What Chipotle Teaches Us About How to Win Back Loyal Customers After a Service Fail

All they wanted was fresh, organic, delicious burritos at reasonable prices. They’d depended on them for years. The burritos – and the corporate ethics behind the burritos – were part of the daily rhythm of their lives, as predictable as sunrise and sunset, as comforting as a warm fire on a cold February night. And then, in the last six months of 2015, it all fell apart. State after state, stomach after stomach, Chipotle failed to live up to its promises. By the time the outbreaks slowed, 500 Chipotle fans lay ill in 13 states, and the restaurant chain’s reputation lay in tatters.

At this writing, it’s unclear whether Chipotle will be able to recover from the hit it’s taken. Company leaders predict that the firm will recover by 2017. Other analysts point out that they’ve lost over 30% of their regular customers – it may not be possible to lure those people back, even with tasty discounts and new food safety practices. Chipotle, however, has a plan, and that plan has some good elements for any firm fighting to overcome a bad customer experience disaster.

You Have No One to Blame but Yourself for Bad Customer Experience

Analysts suggest that the source of Chipotle’s outbreak is deeply rooted in its business model. Because the company works with so many suppliers and tries to minimize processing, it’s nearly impossible to ensure safe handling processes throughout the supply chain. By now, Chipotle understands the issue. Every location in the country will be closed on February 8 so that executives can help staff understand where the infections started and what steps leadership has taken to prevent them in the future.

Notice what Chipotle is doing here. Most industry experts posit that the source of the norovirus, Salmonella, and E. coli was suppliers, not the practices of individual Chipotle restaurants. Yet the chain is not pointing fingers and assigning blame to “Bob’s California Lettuce and Free Range Chicken Farm.” Instead, leadership has taken the blame for their failure to predict, prevent, and address outbreaks of foodborne illness.

This is an important first step towards winning back formerly loyal customers after a major failure. Nobody likes a whiny tattletale. Customers want to deal with adults. By accepting responsibility, Chipotle leadership has shown that the adults are taking control and that the bacterial house party has come to an end.

You Always Saw Right through Me

Chipotle is also being upfront with customers and the media about the steps they’re taking to prevent future outbreaks. For instance, the company has announced that tomatoes will now arrive at stores pre-chopped and in sealed bags. In the past, the company chopped the tomatoes on site to enhance flavor, but tomatoes are prime vectors for foodborne illness. Off-site preparation will let Chipotle conduct more extensive testing to ensure safety.

Most of their customers probably won’t be able to tell the difference between tomatoes chopped on and off-site. Chipotle could have made the change quietly. Instead, they’ve embraced transparency. Because they’re explaining each change and the rationale behind it, they’re helping to rebuild the customer experience. They’re not some faceless fast food chain doing unspeakable things to your food behind closed doors. They’re customer-focused, ethical, and open. They trust you, and you can trust them because they put your needs ahead of shady corporate interests.

Of course, a lot of this is public relations schmoozing. Chipotle cares about profit, stock prices, and growth just like any other business. But by being honest about changes and the rationale behind them, they appeal to customers who tend to think of large firms as something like the masked villains of Scooby Doo. Without transparency, there can be no trust. And after you’ve put hundreds of people in the hospital, you need to rebuild trust.

Burning an Eternal Flame

Chipotle’s public changes have convinced the media – and many casual observers – that they’ve changed their ways and won’t go down in history as the next incarnation of Typhoid Mary. However, they have a more difficult task ahead of them. They have to lure back loyal fans who felt betrayed when “healthy lunch” suddenly transmogrified into “healthcare lunch.” For instance, they must win over the Boston College students who saw their basketball team fall to Chipotle-caused disaster right before a game. Can any BC athlete trust Chipotle again? Or will they have to switch their loyalty to Panera instead?

Loyal customers are the hardest to win back after a major customer experience disaster because they go into every interaction with higher expectations for your business. They love you. They need you. And if you let them down, they will destroy you. Chipotle realizes this, which is why one of their first post-plague marketing campaigns is directly targeted to their most loyal fans. Industry watchers are divided on the strategy. Some have argued that Chipotle should be focusing on a broader population, not a narrow and highly devoted one. However, Chipotle has the right approach here for several reasons:

Their most loyal fans are the angriest about the outbreaks.

Sure, about 2/3 of their regular customers are still getting their pseudo-Mexican food fixes at Chipotle, but that 1/3 who left feels betrayed. They associated fresh, local, and ethical with “healthy.” Chipotle’s failure didn’t just assault their stomachs. It attacked their entire worldview. Casual Chipotle diners may shrug off the outbreaks as something that could happen to anyone – hey, remember Jack-in-the-Box? Hardcore Chipotle fans are more likely to see the issue as a deeper corporate malaise. Chipotle needs to convince these people that the company still cares.

In a social media world, loyal fans are your ambassadors.

Chipotle grew so big, so quickly because it attracted loyal fans who used social media to draw other people into the Chipotle experience. These fans get new people to try the food. They convince people that Chipotle’s corporate ethos and quality are worth paying three times the price that you would for a meal at Taco Bell. Chipotle needs these fans back to recover its sales.

Targeting loyal fans restores the customer experience.

Recent studies have shown that Chipotle’s most dedicated fans tend to be more outgoing than McDonald’s fans. They want to get out of their shell, meet people, and experience the world. (McDonald’s fans want to grab a quick meal and go home for some quiet time, apparently.) That means that a huge part of the customer experience at Chipotle is the other people eating there, not the food. Empty restaurants ruin the experience and make fans less likely to return. Chipotle needs its fan community to avoid a death spiral.

Chipotle’s Future – And Yours

Even Chipotle admits that the next few months are going to be tough for the company. You can’t build a reputation based on excellence and then deliver a meal that leaves people hunched over a toilet bowl for days. However, a lot of its future is riding on the outcome of the February 8 meeting – and what happens after that.

Most businesses will never experience a Chipotle-caliber bad customer experience. However, everyone disappoints customers sometimes. You can apply the lessons of Chipotle to even a small scare. Communicate, take the blame, be transparent, and do what you must to keep your most loyal customers on board. If your customer experience disaster plan goes into effect at the first hint of a problem, you’ll be able to avoid becoming a media buzz-word for “bad customer experience.”


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