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

On the wall of the break room at one of my first jobs in high school—McDonald’s—hung a poster of a roaring lion with the words, “The customer is king.” I didn’t necessarily agree with the sentiment at the time, and the constant reminders from my manager that “the customer’s always right” were frankly grating to the ears of a teenager.

But over the years, I’ve warmed to the idea behind the philosophy. Simply put, “We do what it takes to ensure that our customers walk away feeling heard and appreciated.”

“The customer is king” may be a bit too simple for the business of an electric cooperative, but it’s not a bad starting point for many of our interactions with members. We’re here to serve them, and we should at least try to accommodate any reasonable request. This is what it means to work for a member-owned entity.

Of course, adopting this philosophy is great, but unless your employees understand it and embrace it, it’s just words.

So how do we help ensure that our staff “gets it” when it comes to serving your member-owners?

It starts at the very beginning, during the hiring process. And it never stops.

In his book Delivering Happiness: A Path to Profits, Passion, and Purpose, Tony Hsieh, founder of online retailer Zappos, talks about his relentless focus on hiring and developing the right people. His obsession on finding the “right fit” with new hires creates a true “team” atmosphere that extends to their customers. During a recent tour of the company’s headquarters, I was told they once took seven months to identify and hire a single customer service representative.

While that may seem extreme, it makes the point that it’s worth taking the extra effort to find employees that will embrace your co-op’s mission.

Don’t limit your inquiries to a candidate’s technical skills. We’ve all seen applicants whose résumés match the job description and who interview well, but who never seem to catch on to the co-op message. Take time to think about some of the new employees at your co-op who turned out to be great long-term staff members. Write down some of their characteristics and traits. Each co-op has its own unique values and nuances that will come through when you look at successful employees.

I would caution here that we don’t necessarily want all new hires to look, act, and think just like everyone else. Diversity is a strength. And as co-op leaders, you should also be thinking ahead to what’s on the horizon for your organization. What skills and strengths will be important to your co-op five, 10, 15 years from now? Managing an organization’s “cultural evolution” over time is a key leadership role, and the hiring process is a great way to accomplish that.

So you’ve hired the right person. How do you ensure they remain the right person for the co-op? My simple answer to that is education and training. Identify solid performers and show them that you value their contributions by giving them opportunities to grow and advance. Create an environment at your co-op that encourages them to implement the things they learn.

Here’s what I tell folks in some of my training sessions: Any time you send an employee to a learning event, make it a requirement that they build an implementation plan for at least one new idea. Whether the idea is actually implemented will depend on your business needs, but having them engage in the process of creating a plan will help them experience the value of forward thinking and constant improvement.

Ours is a unique business model within a very demanding industry. It takes certain types of people to make it work well. But if you put in the right effort with your hiring and training, your “customers” will feel like kings, and your team will roar!

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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