Burned by Inauthenticity

by cv harquail on September 14, 2009

I had almost forgotten the details of our family’s bad experience with a national espresso chain after my daughter was burned by a grande hot tea on her way to the Big Apple Circus. Then I saw this article about a toddler being burned by a hot hash brown at Dunkin Donuts, and my whole disappointment with the Organization where my own child was burned came flooding back to me.

200909141026.jpgEven now, three years later, I get upset. I’m not so much angry as sad, very sad, because the organization didn’t live up to its claimed image for customer concern. My daughter’s burn has healed and the scar finally disappeared. We still patronize the Organization’s Stores, but I no longer feel any positive connection to the Organization as a customer.

My experience with both the local Store management and with the Organization’s corporate office can be characterized by:
(1) a disconnect between the customer service rhetoric and our experience,
(2) lack of basic safety procedures for a problem that is not uncommon, and
(3) lack of appropriate follow-through after concerns were lodged and promises were made.

All three of these problems can be traced back to a problem of authenticity-– a gap between what the organization says it is and/or wants to be, and the way the organization acted.

Let me condense the details of my 7 year old daughter’s burn (1st & 2nd degree across her chest, from a grande hot tea that another customer knocked off the barista’s counter onto my child, that took 3 months and 10 visits to the Burn Unit to heal properly). Instead, let me focus on the poverty of the Organization’s response to the accident.

Consider this story, and what it says about (in)authenticity…

Inaction by store personnel

The grande hot tea was placed on the service counter. The lid was not on tightly, and when the other customer went to pick up the cup, it dropped onto the shoulder of my child, who was standing to the side of the counter waiting for her cocoa. She screamed. My husband tore my daughter’s steaming, tea-soaked shirt off her and grabbed the ice from his own drink to slap it on the burn.

The customer tried to help, and apologized profusely. The baristas and the store manager did nothing.


The store manager did not even offer my husband the use of the store’s first aid kit (which, by law, they must have on site).


Analysis: The employees had either not been taught or had failed to internalize any corporate messages about showing concern for the customer’s experience. They had not been taught how to respond when/if a customer was burned by a hot drink.

What happened next: My husband took my daughter to the pharmacy across the street, bought an instant ice pack, called several friends for the name of a doctor in Manhattan, and got her some care.

No policy or first-aid routine in place

The store had no protocol for handling situations where customers are burned by hot liquid (through the customer’s actions or the actions of employees).

Analysis: The Store and Organization failed to anticipate and plan ahead to mitigate safety issues. They did not consider and plan for the full range of possible customer experiences, from good to bad.

What happened next:
As a customer, a management consultant and a former safety manager at a manufacturing plant, I recognized that there was an important system failure at this Store and perhaps across all Stores. Professor that I am, I wanted them to fix the system and design a response into their Organization.  Also, as a mom with with a scalded, blistered, frightened child, in pain even after the first visit to the burn unit, I wanted them to try to prevent this from ever happening to another child.

Significant lag time between customer’s concern and organization’s response

I wanted to talk with the Store personnel to tell them how they could have helped the burn victim and handled things better. Unfortunately, it seemed at first that they didn’t want to talk to me.

I called the Store the day after the burn accident and asked to speak to the manager. I left my number with an employee, but no one called me back. I called again the following day, left a message with a barista. After 4 or 5 calls to the store, I finally spoke to a shift supervisor and explained to her my concern that the Store had no emergency routine for handling burns. At the very least, they should have a protocol that includes an ice pack and cab fare to an emergent care center. I asked her to discuss this with the Store manager. The shift supervisor apologized and inquired after my daughter’s condition.

200909141025.jpgAnalysis: An individual person was sorry, but the Store per se didn’t really care. The Store had no organized response, and no sense of responsibility to aid burned customers.

What happened next: I’m not sure who contacted the Organization’s corporate office (I don’t recall that it was me), but about a week after the accident, I got a call from a lawyer at the Organization’s corporate office.

Corporate response did not fix the problem

I had a long, long talk with this fellow about how they could have handled the situation differently, what protocol they might put in place (everything from employees’ offering the first aid kit to considering how to prevent people from putting the baby strollers right by the ledge where the hot drinks are placed for the customers to pick up.) (Yes, think about that for a moment– a grande hot tea spilling onto a toddler strapped into a stroller. Thank god my child was upright and that the bluning hot wet clothing was not strapped to her. But I digress…)

The corporate fellow was very concerned and talked with me for a long time. Kindly, he asked what they could do to help us, and he seemed genuinely apologetic and concerned. He asked us to send them the bills for our copayments at the Burn Unit. He would send a gift certificate for a lot of free coffee for our family and a teddy bear to my daughter as an apology.

What happened next:

We asked them to put a first aid routine into place

I was extremely specific and (to my mind) constructive about what I wanted them to do. Lucky for us, we had insurance that would pay, a top-notch burn unit 30 minutes drive away, and a stoic child. We weren’t interested in suing them, or even getting reimbursed– We just wanted to prevent this from happening to any other child. So,

  • I specifically asked that he bring the problem to the attention of the safety department and HR, and that he ask them to put a response protocol into place.


  • I asked that Corporate managers speak to the local managers, supervisors and baristas at the Store where this happened, and teach them what they could and should have immediately done to have helped my child and my husband.

  • I asked if the staff at this Store would talk about ways to prevent this problem in the first place (e.g, put the lids on carefully, put the cups down at least 3 inches from the ledge, etc.)
  • I asked that he get back in touch with me and let me know that these conversations had taken place, and that some effort had been made to prevent the problem in the future.

What happened next:
We got a gift card in the mail. (No teddy bear, though, so since I’d told my daughter a teddy bear would be coming from the Organization to comfort her as she healed, I used part of the gift card to buy her a teddy bear from the Store.)

As far as we know, the lawyer, the Store and the Organization never responded to our request for a first aid procedure and employee training to aid burned customers.

We never heard from them again.

The moral of the story?

We continue to be regular customers of the Organization, and admit I still drink a lot of their espresso. However, every time we are in Manhattan and pass the Store where the burn occurred we comment on how horrible that whole experience was. Despite the Store’s proximity to the train station and it’s convenience as a place to get a cookie for a tired kid, my children will not go there. They will go in any other Store, but not that one.

Before this experience, I knew that this Organization, like every organization, was not perfect. I didn’t believe everything the Organization said about itself, or everything it claimed it wanted to be, but I liked the place. I was happy to go there. It was a treat.

Now, my perception of the Organization has changed. It became conclusively impersonal to me; it became about a caffeine fix, not a ‘third place’. I no longer stick up for this Organization when students offer it as an example of an organization that’s trying to be better, to recapture what made/makes it special.

I can no longer give this Organization, as a organization, the benefit of the doubt. It has forever disappointed me and my family.

The burn healed, the scar faded, the damage is done.


Joseph Logan September 14, 2009 at 12:54 pm

What a terrible story all around. It seems to me you are probably expecting too much of the organization (though certainly not of the individuals who failed the test of basic human kindness). I think all of us who study and work with organizations would prefer that they are constructive, responsive, and inclined to learn. The far more common reality is that change only occurs in the face of a clear and present crisis. In this case, the crisis was yours.

So, what constitutes a change-provoking crisis? The least constructive aspects of organizational life imaginable: lawsuits, bad press, and diminished profits. The company’s response pretty clearly indicates a detachment from the employees, which to me signals almost no momentum for constructive change. Dunkin will change as McDonald’s changed–and even Wal-Mart a little after Thin Minty-Gate–but it would be a stretch to expect {Starbucks?} to do anything differently just because it is the right thing to do.
.-= Joseph Logan´s last blog ..Series Introduction: Macro Issues in Health Care =-.

cv September 14, 2009 at 5:29 pm

Joe, I think you are right to suggest that I was probably expecting too much. I think I went into the conversation with the corporate person thinking that they’d actually want to respond with a prevention strategy and not just something to prevent litigation. While it was a crisis for my family, it wasn’t even an ‘event’ at the Store. Despite the number of times I write about how organizations could be better, I think I usually start from the expectation that the organizations and the people who represent them do want to be better; clearly this is not always the case. Somehow, I’ve got to figure out how to make ‘the right thing to do’ be the obvious next response.

Your comment also reminds me just how hard it is to get organizations to change, either from the outside or from the inside. Even with data point after data point, when you have no system for aggregating the data or for recognizing it as feedback, even a large accumulation of disappointment across many constituents fails to make a mark. *sigh*

Wally Bock September 14, 2009 at 5:07 pm

Gosh, I’m sorry for your daughter. Burns are bad enough if you’re an adult, but toddlers don’t have the ways to shift attention.

I’m constantly amazed at how so many large companies simply don’t have systems for dealing with routine emergencies. Unless there are systems and unless there’s constant training to counter the turnover in most retail chains, what happened to your daughter, in other forms will keep on happening.
.-= Wally Bock´s last blog ..A Tale of Two Suggestion Systems =-.

cv September 14, 2009 at 5:33 pm

Wally, reflecting on the absence of employee training makes me realize that this organization must not have been selecting the right people to hire in the first place.
If the idea is to get the ‘right kind of people’ first and then train them in the specifics, this Organization failed on both counts. I say this because if they’d hired people who cared about customers in general, somebody would have responded in some way or another even without being specifically trained in first aid or ‘official’ response. Kind words, a bag of ice and returning a phone call shouldn’t require much more than an authentic customer orientation…if you’ve hired folks with that to begin with.

lisa gates September 15, 2009 at 12:44 pm

I have a very similar situation with the same organization (big fat guess), so I empathize thoroughly with your experience. And I actually don’t think you expected too much. If the Company had their ears attached and their listening turned on, this “case study” should be reason enough to hire you to implement the plan. (Wink).

On a personal level, you say the “damage has been done.” I respectfully ask you to consider that this is only true if you prefer to hold on to the problem as opposed to the solution. I guess what I’m really saying is that this is your fabulous passion, your purpose, your soapbox, and your forum for calling organizations out and revealing the next right step toward authenticity. I say (like you asked me, right?) this story can’t end here, in disappointment and resignation. You can let it go, yes, but holding on to the “damage” as your stake in the ground is contrary to your mission I think.

Consider sending “them” a link to this post…

cv September 21, 2009 at 9:13 pm

Hi Lisa- Thanks so much for your thoughtful comment, and your suggestion that I reconsider whether the damage is the end point of the story, given that doing something ‘more’ to nudge the organization might be more in line with my overall mission.
Hi Mike — You also bring up the question of whether it would be appropriate to pursue the matter … I appreciated the invitation to rethink where I ended up with this story.

Reflecting on both of your comments, I realize that I thought I’d get somewhere by taking the high road of focusing on process improvements rather than leading with a litigious threat. I personally didn’t have the energy and I didn’t want to distract from my overall priorities once I realized how quixotic my whole approach was. Had the outcome been more horrible, were I a litigator myself, had I the personal resources… maybe I’d have taken another step.

It’s also possible that I’m shirking my civic responsibility too… (but then again, I’m tilting at Wal-mart, bad social science, and the Supreme Court, not to mention American business’ infatuation with narrow-minded capitalism. I can only take on so much and still think of myself as an optimist ). I may still try tweeting the story to their folks on the west coast…I could set it up as a test of their social media response, too. ….. an idea there….

I don’t personally feel ‘damaged’ by the experience (at least, not any more). I feel okay about having made a good faith effort to contribute to the organization by sharing my concerns and suggestions. Mixing the metaphors a bit, you can lead the horse to water, but it’s up to the horse to wake up and smell the spilled coffee.

Mike Toffel September 20, 2009 at 8:17 am

The company missed an incredible opportunity you provided for them to improve their operating processes. This is particularly surprising to me because the changes you suggested are spot on, cheap to implement, and target customer safety — which can prevent bad publicity and lawsuits (and helps leverage employees’ empathy for wounded customers). I wonder whether filing a lawsuit against the company with the expressed purpose of getting them to implement a systemic program aimed to address customer safety would help spark change — at this store, this company, and possibly other companies as well. While you might technically only be able to sue for money, you could agree to a settlement that requires them to implement this type of program by a certain date to be verified by a third party (plus reimbursement for your legal expenses). It seems bizarre that such a route might be the only way to help this company do the right thing — and protect its own interests — but I think it’d be far better that giving up. And you might be (unfortunately) uniquely situated to launch such a lawsuit, given you have standing because the actions directly damaged your child (though I’m not a lawyer).

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