A Facebook-like news feed, a live chat and a game can be credited for Häagen-Dazs' improved internal communication and customer experiences at ice cream franchises around the U.S.

The franchising arm of Häagen-Dazs, based in Minneapolis, and the Design Center Inc. in St. Paul, released a mobile employee portal application in 2014 to improve customer satisfaction and to encourage a diverse group of franchise employees and owners to communicate better with corporate staff.

The ice cream company, a subsidiary of Nestlé USA, operates 209 franchises around the U.S. Before 2014, Häagen-Dazs struggled to connect older franchise owners and young front-line employees with corporate staff at company headquarters.

"We took a franchise survey that showed us that we had a really low engagement rate with our shops," said Eileen O'Toole, Häagen-Dazs' manager of training. "We also did a lot of customer survey work at that same time and found out that our … scores were super low, not great experiences for our guests."

The ice cream giant reached out to Design Center, a design firm specializing in creating tools for companies to work more efficiently, and became its client in 2012. The result was HDScoops, an internal app that combines training for employees, a live chat and feed that all store locations can see and post to, a timekeeping and scheduling function, and news from corporate managers.

"I think early on, we identified there was an engagement issue, so it was … how do we do a little bit more than just training? How do we create more of an app that fosters a lot of recurring regular engagement?" said Scott di Girolamo, design lead for the Design Center.

Chris Cornejo, the Design Center's marketing director, said the app's structure allows for strong branding to reinforce Häagen-Dazs' message. "All of that stuff is in one space that looks like Häagen-Dazs, that feels like Häagen-Dazs, so you don't have this … separation from your job and your training. It's all one thing," Cornejo said.

It was important for Design Center software developers to understand Häagen-Dazs as a company and the context of their employees, di Girolamo said "This is fun, we wanted to create an environment that was fun," he said.

For the past three years, all Häagen-Dazs locations have used the app on an in-store iPad, and at the end of last year, the companies released a game called Snap Learning that allows employees to quiz themselves on best practices for working at a Häagen-Dazs store. Correct answers are rewarded with points, and those points can be used to buy digital avatars and corresponding accessories.

In addition to the functional, practical resources found in the apps scheduling or timekeeping functions, O'Toole said Snap Learning is a creative way to continue education of employees on store values and skills. "This has turned out to be a big deal for our front line," O'Toole said. "They love it."

Philson Cetoute, manager at Häagen-Dazs' Mall of America location, has been with the company for four years. Cetoute said integrating the app into the store took time and learning, but now he and his employees use it constantly.

"It brings everybody closer," he said. "We can work better as a team."

Cetoute said seeing feedback on customer service on through the HDScoops app is helpful and encouraging to employees. He said the training videos, for example, have improved ice cream scooping skills, and Snap Learning keeps employees' memories refreshed.

O'Toole added that many restaurants still rely on physical binders and materials to train employees. "They haven't really made the move into really thinking about their audience," she said. "We know that everyone's on their phones."

This perspective was used to receive funding from Nestlé for the project, she said, which was skeptical of some of the app's features — the live chat, the ability for any employee to post anything on the feed, and Snap Learning. Eventually, the app was nominated for an internal company award for innovation. Since 2013, O'Toole has received around $100,000 in annual funding for the project from Nestlé.

As a result of HDScoops, O'Toole said surveys taken every two years of Häagen-Dazs franchises show engagement rose 15 points between when the app was first released and last year. She added that customer service scores went up about 10 percent over nine months after the app was implemented.

Cornejo said this type of software can easily be applied to any front-line industry, not just ice cream shops. "The idea that you can create a tool that you're combining utility, engagement, fun … makes a great conduit of information," he said.

For the future, the app will continue to closely track data and analytics on customer and employee experience. O'Toole added that they're working to incorporate analytics on store inventory and Snap Learning into the app.

Olivia Johnson is a University of Minnesota student reporter on assignment for Star Tribune.