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From: Food Quality & Safety magazine, December/January 2011

Selling Food Safety to Your Employees

Create buy-in from the top down, change behavior

by Gina R. Nicholson, RS

In today’s economic climate, businesses are trying to gain the upper hand by taking advantage of every selling opportunity. Smart business executives put together a strategic sales plan that gives the company a competitive advantage. Using social marketing methods in that plan is essential for changing consumers’ buying behaviors.

To create a safe food supply, we must develop a strategic sales plan that includes social marketing methods to sell food safety behavior to our employees. We need to ask ourselves, “Is employee behavior as important to food safety as food science?” Of course it is. For the past two years, every food safety conference has focused on creating a food safety culture and changing the behavior of food employees. This change in focus has been a great reminder that as food scientists we need to put “people” into our food safety management equation.

Let’s dive deeply into different selling strategies that have been proven effective over time and use them as part of our food safety management system. To do this, we’ll need to step away, look at our business from the outside, and think like entrepreneurs.

Believe to Achieve
The first rule of sales is that you must believe in what you are selling. You must move from being committed to food safety to being converted to practicing food safety. The words committed and converted are defined as:
• Committed—com•mit•ted (adjective): devoted, devoted to somebody or something such as a cause or relationship.
• Converted—con•vert•ed (verb): to be changed in character, form, or function.

As an adjective, the word “committed” is passive. It is a decision that you make, not an action. But the word “converted” is a verb, involving action. Once you are converted, you do not just believe in something, you change your behavior to reflect your conversion. Working in food safety is more than a job, it is a calling—a calling to protect your customers’ health and safety first.

When you are converted to practicing food safety, you take action to convert others, too. Converting employees to practice food safety usually occurs over an extended period of time, but conversion can happen more quickly if certain events occur, such as a foodborne illness outbreak, a large recall due to pathogenic contamination, or when employees are given the right tools to make following food safety practices easier.

Selling food safety must start at the top and work its way down. Start with converting your executive team. And be passionate. Passion is contagious. When you have a real passion for what you do, others will join you. Your passion for food safety should show in everything you do. When it becomes contagious, you will see food safety become second nature to all of your employees.

Tactics and Strategy
Develop a strategic plan of selling food safety to your employees. Plan your sales activities, including determining the methods you will use to reach employees, integrating food safety into every aspect of the business, and identifying the resources and tools that are available to you. Your tactics should involve the day-to-day selling of food safety: talking to colleagues, making sure that the message is getting to your employees, and following up on that message.

Strategic plan development begins with research. Learn how to make food safety a driver of business success. Communicate food safety in familiar business terms. Define food safety goals in every segment of your company’s business goals. Remember that food safety is the foundation of any food business. It is what keeps food companies in business, because customers expect the food they purchase to be wholesome and safe for their families and friends. Food safety should be supported across all functions of the organization.

Once you have implemented the tactics involved in selling food safety to employees, your strategy will come to life. Focus on your employees to maximize food safety success. Develop standard practices and expectations that are simple to execute. Give your employees the proper tools, equipment, and time to execute safe practices easily. Make food safety personal by giving them practices that they can use at home. These tactics make food safety intuitive to, rather than just expected from, your employees.

Know Your Customer
Great sales people really know their customers. Getting to know your customers can help you close more sales in two months than you could in two years if you focused only on the customer getting to know you. Great sales people want to understand rather than to be understood.

In food safety, your customers are the colleagues who work in every department of your business, from the executive team to the hourly store associate. If you want to sell food safety, you must build and establish trust. First impressions are crucial. Simple actions instill trust: smiling sincerely, first with your eyes and then your mouth; keeping a relaxed stance; maintaining eye contact; and leaning slightly toward the person to whom you are talking.

Do you really know your colleagues? What are their personal interests? Who are their family members? What motivates them? The only way to answer these questions is to get out of your office and walk the halls. I make it my practice to walk the halls once a week to say “hi” to the merchandisers, facility engineers, communications people, and executive team members. I ask about projects they are working on. I also ask about the people in the pictures hanging in their offices, engaging them in casual conversation. You can learn a lot about people—who they really are—when they talk about their personal lives and what is important to them.

Researchers believe that up to 90% of communication is nonverbal. In other words, the more you can get beneath people’s facades, the more accurately you can predict how they will react or respond in certain situations and then use that knowledge to your advantage. As long as you do not abuse your insights (be discreet and sensitive, and do not act superior) people will appreciate your intuitive and insightful food safety messages.

Author Frederick L. Collins had a saying: “There are two types of people—those who come into a room and say, ‘Well, here I am!’ and those who come in and say, ‘Ah, there you are.’” I prefer to be the latter. People are drawn more to sincerity than to the flash and fanfare of someone who cannot be found when difficult decisions must be made. People remember how you made them feel rather than what you said.

Buzz Marketing
Buzz marketing is a word-of-mouth marketing strategy and my favorite method of selling food safety. It involves cultivating opinion leaders and getting them to spread information about your product or service to others in their communities. You will need to design your food safety messages in such a way that everyone in your company has an opportunity to talk about them.

You must communicate how food safety fits into every aspect of your company’s business and into the personal lives of each associate. Sell obvious, easily predictable food safety conclusions and solutions. Food safety is a complex issue, so remember to use very simple language and avoid getting too technical.

Form a cross-categorical network. Build a team of colleagues in other departments who are good collaborators and networkers. They will assist you in getting the cooperation you need to reach your food safety goals. Establish food safety champions in every department.

I attend weekly sales meetings so that I know what new items are being offered and how they will be merchandised. During the open discussion time, I offer two or three food safety tips, rewards, or concerns. I then ask that everyone in attendance take this message to our store associates. Now I have all levels of executives, senior managers, merchandisers, and store associates talking about how food safety fits into their own departments. They become my food safety spokespeople. Instead of a department of one, it is now a department of thousands.

Straight to the Heart
When making rational decisions, we like to think that our organized left brain dominates, yet we see repeatedly that our imaginative right brain is at least as important. Most buying decisions can be traced to emotions that are later rationalized by thought. Creating buy-in on food safety concepts and practices follows this same line of thought. Ultimately, your colleagues will make decisions as a result of emotional persuasion.

One powerful tactic is to put a “face” on food safety. Sharing real life stories of victims who have suffered from foodborne illness (go to helps to teach the importance of food safety. Behavior is motivated through emotional channels. Behavior changes start in the heart.

One of my store managers had extremely high food safety metrics in 2009—998 out of 1000, almost perfect. I asked him how he did it and what strategies he used to motivate his associates to build a food safety culture. He said, “Miss Gina, I talk about food safety with my associates every single day. I let them know that proper food safety practices are expected and monitored at my store. If I talk about it, they know that it is important to me, so, therefore, it must be important to them. If I miss one day not talking about food safety, then they think it is not important that day. And you know, Miss Gina, it only takes one time that food safety may be missed that we can harm our customers—our friends—and we don’t want to take that chance.” Now that is a converted food safety sales person.

Nicholson is food safety manager for the Kroger Company, Columbus, Ohio, Division. Reach her at or call (614) 898-3413.



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