As prices for energy, groceries, gas and other daily essentials rise, communication technologies advance, and customer expectations evolve, the challenge for electric cooperatives to build member satisfaction is becoming increasingly complex. This demands nearly the same round-the-clock vigilance as co-ops’ grid control rooms.

“Market and societal forces are driving changes in how we communicate with our members,” says Holly Wetzel, NRECA senior director of marketing and member communications. “Members are seeing that other companies like Dollar General, Walmart and McDonald’s are offering apps and customized service, so they want that from their co-op. Convenience and ease of use are key.”

Co-ops at the forefront of this trend are finding they need to commit to continuous innovation in communications, products and services to stay ahead of member expectations. Even those with stellar member satisfaction scores aren’t resting on their laurels.

“We always say Cobb EMC is the straight-A student that’s aiming for an A-plus,” says Supervisor of Consumer Marketing Krista Williams, who runs the Georgia co-op’s journey mapping initiative to track member experiences during transactions. “We have a really big focus on continuous improvement. If you’re not getting better, then you’re falling behind a lot of the time, especially with new technology. And consumers are more in the driver’s seat.”

Cobb is one of several co-ops focusing inward to analyze how current organizational structures contribute to exceptional member experience and ultimately build the long-lasting relationships that co-ops covet. Employees are working across departments and gaining a deeper understanding of how each job function affects the member at the end of the line.

“Effective internal employee engagement is effective member engagement,” says Wetzel. “In one way or another, each employee represents the co-op, and getting everybody on the same page and ensuring they understand their role in driving the co-op’s mission is so important.”

Member feedback is a key building block.

“If you aren’t polling your members through surveys or member advisory groups, you’re missing out on key insights about what it takes to stay engaged with them,” Wetzel says.

'I can't afford the basics'

Each year NRECA researchers conduct dozens of surveys and interact with thousands of co-op members to gauge what they see as the top drivers of satisfaction with their cooperative. Results so far in 2024 show that inflation and other economic pressures are moving cost to the top.

“Cost has always had a big impact, but we’re at a point where it really can’t be anything but top of mind. And that’s going to be the case even for co-ops whose rates haven’t increased because of the pressures of higher costs in other areas of their life,” says NRECA Director of Consumer Analytics and Market Research Michael Sassman. “It’s at the point where, if you look at social media or just listen to anything related to public opinion, the biggest problem is, ‘I can’t afford the basics.’”

Higher energy prices also sank satisfaction scores in the most recent J.D. Power Electric Utility Residential Customer Satisfaction study, which polls ratepayers at medium-size and large utilities including co-ops. Last year, overall satisfaction dropped 18 points to 713 on a 1,000-point scale.

Sassman says one way to counter the impact of dissatisfaction with the economy is by building stronger connections with the growing numbers of younger members who are unfamiliar with the co-op’s role “when the lights came on” in rural America.

He says that co-ops might get more mileage by explaining rates and fees and “being very open about where costs may be heading. It’s also an opportunity to communicate about steps they’re taking to minimize the impact on members. Transparency and proactive communication about rates and fees are critical in building trust and engagement with members.”

To improve member experience, Benton Rural Electric Association CEO Ryan Redmond undertook an internal restructuring of the Prosser, Washington-based co-op’s operations. The co-op now categorizes services under three umbrellas: Member Impact, Member Relationship and Member Support. Job duties are aligned around one purpose: exceeding member expectations and creating an excellent member experience.

“The multiple generations that create our workforce and membership have different philosophies about how they prefer to be partnered with and what delivers the most value to them,” Redmond says. “We must provide services to members in different ways to meet their expectations and abandon a one-size-fits-all approach. We listen and value all members, adjust to their communication preferences and meet their service expectations to ensure they are getting the value in in their cooperative that they deserve.”

Data and collaboration

The member experience work at both Cobb EMC and Benton REA gives employees a valuable window on how members perceive their co-op and a deeper dive into how all departments work together on behalf of members. With more information at their fingertips, employees say they can provide better service and even head off issues down the road.

“We have the engineering folks, the escalated calls group and the call center all in one room,” says Johnny Rainer, manager of member care at Cobb EMC. “Before, it was, ‘I had no idea that’s what we did.’ It’s really given our phone reps a lot of insight and expertise that they didn’t have previously. We also have a better understanding of where members are coming from, as opposed to, ‘This is what’s on your bill, and this is how it’s going to be.’”

In 2022, Cobb EMC introduced employees to the concept of “journey mapping,” a customer experience approach that involves visualizing the process customers go through to complete a transaction or accomplish a goal. Teams work across functions, tease out the gaps and bottlenecks, and, after gleaning insights from operational and survey data, figure out how to improve a particular experience for members.

Journey mapping “is an exercise where you put yourself in your members’ shoes and focus on their experiences instead of your internal process. By understanding what we’re doing well and what we can do to further improve, we’re truly putting the members at the center of strategy development,” says Williams.

So far, the co-op has mapped planned outages, unplanned outages, start service and new line constructions.

Benton REA employees are in their first year of the co-op’s reorganization. Similar to Cobb EMC, teams work across organizational lines to analyze where they can exceed members’ expectations “rather than simply satisfying them,” Redmond says.

As the co-op’s new vice president of member experience, Troy Berglund manages employees who have day-to-day interactions with members: member experience representatives, community relations, economic development and PowerNET, the co-op’s broadband subsidiary. The reorganization also moved three engineering and operations clerks into the member experience department.

“We have a goal to handle 90% of member inquiries on their first touchpoint,” Berglund says. “If a member calls in to start a new service, ask a question about their bill or report a power outage, we want to provide those services without having to transfer them.”

Both co-ops dissect troves of data to look for areas of improvement and drive future communications campaigns. Cobb EMC studies call logs, service metrics and web analytics to analyze member touchpoints.

“In today’s day and age, data is everything,” Williams says. “If you know how to interpret data and truly understand the story it’s telling, your next steps are often very evident.”

Benton REA pores over reliability metrics and transaction data from phone calls, social media posts and website visits. In addition, behavioral data on how and when members interact with the co-op generates engagement metrics to help determine “which methods members prefer for communications and touchpoints,” Redmond says.

As co-ops contend with changing technologies and shifting demand patterns, they also need to pay constant attention to their members’ long-term satisfaction and engagement. That requires staying a step ahead of their demands with convenient services, helpful programs and proactive communications.

But as Redmond points out, it’s a job that plays to co-ops’ strengths.

“All we’re trying to do is get better at serving our members, and that’s something co-ops are passionate about.”