How to Implement Crisis Prevention in Training

The Chipotle scandal calls into question practices around food contamination and negative customer experience. Here are crisis aversion training tips.

Published on 2 September, 2016 | Last modified on 1 November, 2022
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Chipotle has been facing some considerable concerns since August of last year. From salmonella and e.coli outbreaks to numerous cases of norovirus, the Mexican fast food chain, best known for its organically sourced ingredients, has been in troubled waters for quite some time. With the latest outbreak occurring in March of this year, executives across the company have been scrambling to deal with problems regarding customer trust, organizational value as well as health and safety regulations.

The Cost of Contamination

According to Bloomberg, the Chipotle scandal has caused the company to take some major hits financially. Since the first salmonella outbreak in August, Chipotle’s stock has lost nearly 30 percent of its overall value. The hits to store sales across the country caused the fast-casual dining chain to report its first-ever decline in quarterly revenue in February, quickly followed by its first quarterly loss as a public company in March.

However, the most devastating came from its consumers. Many formerly loyal customers have become wary of Chipotle’s commitment to “food with integrity” – a widely recognized company promise. Organic Authority recently conducted a survey which found that 50 percent of respondents would not eat at Chipotle today. Organic Authority further prompted, “What would it take for you to eat at Chipotle Mexican Grill again?” to the participants that chose not to partake in Chipotle’s service offerings. While the answers varied in nature, a towering 37 percent of participants, said that they will never eat there again.

 In the absence of communication, rumor and innuendo fill the gap.”

The Response

Chipotle executives have put strong efforts into mitigating the crisis – from issuing public apologies to centralizing processes for much of the company product.

“The fact that anyone has become ill eating at Chipotle is completely unacceptable to me, and I am deeply sorry,” read a full page Chipotle newspaper ad apology penned by Chipotle’s founder and Co-CEO Steve Ells. Ells further lamented, “As a result, we are committed to becoming known as the leader in food safety, just as we are known for using the very best ingredients in a fast-food setting.”

Perhaps the biggest measure taken by the fast-food chain was a total location shut down on February 8th. Chipotle held a national employee meeting to educate their employees on new food safety best practices. Why start here? Well, any degree of success starts with knowledge. Training is a great start. When every level of the company is well versed in high-level best practices and guidelines, fewer problems exist. In Chipotle’s situation, this meant refocusing training initiatives on safer food handling. Chipotle executives focused on improving employee education to show cautious customers that every location can be trusted again.

Addressing the Roots of the Problem

Such a widespread scandal for a beloved restaurant chain has understandably caused considerable wariness among today’s consumers. This has increased the focus on implementing preventive measures in training.

Now, more than ever, L&D teams are looking to employee training initiatives and asking themselves: What can be done to cut these potential problems off at their roots? In retrospect, training surrounding food handling and sanitation processes could have prevented Chipotle’s contamination crisis.

One of the more focused areas in the wake of major public business crises, similar to the extent of Chipotle’s, is improving customer service. Nearly all organizations are susceptible to crises at one point or another. One of the major ways to narrow the scope of such events is by demonstrating exceptional customer care. So, what aspects of training can have a considerable impact on crisis mitigation? And what are some tips for L&D leaders looking to beef up these areas of concern? Let’s take a look.


“The biggest focus during major business crises should be customer service.”

Set Company Protocols: Keeping laminated posters in the kitchen visible to the back of house staff is one way to keep company protocols at the forefront of staff members’ minds. According to Jonathan Bernstein, President of Bernstein Crisis Management, the best training tool for customer service teams is well-rehearsed crisis communication and operational plan. Bernstein, as featured in International Business Times, sees preparation as the true key to training. Staffers should have clearly outlined boilerplate responses that were ready to go when disaster hits. L&D leaders must ensure trainees are familiarized with these plans from the start. This allows customer service representatives to alleviate the panic period and dig right into dealing with effective customer communications.

Remain Customer-focused: Customers are the primary focus of your customer service team, but training for crises should emphasize that to a considerable degree. According to Groove HQ, empathy is the most important skill for a customer service rep to possess. In the midst of a company scandal, it is likely that your customers are feeling slighted or frustrated. Make your response personalized and focused on them as individuals and not faceless masses. Customer service teams must understand the unique needs of every customer and they must excel at quickly turning that into a personalized response. If a food retailer finds themselves in a similar imposition as Chipotle did, customer service team members should be trained to focus on customer safety and easing their individual concerns about future outbreaks. IBT reported that acting in the customer’s best interest is even more important than financial backlash when dealing with a crisis. Put the focus on your customers in team training and your subsequent response.

Make Responses Quick and Efficient: When a crisis hits, your customers expect a speedy response. Training should reflect the need for this immediacy. L&D leaders need to hold role playing scenarios for their customer service teams regularly. This can provide necessary training in getting out efficient and well-worded responses as quickly as possible. “In the absence of communication, rumor and innuendo fill the gap,” said Bernstein. “All messaging needs to communicate compassion, confidence, and competence.” Customer service reps are tasked with ensuring communication is timely to avoid untrue fillers while still encompassing all the aforementioned elements of good messaging. Don’t leave this practice to chance. Train your team diligently in this area.

“When a crisis hits, your customers expect a speedy response.”

Be Apologetic: Ownership of customer inconvenience is perhaps the most important thing a business can do in light of a crisis. “Apologies come naturally when you put the consumers first,” said crisis management specialist Gene Grabowski, in IBT. “If the consumer is confused or inconvenienced in any way, then it’s time for an apology.” In a separate Groove HQ article, contributor Len Markidan noted that “sorry” is the single most important in any business crisis. It relates back to the idea of empathy; customers need to be reassured that you truly feel sorry for what they have experienced as a result of your mishap. Apologies are proven to help people move past their anger and open up pathways to forgiveness. In business terms, an apology could be the difference between keeping a customer and losing that individual’s loyalty altogether. Customer service reps should be trained in the art of apologies. Take ownership of responsibility from the start and work from there.

After releasing a public apology, send customers postcards that include a free product or service. Sending this form of printed apology, such as a postcard, with an added incentive does a lot of damage control and gets customers back in your store.

As with most things, proper training is a very effective solution to any business crisis. While customer service may not necessarily be able to prevent a crisis altogether, it can help mitigate the subsequent problems that arise in light of a scandal. L&D leaders are right to turn to training when considering how to prevent a crisis from happening to them. Whether it is increased food safety guidelines or a more stringent employee crisis management protocol, embracing the problem at the training roots should help lessen the burden of a business disaster.

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