A Good Answer To “Can You Guarantee This Won’t Happen Again?”

After a crisis or negative incident, many reporters ask a variation of this question: “Can you guarantee this will never happen again?”

The problem with that question is that life offers no guarantees—and no matter what procedures and protocols you put into place, there’s almost always a chance the negative incident could reoccur.

And yet, saying that in an interview can be used against you. If you answer by saying something flip such as, “There are no guarantees in life,” or, “No, we can’t guarantee that,” the resulting story may feature that true but uninspiring line as a pull quote in bold.

In The Media Training Bible, I wrote:

“The best way to answer “guarantee” questions is to talk about what you can guarantee. You usually can’t guarantee a specific result, but you can guarantee that you are committed to something specific—an effort, a policy, or an idea.”

That’s the approach Chipotle founder Steve Ells used when interviewed on NPR’s wonderful podcast “How I Built This with Guy Raz.”

Case Study: Chipotle

In October 2015, dozens of Chipotle customers became ill after eating food contaminated by E. coli. The chain struggled to identify the source, suffered nightmarish publicity, and watched as its stock price dropped by double digits.

When looking back on that incident two years later, here’s how Steve Ells answered the “guarantee” question (in bold):   

RAZ: There are some people who got sick from – after eating it. And…

ELLS: So, you know, over a one-month period, from basically mid-October to mid-November, 52 people got sick with E. coli.

RAZ: Were you freaking out?

ELLS: Well, I mean, freak – I don’t know freaking out is the right way to describe it. You know, we were really – well, I mean, it was just – it was all encompassing. I mean, it was like – it was really intense. You know, you wouldn’t wish this on anybody. But if you back up and think about it, you know, nobody was bringing in as much fresh food, as much fresh produce and meat as Chipotle. So what we realized is that we needed to develop protocols to prevent any kind of pathogen from coming into the system.

RAZ: Which is impossible to do 100 percent of time, right?

ELLS: You know, you can never say 100 percent.

RAZ: Yeah.

ELLS: But you can get very close to zero. So, you know, I’ll give you an example. Think about an avocado. There are potentially pathogens on an avocado, but you wash the avocado, right? The avocado was washed after it’s harvested. But what if that avocado could be infected somehow falls on the ground and hits a little rock or something and that – and just that little spot where the pathogen is pushed under the skin?

RAZ: Yeah.

ELLS: And now you wash it, but you don’t wash that little spot. And what if, as you put your knife into the avocado to cut it…

RAZ: It hits that spot.
ELLS: …It hits that exact spot? But what are the chances of that, 1 in a million, 1 in 10 million? How many…

RAZ: I’m thinking about all avocados I cut at home, and I don’t wash them.

ELLS: Well, that’s right, but you cut dozens. We cut millions and millions, and I’m not saying that the avocado was responsible for this particular incident, but we’ve looked at every single item we bring in, and we’ve ensured that there are a number of interventions along the way. And so what we do with this avocado now is after we wash it, we plunge it into boiling water for five seconds. This is called blanching.

RAZ: Yeah.

ELLS: And it’s not long enough to cook avocado but just long enough to bring the temperature of the skin and the area under the skin just high enough so that it would kill any pathogen that might be there. And we do this with lemons and limes and bell peppers and jalapeno peppers. It’s a process that is very, very thorough, and the chance that a pathogen can survive through that is certainly near zero.

RAZ: Steve, you have this incredible run from the – literally from the first store you open that was profitable, and then you hit this crisis point in 2015. And I can’t imagine you ever dealt with anything even remotely close to that. So were you mentally prepared for it?

ELLS: Well, (laughter) you know, I’m here now, so I got through it.

RAZ: Yeah.

ELLS: But we weren’t – we weren’t prepared as an organization for it obviously.

RAZ: Yeah.

ELLS: And since that incident – we’re two years away from it now – we are a different company. We have a top-notch board of directors that are independent and very critical in a good way, in a challenging way. And we are prepared now for a lot of success ahead of us.

Overall, this is a great answer (with one part I’d do differently).

Rather than lingering in the negative, Ells launched quickly into a specific and credible example about avocados that highlighted Chipotle’s new protocols.

In so doing, he set up the initial problem as a rarity that resulted from bad fortune, not thoughtlessness. He detailed a specific process that would reduce the already low odds of contamination to something even lower, near zero. And because of Guy Raz’s question, Ells was able to hint that Chipotle handles produce even more responsibly than the average home cook (how many of us blanch avocados before making a bowl of guacamole?).

His invocation of the company’s independent and critical board of directors immediately following this exchange served as yet another demonstration of Chipotle’s seriousness of purpose.

The thing he should have done differently came right at the top of his answer.

Instead of this:

“You can never say 100 percent.”

He should have eliminated that line and launched with his next one instead:

“You can get very close to zero.”

Both lines make a similar point—but the second one comes across as proactive, confident, and empowered, while the first sounds defensive and lacks confidence. If you’re Chipotle, you’d be thrilled to see that second line show up as a news story’s bolded pull quote. You might not feel the same way about the first one.

The full transcript of Steve Ells’ interview is available on NPR’s website