NASHVILLE, Tenn.—How can a co-op know what the members want? One co-op CEO says it's as simple as asking them.

"There's been a culture shift," said Bill Hetherington, CEO of Bandera Electric Cooperative. "It's become easier to engage because members feel more comfortable in telling us what they want." His Bandera, Texas-based co-op routinely conducts member surveys and hosts focus groups.

"When you engage with membership, that's when the trust begins to build," Hetherington told a Feb. 27 NRECA Annual Meeting forum.

One survey showed that Bandera members wanted renewable energy and high-speed internet.

"Since that time, we've been trying to provide what our changing membership needs," Hetherington explained. "It's been an interesting dynamic shift."

Mike Bradshaw, general manager/executive vice president of the Benton Rural Electric Association in Prosser, Washington, said his co-op faced a similar situation regarding telecommunications. The co-op now has a business division that serves as an internet provider for its members, acts as an IT department for other companies and even offers PC repair and technology consulting services. However, Benton REA took its time when considering the possibility of adding new services.

"We can evaluate these things and be somewhat cautious," Bradshaw said. "We can wait for technologies to become more cost effective and see what our customers want."

Taking time also creates trust by giving the board of trustees time to become comfortable with decisions and by creating open dialogue with employees. "Trust is a magnifier," Bradshaw explained. "When you build trust internally, it has a natural progression externally."

In the never-ending quest to learn what members want, co-ops know they are expected to be the trusted energy source.

"That's the foundation of all we do," Bradshaw said. "The day may come when poles and wires are no longer in fashion. We must continue to be flexible, to morph and change to be better at what we do. We can't be afraid to improve."

"It all boils down to why we're here—we're here for the members," Hetherington said. "Once you understand that, then everything else is easy."