Adam Schwartz, founder and principal of The Cooperative Way.
Adam Schwartz, founder and principal of The Cooperative Way. (Photo courtesy Adam Schwartz)

Recently, I was in a restaurant having dinner, and a young couple was seated nearby. At one point, I heard the woman ask the server the name of the cologne he was wearing. Within a minute, she’d taken out her phone, brought up the site of a retailer, and found and ordered the cologne, to be delivered in time for a party on Saturday.

The couple was pleased with themselves, but not overly impressed. It’s clearly something they’d done before and was well within their expectations as consumers.

For me, however, this was an experience that really drove home how radically the typical relationship between service provider and consumer has changed. Buyers are now often in a position to demand near total satisfaction: a wide range of choices, access from anywhere, and speedy delivery. We refer to this as “The Amazon Effect,” after the online sales success of Amazon.com.

My restaurant scenario involved a retail transaction, but there’s absolutely no reason to believe that such consumer expectations are not headed directly for our industry.

Which raises a somewhat daunting challenge: Are you ready to be your community’s “Amazon of energy services?”

Since our earliest days, electric cooperatives have provided one primary service and provided it well. In that regard, we’re similar to Amazon, which began by selling one product: books. But as ecommerce rapidly evolved, the company branched out to a dizzying number of products and services.

The electric utility industry is in the midst of a similar transformation. New energy technologies and services are being introduced at a rapid pace, and our members are discovering how these amazing advances could improve their lives.

As trusted providers, electric cooperatives are in an excellent position to respond to these new member demands. But we must do so deliberately and quickly. And we have to be honest with ourselves and recognize that the historical co-op business model is evolving. Outside retailers and service providers, selling everything from solar panels to energy use monitors, are eager to establish relationships with our members. If we allow our relationships to be lost or diluted, we may never fully regain them. In my view, we face no greater threat than becoming irrelevant or perceived as hostile to our members’ needs.

Making the right decisions for your communities involves listening to your members.

Like Amazon does, use technology to help you.

Be where your members are, whether that’s email, a website, text, social media, or in person. Electric co-ops are capable of doing all of these things better than other providers if we make it a priority.

Keep an eye on “Big Data” as well. Your members tell you things about themselves all the time and in hundreds of different ways. Being able to categorize and analyze that information, within legal, privacy, and other parameters, will one day help you stay ahead of their needs.

The world is changing. Fast.

Think back to that couple in the restaurant. They discovered a product they wanted; they knew which retailer they trusted; they knew how much they wanted to spend; and they knew when they wanted the product delivered. That complex retail transaction was as routine for them as ordering their dinner.
That couple is your membership. Are you ready to take their order?

Adam Schwartz (@AdamCooperative) is the founder of The Cooperative Way, a consulting firm that helps co-ops succeed. He is an author, consultant, educator, speaker, and member-owner of the CDS Consulting Co-op. You can email him at aschwartz@thecooperativeway.coop.

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