Friendly City Food Co-op
Year founded: 2011
Membership investment: $200
Number of members: 1,800
Number of employees: 34
Retail square feet: 5,600
When Friendly City Food Co-op in Harrisonburg, Va. opened as a startup in 2011, they quickly gained a positive reputation in the community for providing great customer service. As Mary Beth Kannen, the co-op’s front-end team leader said, “The name Friendly City works on a lot of levels.” The co-op serves as a pedestrian hub of the community, near the post office and an ice cream shop, where lots of people stop in for lunch, coffee and groceries.
“Lots of people come in two or three times a day. The co-op is very family-friendly and a comfortable public space. We know people by name.” Extending a heartfelt welcome is not an issue for Friendly City. Yet current membership rolls are at 30% of shoppers, and Kannen felt like the co-op could be doing more to raise awareness of ownership and encourage more people to join. She decided that investing in Cooperative Service training offered by CDS Consulting Co-op would give her staff the tools they needed to incorporate member recruitment into their customer service approach more fully.
The Cooperative Service training, offered through the POP Program, takes into consideration that customer service at a food co-op includes both the soft skills of helpfulness and empathy, as well as a deeper understanding of the needs of current and future owners. The purpose is to build on a co-op’s new and established membership systems and programs to demystify the co-op amongst shoppers, in ways that help raise its profile in the community, and meet its goals for robust member services. “We’ve had several customer service training refreshers throughout the years, including Zingerman’s videos, but there’s none that focus on co-op knowledge.”
“At Friendly City it was a co-op-wide training,” said Kannen. “We wanted people to be on the same page as the front-end team in terms of knowledge about the co-op.” She said the co-op had grown exponentially in staffing and sales since it opened, and she thought a refresh for everyone would help keep everyone focused on the co-op’s purpose. In the past, whenever someone outside the front-end department had a question about the co-op, they’d refer them to the front end for answers. People weren’t always confident they had enough information to help. “We wanted team members in other departments to be more comfortable talking about the co-op with customers.”
The Cooperative Service training at Friendly City gave people more confidence because the approach is “to meet people where they are.” This included helping staff find a satisfying and personal way to talk to people about ownership that wasn’t a one-size-fits-all script. A big part of the training is to work together to figure out the best way to approach customers with information about membership. Knowing that customers also have different needs, has helped staff respond with different approaches. In the training, they talked about shoppers who are eager to be connected, and busy people who just want to know that the co-op is there for them.
CDS Consulting Co-op consultants Brittany Baird and Rebecca Torpie led the training for Friendly City, and Kannen said they delivered on what the co-op really needed. “They put the Friendly City personality into the training, and with their expertise and experience, they brought an outside eye into what we can do better.”
Another outcome of the training was that the Friendly City staff wrote a document together called the Culture of Cooperation. “We wanted to put on paper the way we treat each other—staff and community—and make sure we treat ourselves and the environment in a friendly, fair, and culturally respectful manner,” Kannen said.
The co-op’s growth since it opened has also meant that the co-op is exploring an expansion, which also precipitated their desire to enhance their customer service and membership recruitment. “We need to be sure we know who we are before and after we expand, and be ready for the competition we know is coming.”
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