It will not diminish my respect for your ability to taser me if I try to run off with a slot machine. :)

I headed up the long escalator to 2nd Floor, where I encountered Masoah (sorry if I'm not spelling it right); he was talking to another employee and ignored me as I walked within three feet of him, denying my reality and his chance to make an impression on one of his customers, but doing a great job of keeping a co-worker laughing.

I decided to tell someone I didn't know a straight flush from Sani-flush and picked Mary Lou, who sat behind a teller counter. She didn't greet as I came forward but flashed a semi-smile.

"I don't know how to play the table games," I conceded. "Where can I get some information?"

Mary Lou literally moved her head forward until it hit the counter in front of her, then laughed uproariously. Translation: Then why are you at a casino, cement-head?

She came back up and said, less unpleasantly, "I don't know how to play them, either." That helps! She also didn't thank me after handing me my change, which helped less.

I next approached Thunder Warrior who, like the four people I'd encountered so far, didn't smile, greet or engage but unlike them, had blinking lights, spinning cherries and a slot for my buck, which it traded me for 100 credits.

Cool! Now I can finally graduate from college!

This slot machine (like most of them) had eliminated the time-consuming, losing your money less fast task of sticking in quarters and pulling a handle, and replaced it with push buttons - sorta like a really cool looking coffee maker without the hot java. Five "spins" later I was a poorer but wiser man. 

It was time to move to the gaming tables.

I walked up to Joe, who had already dealt a blackjack hand to the only player at his table but wasn't interested in dealing me a smile, a greeting or an invitation to play, and doubling his attendance.

No player was at Daniel's table as I approached and so he didn't have Joe's excuse but did have Joe's non-response, ignoring me as I sloowwwly walked past. However, Daniel did come to life when I stopped and asked him how his game worked; he explained that his was a "Carney game," which means there are bonuses involved, including his beautiful smile which he finally flashed. His was literally the first I saw on any employee's puss. Great job, Daniel - now engage me with that grin before I engage you, and you'll be dealing a winning hand (without suffering through the corny metaphor).

It was onto a craps table where an unsmiling Cynthia unhappily yelled, "Dollar crap check for Dwayne's bet." Anthony, standing beside her and across the narrow width of the table from me, didn't look up and didn't let the insidious tentacles of a grin invade his face because, well, we all know what smiling leads to: more smiling - and that must never be allowed to happen.

Let me stop my excessive-by-design snide remarks for a moment and acknowledge a by-design possibility: It may be that all of the staff working the gaming tables at Prairie Meadows have been given a directive by management to not show emotion out of respect to a player who has just lost their shirt, is working on their pants and so is in a vulnerable emotional state that might make them more likely to misinterpret any reaction by staff.

Let me also acknowledge that what I've just written is the dumbest thing I've ever read. And I read Newsweek.

I can think of no more obvious time for employees to share their smiles and encouragement and joy and fun and laughter and happiness than with customers, who are there, specifically, to get it. Otherwise, they might as well call Prairie Meadows Iowa's Favorite Place To Die.

The parade of staff faces that looked like they were on the Bataan Death March continued with two other employees at the same table, one of whom was wearing a suit and who I'll call a "pit boss" because I've seen Casino 47 times.

All four employees looked like they were in the pits. So did the half-dozen patrons around the table. I've never seen that many people look that miserable, and I do customer service training.  

Over at a Texas Hold 'Em table, Kesone looked away, smile-less, as I looked at her, but did flash a brief grin as I asked her to explain her game. She also looked at me and smiled a smile of recognition on my second visit, so nice job, Kesone. Just remember to lead with it AND end with it.

David thought I was getting a little spoiled with all that glad-handling; he walked past within a foot of me, our elbows nearly touching but without using that touchy-feely smile and look 'em in the eye and greet and acknowledge and not totally blow them off new age junk.

As I sat down on a slot machine chair to write the not as clever as I thought it was at the time comment about David, above, Heidi, from the side, approached, smiling and said, very pleasantly, "Looks like I owe you two cents." (She was commenting on the machine I'd sat at, which had some credits left on it.)

Thank you, Heidi. You were the first employee (in 13) who engaged me without me having to engage them first. Nice job!

Heidi kept her smile going while explaining that all the left-behind credits are donated to gambling addiction programs. I thought that was cool. As I thanked her, Heidi replied with the less-cool "yep," as in giddyep! Great job on the smile, greet and engagement, Heidi! Now save the horse commands for the paddock, and try a nice, authentic "you're welcome." Otherwise, awesome job!

Another Anthony running another card table stood by himself as I approached but looked down and away as we briefly made eye contact. As Gwyneth Paltrow famously said to Michael Douglas in the chilling A Perfect Murder"That's not happiness to see me."

I went up to the 3rd floor.

I was immediately smiled at by Esroh, who didn't do terribly well with the other pillars of Great Customer Service, although I did leave my name and email address and would expect her to follow-up.  (Honestly, I'm glad she wasn't a dude.)

There was a different vibe on 3rd, besides the life-size plastic equine replica; it was quiet (it the horse and it the floor). The slot machines and gaming tables were gone, replaced by dozens of TV monitors which showed horse and dog races and results from all over the country (and probably the world although I didn't see Antarctica Downs). This was where the racing purists hung out.

All I cared about was the free pop by the Daily Double Deli. Yeaaaa!

I stood at the Deli's counter for a couple minutes while Liz worked at a coffee dispenser nearby. She finally turned and saw me, walked over and said, pleasantly, "Anything I can get you?" You were very nice, Liz. Now just ditch that closed ended question (which will actually give you hoof and mouth disease) in favor of a nicer, more engaging "What can I help you with?" After all, anyone standing helplessly at your help counter needs help, helper, so there's probably nothing helpful about asking them if they need it. Am I (W)right? :)

I hope that helped. 

I sat down at a table, within earshot of a loosely gathered group of a half-dozen men who you just knew were hardcore betters; they had the following exchange.

"You got the full five exacta?"


"Cause that Red Dog looks like he ain't gonna give it up."

"Fetch it on out there! Fetch it on out there, honey!"

Sir, they truly need your energy down on 2nd...are you currently employed?

Shane employed his customer service skills as he walked past me and said, "Can I help you?" Wrong closed-ended question, Shane but very thoughtful of you to ask, thank you!

Uh...why don't you mosey on down to 2nd?

I entered the Poker Room, where David greeted me with the same clunky closed-ended "Can I help you?" but said it with a slight smile so I won't club you too much, David. :) Especially not when I said I was just wandering around, to which your smile broadened, your arms waved invitingly and you replied, "Come on in!"

Let me watch the door up here, bro; you're needed downstairs immediately.

John, a big, strapping no nonsense arms folded security guy, stood nearby watching the unfolding poker game with a slight, bemused smile on his face.

WHAAAT? For the love of Pete, John, don't you know you're creating a ginormous security risk by demonstrating that you're a human being and not Dirty Harry? You know that that 80 year-old woman at the table has been eyeballing you, studying you for any vulnerability and is just waiting to snap your neck and take you out!

Give me your badge and taser, bro; you're needed downstairs immediately.

Unfortunately that's where I had to head next, unless there was a way to scale down the side of...

Dennis, a security guard at the base of the escalator from 3rd to 2nd, "greeted" me at the bottom as I stepped off and turned towards him by not smiling, not greeting, not engaging and in fact looking away from me as I looked him in the eye.

John proved it, Dennis; you can look happy and not be brought up on charges of dereliction of duty.

Over at a snack bar, another John, who'd been working for the Prairie Meadows commissary for six months, clearly wasn't getting with the program as he said, thoughtfully, "coming up behind you with a cart" through an awesome smile, then held it there while we chit-chatted. He even ended it with a sweet "thank you, sir" as he moved on. Dude, you keep that up, you're going to get sent up to 3rd floor.

(Keep it up.)

I walked past then stopped and stood within eyeshot of Jennifer, who listened to a co-worker tell her, through a huge smile, "What are you trying to do, escape out the door?" Jennifer, laughing, replied, "I'm thinking about it." As I walked back past both women, each looked at me, unsmiling, the joy and happiness and engagement about not having to be at a place of joy and happiness and engagement, gone, like horsey poo-poo gas in a high wind.

There's so much wrong with that (before the joke) my fingers are choking on the words.

To Jennifer and your co-worker and all of your other co-workers, I say this: I know you were both just kidding around, sharing the type of moment we've all shared with co-workers. Work isn't always the most pleasant of places to be; it can be a grind, in fact, especially logging long hours on your feet, doing repetitive tasks and earning a small hourly wage which probably falls short of paying all your bills. You are decent, loving people who work hard. Yet the only feedback most of you ever receive is probably when you screw up. That doesn't make your managers evil, just human, just as we all are.

Yet also understand this: you are not a victim of where you work, or the company you work for. You are part of the solution to make it better. So before you complain, either sarcastically or seriously about the third of your life spent working, ask yourself: What have you done today to make it better tomorrow?

If the answer is nothing, then you're blaming the wrong thing.

And now...on with the countdown.

Roxanne and Chris, working at another table, looked down and away, frowning, as I looked at each of them, smiling.

Then Phuong (sorry if I misspelled it!) appeared like rays of sunshine on a muddy track.

She spotted me making eye contact with her, smiled the most beautiful smile and said, "How are you?"

She was one of the only employees out of the 50 I encountered over three hours and two visits, who asked me that simple, kind, thoughtful question. You should be immediately promoted to Prairie Meadows Customer Service Trainer and given a raise and your own office, Phuong. Fantastic job!

I approached another card table, where Jeff, who looked like a smiley guy, didn't share one with me, or a greeting or etc.

Dennis, a pit boss, looked at me then away, smile and greeting-free. At that moment Jeff shouted, "Denny!" A huge grin magically appeared on Dennis' face, matched only by the one now on the mug of Jeff, who apparently needed different cards.

Teresa stood at a vacant table ready to deal but didn't see fit to toss me a (smiley) face card or acknowledge me in any way as I walked past. She DID smile and even used a nice "hon" after I'd asked her where the bathroom was.

Jack, at another table, was dealing to a player but did look up at me, then away, expressionless. Doug the pit boss gave a slight smile as I looked his way and then turned away.

The young guy playing cards at the table showed them both how it's done as he spotted me behind and slightly right of him.

"Hi. How are you, sir?"   

You're hired, kid.

I'd been at Prairie Meadows nearly two hours. It felt like since 1989. At 5:43pm I walked back out through the revolving door, towards the parking lot and my Prius, which beeped at me as I approached.

It felt nice to be acknowledged.


Staff interaction/Jonnie  



At 12:05pm on a picture perfect Sunday, I re-entered the picture-perfect structure of Prairie Meadows to the sweet strains of Blue Eyes singing it his way, searching for employees who would look my way.

David, working security at the entrance, started things out on the right hoof; he looked me in the eye and, with a slight smile, asked, "Help you find something?"

Thanks for caring enough to ask, David. Now ask the more caring, open-ended question: What can I help you find? Difference? Marginal. Impact? Immeasurable. 

It was impossible to measure Floyd's interaction from where I stood some four feet away from his valet counter because there was none. "Valet" must be French for "bored," because that's how Floyd looked. If true, that feeling probably could have been at least partially alleviated had he engaged me, and other passing patrons - just a thought.

Deborah, working in the Gift Shop, greeted with a smile-less but pleasant "Hi, sir. What can I help you find?" Nice open-ended question, Deborah! It was the first (and last) I'd be asked over both visits. Now add a smile so your greeting feels like you mean it, and remember that "sir" is for people who don't want to take the time to learn a customer's name. You also didn't thank me as I left, and I know you are thankful for the people who shop in your store, Deborah, because without them, there is no store, no job and no paycheck.

Remember next time, okay? :)

I left the shop and ran into Missy, who was working security but didn't make me feel terribly secure as she looked me in the eye then looked immediately away, never saying a word, flashing a smile or acting like I was anything more than a very large pillar in the hallway that needed to be avoided.

Irene, another member of the Prairie Meadows security team, liked how Missy was working the floor and, standing at the base of the escalator, went with it; I stood within ten stacks of chips of her and looked her in the eye as she looked at me, then away, without giving a hi, a goodbye, a smile or a grunt.

I said goodnight, Irene (silently) as I hopped aboard the escalator.

On the 3rd floor I approached Bill, a teller, who uttered an almost inaudible "hello" without a smile from his sitting position behind the counter. Esther said nothing as I sloowly walked past. Later I engaged her, and found out that a) she can speak, b) she can laugh, c) she's worked at Prairie Meadows for 21 years, since they popped open their doors and d) her step-dad is from Cambridge, my hometown and I know him and other people she knows.

All because I engaged her.

Imagine how much more fun your job would be, Esther, imagine how faster time would pass, imagine how much happier you'd be if, instead of waiting for patrons to engage you, you engaged them. Can you imagine?

Try. :)

I moved to the teller counter immediately left of the Daily Double Deli (right of it if you are facing the other way, which would put you on the other side of the wall and outside of the building, plummeting towards the ground). Sitting behind the counter and not going anywhere was Deb, who managed to ignore me for seven loooong minutes while I stood at the counter, close enough to reach out and touch her arm but instead leafing through thoroughbred results, glancing her way, checking out a nearby video monitor, glancing her way and literally lowering myself to strumming my fingers on the counter.

No dice.

I could have been a 15 hands Bay asking directions to the starting gate before a stakes race (but first ordering a bucket of oats and a Coke) and Deb wouldn't have whoa, although she did manage to exchange a few pleasant words with a co-worker behind the counter.

Next time, please don't ignore a visitor who is so close to you that you can pluck their eyebrows, Deb, and lord knows mine needed it.

Scott was coming out from behind the Deli counter to work on a coffee machine and ignored me as he walked past. He literally became perturbed when I attempted to engage him. Not a good way to go, Scott. I don't care that you don't work for Prairie Meadows; once inside their facility, you represent them. Also, no matter how mad you are at a broken coffee dispenser, you can't take it out on a patron. Ever.

Downstairs at the Paddock snack bar, Carolyn greeted with the unfortunate "Can I help you with something?" No, no; I can come back there and make my own sandwich. But while I do, can you go chill Scott out?

Try something nicer, Carolyn, like "What can I help you with?"

Jean, working another teller window, greeted with a smile-free "hi" and a nice open-ended "What can I do for you?" but asked it while she stared down at her computer monitor, which felt like she was asking it and not me. It doesn't need your help; it already has Clippit, Jean. :)

She looked at me and pointed towards the ATM I asked about, but had already moved her eyes back down to the monitor by the time I turned back around to thank her.

I finally saw a huge smile - albeit from a non-staff member:

Mike, you're hired. :)

Slavitza already had been. She glanced away as I glanced towards her but her face lit up when I engaged her like a $10,000 slot payoff. Share that beautiful smile sooner, Slavitza, like Mike!

Here's a compendium of the next seven encounters, because I know y'all have things to do:

Andrew blew by and blew me off. Steve walked past without a smile or acknowledgement. Salomon (sorry if I'm not spelling it right) smiled and laughed with Irene the security guard, but had replaced his grin and guffawing with a frown when our paths crossed, and more than once. Herbie working the blackjack table looked me up and down but didn't smile, didn't greet and didn't acknowledge. Ginger at another card table was greetless while appearing joyless. Sheri and Lucy gave hi's without smiles.

Favorite place to play? I looked for a sign that read: "What happens in Prairie Meadows stays in Prairie Meadows - just not for the fun reasons."

Last stop: the Gold Club booth counter, where Connie, emulating Jean, said "I'll be right with you" while staring, unsmiling, at her computer monitor, which hopefully meant she was telling her computer monitor to be patient because she had to engage a visitor.

No such luck. A minute or so later she turned towards me, still without a smile and asked a nicely open, "What can I help you with?" Put a smile on your puss and I'll believe you, Connie!

I told her I was interested in information about the Gold Club. Connie reached over to a display of brochures, pulled one out, handed it to me and said, "This will tell you everything about the program."

Oh. Then why are you here?

30 seconds into me skimming the info, Connie finally said, "I can tell you about it," and did, quite nicely, explaining all the benefits of Gold Club membership in great detail, from the slot machines to the buffet. She even threw in a question, about whether I played slots the most.

After going through a laundry list of benefits, Connie asked, "Do you want to sign up?"

A quick tip, Connie. Order takers ask closed ended questions. Professionals ask open-ended questions. "Do you want to sign up?" forces me into two choices, and anytime we feel forced into something, we'll almost invariably decline. (I did.)

Instead, if you want to sell more memberships, Connie, ask more questions of potential members first, before you get to the loong list of club membership priviledges. As I tell trainees all the time:

You know that you know what you know. Now let go of it, and tune into the customer's world.

You'll get to the bennies of what you're pimping soon enough. Believe it or not, it's the least important part of a consumer's engagement with you. Focus first on who you're selling. Ask personal questions, get to know the patron, knock down the walls that exist between two people who have never met.

When it comes time to ask for the sale, improve on the ham-handed closed-ended "Can I sign you up?" Instead, try, "Before we get you signed up, tell me what you like about this program." Follow that up with, "I'm sure you have questions. Let me answer them." Then: "This sounds like a program that would really work for you. I'm anxious to get you rolling. Let's get you signed up!" Take people by the hand and gently guide them where they want to go. They'll love you for it, and you'll sell a ton of Gold Club memberships in the process.   

Try it, Connie! See if if works!

The clock was working on a quarter till 2 as I worked my way to the revolving door, ready to call it a night even though it was mid-afternoon. An hour and 40 minutes after the Secret Shopping race had started, I crossed the finish line - totally gassed and looking for a bucket of oats and a Coke.



I'm smiling on the outside, but inside I have severe customer service colic.

Here are the official Secret Shopper results, which are final:

Employees encountered: 50

# of smiles: 6

# of greetings: 19 (9 occurred at counters where you'd expect them)

# of engagements: 3

# of thank-you's: 1

If this were a horse, we'd take it out back and shoot the sick ole' nag.

Here are a few more take-aways...

1. Prairie Meadows is a lot of fun

2. The people working there don't appear to be having any

3. The people working there risk having less fun by working themselves out of a job

4. We all deserve better - players, visitors, employees, management, everyone

5. The problems are easily resolved

I didn't say "readily"; the poor customer service at Prairie Meadows is imbedded in its culture like horse flop in the dirt track. It certainly can't be cleaned up overnight.

Yet the good news is that everything I discovered while Secret Shopping Prairie Meadows - poor engagement, few greetings, tons of denial of reality and an embarrassing lack of smiles - can be changed, with training, diligence and most of all, a commitment by PM's owners and managers to improve their quality of customer service. (Click this sentence to learn more about what specific training would work. Hint: It rhymes with Smileosphere.)

The even better news is that some employees - like Heidi, David (on 3rd) John (at the commissary) and Phuong - are already doing some nice smiling and engaging. Train the rest to elevate their game, to smile and smile and smile and smile again, to greet every customer every time, to engage patrons because they deserve it and because it's fun to do, and Prairie Meadows can do what seems impossible: make all those customer losers, feel like adored winners.

Think the odds are long? Sure. But I wouldn't bet against it.  :)

(Read reader reaction to this Secret Shopper review by clicking here.)


Jonnie Wright is a customer service evaluator and trainer, professional secret shopper, marketing strategist and host of The Unsecret Shopper Radio Show, Saturday mornings 8-9am, on 1350, KRNT.       


Ways to contact Jonnie:


Click to be taken to Jonnie's Facebook page    

Click to be taken to Jonnie's Twitter page    

Click to be taken to Jonnie's blog    

Click to email Jonnie (jonnie@thebuyosphere.com)    

Phone: 515-480-4190

Open The Buyosphere Toolbox to get FREE exclusive access to proven tools that will help you generate higher shop sales and profits - delivered weekly, right to your inbox!