Getting the cold shoulder from Dairy Queen

Last weekend, we celebrated our daughter’s 8th birthday with a gymnastics party, complete with activities for the girls, and an ice cream cake from Dairy Queen.

Some background: About an hour before the party, I stopped by my local Dairy Queen and purchased an ice cream cake for $27. From there, I drove it to Saddle Rock Gymnastics and placed it inside the party room’s freezer. Within 45 minutes, my daughter and 13 of her friends arrived at the facility and were lead through a host of activities in the gym for the next hour.

Per the instructions on the container, about 20 minutes before the girls entered the party room, my wife removed the ice cream cake from the freezer. Within 30 minutes, the girls had entered the party room and were seated around the table, eagerly anticipating a slice of Dairy Queen ice cream cake.

About that time, my wife attempted to cut into the cake with a serrated stainless steel cake knife. Remarkably, she was unable to penetrate the frozen cake. Her father then attempted to cut the cake without success. Our quick-thinking nanny then heated the blade with a lighter but it still would not pierce the hardened cake. Although a tight fit, the cake was pressed into a microwave in hopes of softening it enough to serve the girls. This too was unsuccessful.

By now, the cake had been out of the freezer for 50 minutes and still was unable to be served. Since our group’s allotted time in the party room was coming to an end, my wife regretfully shared with the girls that there would be no birthday cake.

No cake served at an 8-year-old birthday party? Say it isn’t so!

Later, my wife and I returned to Dairy Queen with the frozen block of cake, explained what had happened, and requested a refund. (We based our refund request on the fact that Dairy Queen had delivered a cake at noon with instructions to “store frozen” and “place at room temperature 15 to 20 minutes before serving” that we were unable to serve two hours later due to it being frozen solid.)

The young manager we spoke with denied our refund request citing Dairy Queen’s non-refundable cake policy. Although I disagree with it, the policy is in place to protect Dairy Queen against fickle consumers who may disagree with the shade of red used in the cake’s decoration. Our issue was different (we were unable to consume the cake because it was frozen solid) and should have been handled differently.

Had I picked up the cake the day before and stored it overnight in my own freezer, I would have attributed the mishap to my freezer being too cold. But I didn’t store it overnight—Dairy Queen did. It’s clearly plausible that the cake was stored in conditions that were colder than intended but the manager would not consider this possibility. When my wife asked him for the name of his regional manager, he said, “She doesn’t like us to give out her contact information. Let me take your information instead and I’ll pass it on.”

This is telling. Here you have a situation where a loyal, well-intentioned customer has detected a problem and chooses to bring it to leadership’s attention and, rather than capture the feedback and improve, the executive prefers to insulate herself by discouraging contact. It’s no wonder the disempowered manager we encountered had no authority to refund the purchase price of the cake.

If anyone from Dairy Queen takes the time to read and consider this post, before you congratulate the manager for “saving” the company $27 by adhering to policy, read up on customer lifetime value (CLV) and consider the fact that I live 4.3 miles away and have four young children who love ice cream. If “saving” $27 costs you $2,700, it’s not an effective policy.

And recognize the fact that, regardless of demand, individual customers are irreplaceable.

December 11, 2013 update: Yesterday, I received two calls from Carolyn at Dairy Queen headquarters. In her voice mails, she expressed genuine interest in me, my daughter’s cake-less 8th birthday party, and resolving my problem. We connected earlier today and she was as delightful as her voice mails conveyed. She listened, collected a bit more information, committed to follow-up with the franchisee involved, and offered to send me a gift card that would more than offset the refund amount requested. I couldn’t have scripted a better resolution. Now, instead of associating my negative experience with Dairy Queen (while driving past…), I’ll reflect on my call with Carolyn and may just stop in for a Blizzard.

  • Lynn

    If the DQ location you dealt with reflects the same policies nationally, I will never go into another Dairy Queen again. How insensitive! Common sense alone should have directed the manager, despite the outcome with the irresponsible regional manager. I intend to write the company and state my opinion of their handling of this situation. Your experience bears repeating, not only in your future blogs, but also word of mouth. I certainly will be telling others for some time to come. Well written, Steve….as always!

  • Ann

    All Dairy Queen stores are owned and operated by individuals. The policy you recited is sad, goofy and makes for good story.

    However, it is the actions of an individual, not the brand in total. I’m the wife of a franchisee, and I work on the business. We’re horrified when we read these stories because we work hard every day to create customer delight – only to see it diminished by the thoughtless actions of a few operators.

    The “bad guys” in this story are 1) the individual operator who took this action and 2) Dairy Queen for not creating great control of their operators to now allow this action.

    Steve, you got a good story out of it. Now make it a better story, and acknowledge the thousands (literally) of local operators across the world who would have never treated you that way. Because without that part of the story you’re continuing the harm to a lot of local business people who create great experiences and support their local customers and community in so many positive ways.

  • Steve Curtin

    Ann, thank you for taking the time to read and comment.

    Whether or not this story gets any better is in the hands of the Dairy Queen executive (Owner? Regional manager? I’m not sure. She doesn’t want the store manager to share her contact information…) who has had my contact information for the past seven days but has not reached out.

    It’s also in the hands of Dairy Queen’s Twitter representative who was copied on the original update containing a link to my blog post six days ago but has failed to respond. And, finally, it’s in the hands of John Gainor, who will receive a hard copy of the post in the mail this week along with a screen shot of Facebook comments by friends who were as appalled as I was by Dairy Queen’s handling of this matter.

    As I said to Mr. Gainor in my note, “no one likes to receive bad news” but the reality is there is plenty of bad news in customer service. This is just one example. Is there good news in customer service? Thankfully, yes. In fact, the day after I had my negative experience at Dairy Queen, I had a positive experience at Lowe’s Home Improvement store that became the subject of my very next blog post.

    I agree that, regardless of a company’s service culture, the quality of a customer’s experience will often hinge on his or her one-on-one interaction with a frontline service provider—for better or worse. This explains why the Dairy Queen or Lowe’s (or Nordstrom for that matter) brand is constantly at the mercy of the company’s least hospitable employee.

  • Knowledgable Consumer

    I can understand how some people might view this story. I can also understand the numbers of what your business means to the DQ. I believe that not only were the mistakes made on the employee end, but also your end. For one, serrated knives should never be used to cut into ice cream. Are ice cream scoops serrated? No, there is a reason for that. For two, customers can have a lack of knowledge about the product and how it is prepared and stored. DQ cakes are generally stored at a temperature below your “standard” freezer. This helps to hold their form during the fast freezing process. They recommend leaving the cake out to start a thaw process, but not lose form and melt. Has nothing and I mean nothing to do with how cold the freezer was!! Does ice get harder depending on temp of freezer? Think people think! Stop judging!!

  • Steve Curtin

    Thank you for the tutorial on knives and the DQ fast freezing process. Unfortunately, your comments do little to change the fact that I was unable to serve my daughter’s ice cream cake at her 8th birthday party. That was the real problem. But you were so busy looking for ways to blame the customer, you lost sight of the real problem. Unfortunately, this happens all the time – which is why I write this blog.

  • carolyn riley

    I am not sure how I came across this story, but im glad I did. I am the manager of the DQ in scottsboro alabama, and I can tell you, this is not our policy. I would have gladly refunded your money and offered my most sincere apologies to you and also your daughter. I value my customers and go above and beyond to make sure they are smiling when they leave.

  • Steve Curtin

    Carolyn, this just proves that, regardless of the brand’s reputation for customer service quality, each customer’s experience is inextricably linked to his/her one-on-one interaction with an employee. Oftentimes, this is a customer-facing employee which reinforces the importance of investing in customer service training for frontline staff. Thank you for taking the time to read and comment.

  • Ms. Best

    I’m sorry… you had a cake out for two hours and it was still frozen solid to the point that couldn’t cut it. Sorry, I just don’t buy that at all.

  • Steve Curtin

    Ms. Best,
    All times documented in the post are accurate. Cake was picked up two hours before serving and was placed in the freezer at the party venue for 45 min. and removed 30 min. prior to serving (per the instructions on the cake’s packaging). Although I too found it remarkable that a soft serve ice cream cake could be frozen solid to the point of not being servable, I was more dismayed by the young Dairy Queen manager’s response to deny my refund request. That’s the real story here.
    Thank you for taking the time to read/comment.

  • David

    I always dislike the gift card “solution”. It’s just a way to get a customer to return to where they got poor service, product, or both.

  • Steve Curtin

    Agreed. As a customer, I’m not looking for a gift card, a discount, or a free appetizer. I’m looking for service providers to do it right the first time. When they do, they get paid and I receive the product/service expected. Everybody wins!
    My colleague, John Goodman, wrote an outstanding book titled Customer Experience 3.0. In it, he devoted an entire chapter to DIRTFT (Do It Right the First Time).
    Sure, nobody’s perfect. But if companies set high standards for product/service quality and then manage to those standards (e.g., Nordstrom, Zappos, Disney, L.L.Bean, Lexus…), their employees disappoint far fewer customers than average companies whose employees are rudderless, content to process each customer like the one before until the end of another miserable shift.
    Thanks, David, for taking the time to read and comment.