Member Services, Education and Outreach

Most of us who work in cooperatives are excited by the vision of an alternative form of business ownership. With open membership, democratic control and shared participation in the risks and benefits of the endeavor, co-op principles empower individuals by uniting them to work toward a common goal.

In this article, I will take a look at the elements of a successful member services program and see how education and outreach can be powerful allies in promoting "the co-op difference."

The shared need for quality food brought the "new wave co-ops to life in the 1970s. Twenty years later, many of these co-ops are thriving. Good products attractively presented in clean, convenient facilities attract shoppers. Courteous, efficient clerks stock shelves and field questions. Management makes plans and puts them in place. These are essential elements of a successful business, and we cannot overlook them.

But to be uniquely successful as a cooperative business, we need an active and effective program that addresses the needs of the members as owners of the business. As owners they need to be informed of issues, encouraged to participate in co-op activities (such as board of directors elections) and supplied with a variety of helpful information.

A co-op exists first and foremost to serve its members. This should be apparent at initial contact and across the years of co-op membership. An effective member services/education and outreach program can make a co-op clearly different and better than another store offering similar products.

Each co-op is created by the community it serves and is also shaped by the influence of key staff people. Co-ops vary widely in how they address the need for member services and education/outreach. At New Pioneer Co-op these two functions are combined in one full-time staff person. However the work is assigned, you must choose staff to fit the tasks. Helpful skills in this area include writing, public speaking and media work as well as organizational ability and an interest in collaboration with others. A genuine love of co-ops and what they offer is also a great asset, as this enthusiasm is sure to show in various ways through the staff person's work.

Stir interest, feed their minds

Because a co-op is created to serve its members and community, I like to imagine how my programs look to folks on the "outside." Remember that an effective outreach program brings your message to people who have never heard of you or the co-op before. Take lively displays to health fairs, schools and civic groups -- but first ask yourself: Would I be attracted to this display or presentation? Are the benefits of rethinking one's food choices (for example) made to seem feasible and rewarding? Always offer tasty food samples! Choose a message simple enough to state in one sentence, and make fliers, patter and samples all support that message.

Cooking classes offered to the community can attract a diverse group. Tell your students why these ingredients from the co-op are different and better. Events featuring a speaker or slide show can be fun -- utilize local talent. Take every opportunity you can to mention and model consumer advocacy -- a trademark of a business whose number one goal is service to its member owners.

Multiply your good work by appearing whenever possible in print, radio and TV. Monitor the media and see where you could help someone do ajob better or more easily. Send press releases on your activities to media people and be prepared to give them what fits their bill. The alternative paper may want a thoughtful, even humorous interview, while the TV crew needs a 10-15 second "sound bite." When our co-op receives favorable media coverage, we joke about "free money" -- we didn't have to pay forbeing promoted. Such exposure can be as good as gold in reaching people who have never visited your store.

Welcome the newcomers

Be sure the stage is properly set. Obviously the place must be clean and the shelves wellstocked. The staff must be welcoming as well: from reassuring strangers that "everyone is welcome to shop" to explaining how to shop in the bulk section.

Support the friendly, attentive manners of your staff with appropriate training and an array of printed material.

Most co-ops offer a bewildering array of unfamiliar products. That first-time shopper came perhaps on impulse, perhaps looking for a single product or in response to that single sentence message. Be aware that the newcomers needs maybe very different from those of the regulars, whom you greet by name.

Support the friendly, attentive manners of your staff with appropriate training and an array of printed material. Knowledgeable staffers establish credibility and help sell both co-op membership and product. Brochures on the co-op and on various products are important. You'll know the topic or your treatment of it is "hot" when you must restock the fliers frequently. At New Pioneer, an eight-hour mandatory staff education program helps staffers become familiar with the products and the philosophy of the co-op. Customer service skills are critical to the success of the business and can be taught too.

Generate original research on timely topics and offer your findings both in newsletter and flier form. Create a presence in the store with bulletin boards anddisplays. Don'tbe afraidtoletpeople know you personally, remembering all communication should be strategic.

The co-op may offer good products, but people like to relate to people. One responsibility of the education-outreach staffer is to stay abreast of developments in the cooperative movement and in the natural foods industry in order to speak knowledgeably and field questions. A wise manager will see that the education/outreach person gets support for her or his development.

No question is too dumb or too difficult for the education staffer. Easy questions deserve patience;on difficult ones you may need to take the person's name and number and get back to them later. Each interaction should deliver the message, "Your concern is important to me."

Becoming a member

"Newcomers" soon hear and see quite a lot about membership. Displays in the store explain and promote membership. Each shopper moving through the checkout is asked his or her co-op number and must pay 5 percent more if not a member. If the shopper indicates an interest in membership, that's a perfect time for a cashier to offer a brochure. Cashiers can sign up a new member any time the store is open. (It only takes $10 down and 10 minutes.)

Accurate recordkeeping is essential, and refunds must be courteous. It also is imperative that your member share program make sense from the shopper's perspective. Our member share of $60 (set in 1983 and perhaps to be increased soon) can be recouped in savings at the register in one year with monthly purchases of $100. "Join the co-op and save money every time you shop!" has been the slogan above many a successful New Pioneer Co-op member drive.

The support of the front end staff is critical to the success of a member drive. A $25 gift certificate is our reward for the staffer who signs up the most people during a member drive. In this university town, the start of a new quarter of classes has been the best time for us to conduct these campaigns. You know your team is pulling together when each non-member is invited to learn more: "Shall I include a bag stuffer about our member drive? If you like, I could sign you up now."

Shoppers who have overlooked your displays, brochures and price difference at the register may be encouraged to join by the thought of a FREE co-op mug, their premium for joining during member drives. And the mug brings the co-op name into their home. Seventy percent ofNew Pioneer Co-op shoppers are members, a testimony to the favorable math and possibly the attractive gift.

Members need to be informed of the activities of the co-op and invited to participate. Each New Pioneer member is sent a newsletter featuring news of the store, board and staff. It also contains product information, consumer advocacy articles and legislative updates.

As editor of the co-op newsletter, I want to make sure it is both substantial and fun. Using line drawings and color helps give New Pioneer's newsletter the bright cheeriness of a greeting card. It is published on tabloid-size newsprint and without outside advertising. Topics are varied, and usually there are photos. The extra effort put into making the newsletter visually inviting means it stands out in the mail. Consistently thoughtful and informative articles build readership. Test yourself: ifyou weren't a staff or board member, would you read your newsletter?

Members can be involved in the co-op and express their views in a variety ofways. We want their patronage. We welcome those who wish to schedule work in the store for an extra discount. We strive to make ourselves as accessible as possible to members' concerns.

Informal channels include phone calls to the general manager or member services manager or conversations in the store. The comment board allows input from any member or shopper to the appropriate manager on any topic, and a reply is posted within two weeks. More formal channels for member input to staff and board include the member open forums we hold each month and the opportunity for letters to the editor.

Watch and learn what your membership issues are. Sometimes people become upset because they don't know what's going on and jump to incorrect conclusions. We were unprepared for criticism when we installed automatic front door openers. Suddenly there was concern that we were going to be "big and crass like other grocery stores." How easily we could have explained in advance our goal of accessibility for all.

Some issues are genuine questions. New Pioneer members were divided on whether we should sell organic non-union grapes or continue to support the United Farmworkers grape boycott. The co-op is the right place and in fact the only place where 45 people could speak and listen intently on such a topic for 2 hours.

Get good people on your board

A very significant way a member can show ownership is by voting in board of directors elections. Our annual report also contains candidate profiles and a ballot. A low but steady number of members vote; it is an ongoing challenge to stir voter participation.

The member services person in many co-ops helps conduct board of director elections. Begin with an early search for suitable board candidates. Follow with opportunities for members to meet the candidates. By staffing voting tables in the store during the campaign, you can encourage voter participation and assist members with questions on any technical aspects of voting.

The board of directors is critical to the strength of the co-up, being responsible for overseeing finance, carrying out longrange planning, and hiring, evaluating and firing the general manager. It's not helpful to have board members who think they "represent" some group, e.g., vegans; use your wits to find a more productive way for these people to be involved with the organization. It is very helpful and appropriate for new board members to bring business skills to the job. Allocate resources for new board members to acquire these skills, if necessary.

Member services, education and outreach are important co-op functions requiring a lot of planning and continually renewed efforts. With equal parts of stamina and idealism, your member servicess program can make your business clearly better -- that's the co-op difference.

See other articles from this issue: #057 March - April - 1995