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After A Failure, What Makes Customers 'Trust' Again? And Can Chipotle Pull It Off?

When you construct a safety policy, first and foremost, make it personal.
After A Failure, What Makes Customers 'Trust' Again? And Can Chipotle Pull It Off?
Image credit: Andrew Renneisen | Getty Images

After a 2015 E. coli and norovirus outbreak that sickened more than 50 customers across 11 states, Chipotle's second-quarter profits are down 81 percent year over year, and sales have dropped significantly, USA Today reported last week. In an effort to combat this loss of customers, the Associated Press reported, the company “tried giving away coupons for millions of free entrees, introduced chorizo as a topping, started a summer loyalty program and offered free drinks to students in September.”

Related: Why Chipotle Is Closed for Lunch Today

Now, Chipotle is trying yet another strategy to win back those long-lost customers.

On Wednesday of last week, the Mexican cuisine chain took out prominent ads in USA Today and the Wall Street Journal and posted a video on its Twitter page featuring co-CEO Steve Ellis saying, “In 2015, we failed to live up to our own food safety standards, and in so doing, we let our customers down. At that time, I made a promise to all of our customers that we would elevate our food safety program."  

The video goes on to outline the new safety standards and procedures being implemented to protect Chipotle customers in the future. But is this promise going to be enough earn back customers’ trust?  

Publicly acknowledging that the company made a mistake, taking responsibility and outlining a plan to protect patrons in the future is a good first step. Making customers aware of new rules and procedures being implemented to keep them safe is another. But there’s one more important factor that will not only reduce the risk of another lapse in cleanliness but show customers that the company is taking this matter seriously: Chipotle needs to embrace what it means to truly have a culture of safety, which is no easy fix.  

A safety culture is based on people, process, behavior, and attitude.  Here’s what that entails.

1. Make it personal.

After a major safety failure, a company should ensure that every employee is emotionally invested in the victims, their families and the way in which they were impacted. Take "safety" ouf of the abstract and attach real humans to the equation.

Make things real by adding the "human" element to the statistics; that's an effective way to overcome safety malaise.  Produce a video with statements from the victims or their families describing the personal impact of the safety failure. That video should be seen by every employee on his/her first day of work. In addition to the emotional pull it will yield, you also need to give your employees a stake in the success of your safety program.

Tie bonus, salary and promotions in. People who cannot both lead their team and make sure team members are performing their jobs safely -- people who do not buy into the vision -- have to go.

2. Kill the sacred cows.  

All company employees must understand that the organization is embarking on a new journey -- one in which the old “sacred cows” from the past cannot go. One of those sacred cows may be that safety belongs to the safety manager alone. Wrong. In an operating company, safety belongs to every employee, but especially to operating management.  

Another sacred cow? The victim mentality, whereby a company gives itself a pass on being accountable by thinking, “Oh, well, we work in a dangerous environment. Accidents will happen.”

Related: People Expecting a Free Chipotle Burrito Instead Accidently Texted a Random Lawyer

3. Identify the organizational role.  

Safe outcomes are the product of both individual and organizational accountability. Introduce the concept of organizational causes for safety failures. That means the organization has a role, usually a huge one, regarding fault when something goes wrong. Examples include employees developing work-arounds instead of following procedures, the organization not learning from prior events and precursors, senior management giving only lip service to safety, management not knowing what is driving safety performance and the organization using incorrect metrics to gauge safety.

Recognize and incorporate these universal truths:

Zero accidents is the only acceptable goal. For most aspects of business, 99.9 percent is a pretty compelling standard. Not just a platitude about "safety." A more specific standard of "zero" safety failures is the only satisfactory goal.

Safety is much more than a group of numbers on a page. Safety is about you. It is families and friends.

Managers have to engage. This can’t be delegated. Safety leadership is a core responsibility of management.

Measurement of performance is critical. The accident rate is the outcome of behaviors, so measure proactive activities like safety meetings, supervisory and peer observations, individual one-on-one discussions and cultural surveys.

The majority of casualties are caused by at-risk behavior, not a pure failure in facilities or equipment. Rather than examine the conditions of the accident, it is more useful to consider the behavior associated with it.

Establish pride in the craft. For some of the employees, youthful dreams and once-big plans may have fizzled. Life for some has evolved into a colorless routine of low expectations. People need to feel that their daily work is making a contribution to society, that what they’re doing is meaningful. Talk to your front-line people about the significance of their work. Ensure that uniforms for the front line have explicit safety branding and logos.

Debunk the safety-or-productivity dichotomy. “Safety or productivity -- which one do you want?” I have heard this nonsense over my entire career: “You can’t be safe and be productive at the same time, so what do you want: to get the job done, or for us to be safe?”

This is a fallacy, of course. If you want to have a messed-up operation, just imagine the pain you'll experience trying to win back the trust of your customers. See what being unsafe does to your operation, your budget, your customer service, your reputation in the community and your total costs. Best-in-class leaders and best-in-class companies know that safety is the cornerstone of great operations. If the production line has to slow down a bit to be safe, that is fine. In fact, present that slowdown as a virtue: "We’d rather take our time to get it right."

Related: Chipotle's Rewards Program Is so Flawed They Don't Know Who Is Eating Their Free Burritos

Rules, laws, and regulations do not prevent accidents. It takes a culture where every individual worker buys into safety. Safety is about people taking responsibility for their behavior and that of their peers, so focus on the basics. Great safety is about paying attention to detail and solidly executing the basics.