Ben & Jerry's Rewards Dissatisfied Customers

PHOTO: Customers who were dissatisfied with their ice cream were invited to visit Ben & Jerrys factory.

On a warm summer day last July, Leslie Gerhat of Waltham, Mass., went to the store to purchase one of her favorite Ben & Jerry's Ice Cream flavors, Pistachio Pistachio. But when she took her first spoonful, Gerhat was disappointed because the pistachios were soggy and fell apart in her mouth.

"I never had had a problem with Ben & Jerry's before," said Gerhat. "I felt I had to let them know they had bad products out there."

Gerhat tossed the pint in the trash and headed straight to her computer, sending the Burlington, Vt.-based company an e-mail explaining the issue. A few weeks later, Gerhat received a coupon in the mail for free ice cream, as is company policy when there's a complaint. But it's the personal response she received seven months later that made her feel like a VIP.

"I was sitting watching the Super Bowl and received an e-mail from Ben & Jerry's inviting me to come to Vermont and take a tour of their factory."

Gerhat got an opportunity to not only see how one of her favorite treats is manufactured, but share her suggestions on how to improve the product.

So on March 2, Gerhat took a three-hour chartered bus ride from Boston to Vermont with 16 other loyal Ben & Jerry's customers who had also written to the company.

"Once we arrived, we swapped our stories with employees and they explained to us how some of issues had already been addressed," said Gerhat.

The soggy pistachios, she learned, were the fault of a vendor. Ben & Jerry's discovered that the supplier had been roasting the nuts too long.

"We worked with our supplier to make improvements," said Eric Fredette, one of the company's "Flavor Gurus." "The pistachios are now a beautiful green and perfectly crisp."

Another customer had complained that the brownies in the popular 'Half Baked' were dry and crumbly. Ben and Jerry's addressed that issue by mapping out the entire process with the brownie vendor from temperature to size.

The customers who made the trip were also given a tour of the plant floor where the ice cream is manufactured.

This was the first time Ben & Jerry's had invited customers into their factory, part of a leadership challenge from parent company Unilever to better engage in consumer feedback.

"Our goal is to always improve to try and make a better product," said spokesperson Kelly Mohr. "We don't want our customers to feel that their complaints fall into a black hole."

Hogan says they don't have any more consumer feedback trips planned, but it's not off the table because of what a positive experience the trip was for both sides.

Leslie Gerhat says she'll never forget how many employees came in on a Saturday when the factory is normally closed to meet with the group from Boston. "One of the coolest things for me was seeing how excited the employees were to have us there and how much passion they have for their jobs," said Gerhat.

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