The COVID-19 health crisis has spread across the world, resulting in mass efforts by people to stay at home. It has also revealed a rapid shift in several aspects of how fuel businesses operate.
In the U.S., companies have allowed employees to work from home; schools have transitioned to virtual learning and shoppers who weren’t already making purchases online have had to adjust to E-commerce.
Homeowners everywhere have been limiting outings and canceling vacations. As an alternative, they’ve turned their attention toward home improvement efforts. According to statista.com, consumers reported a 17% increase in housing, energy and maintenance spending. With this shift in consumer behavior patterns emerging as a result of COVID-19, what should fuel companies prioritize moving forward?
According to a joint webinar between Warm Thoughts Communications and accounting firm Gray, Gray & Gray, the first step to growing your business in a postpandemic world is winning the safety battle. Consumer feedback reveals that while homeowners are willing to let technicians into their homes to service or install equipment, they want to feel their safety is the company’s No. 1 priority.
“You need to convince all the people in the marketplace that you are the safe people to do business with,” said Richard Goldberg, President of Warm Thoughts Communications.
“Accomplishing this includes looking the part by wearing masks, gloves and shoe coverings, promoting no-contact appointments, accepting online payments, performing virtual tank inspections and more,” he said.
Goldberg also warned that team oversight of safety guidelines is necessary.
“You need to remind your team on a regular basis that they need to act in the home as if their picture is going to show up on Facebook in the community.”
Making a mark
Marketing is another key component to business growth—particularly digital marketing, which has become an increasingly prevalent necessity. While consumers have gradually gone digital, the onset of the current health crisis has accelerated this trend as consumers are now forced to conduct business primarily online.
According to Warm Thoughts Communications market research, organic traffic during the health crisis across oil, propane and HVAC company websites has increased by 14% and paid search campaigns increased visits to clients’ websites by 18%. This is more than just clicks; these are sales leads. Overall, clients saw a 10% increase in total leads.
While this news is certainly promising at a glance, it is important to note that these performance improvements won’t benefit fuel companies that are not already optimized for digital traffic. For example, Google’s current algorithm prioritizes websites that demonstrate authority and authorship. If a company’s website is not regularly publishing blogs or articles about relevant topics, its website’s Google rankings will suffer.
“Keyword stuffing” your posts with relevant phrases is also not the answer, according to Matt Cutts, Administrator of the U.S. Digital Service and a previous Google employee. While well-intentioned, this practice can hurt a company’s website rankings even further. Googlebot gets smarter every day and knows how to separate quality from quantity.
In addition to improving a fuel company’s organic search rankings, qualified leads can be generated via paid media campaigns. For instance, is there a sale on propane grills, a discount on heating oil equipment service or a fun giveaway for the community? Paid campaigns via social media and search engine clicks can target a demographic in order to expand reach, generate traffic and ultimately gain market share.
E-mails are effective
Understanding the digital landscape is beneficial for any business looking to compete, but customer communication must also be a top priority. In March 2020, inboxes were suddenly flooded with COVID-19 emails from businesses sympathizing with the crisis and explaining how their operations were affected.
Often companies are concerned about sending too many emails, however, “During a crisis, people are looking for more information—not less,” said Ben Gutkin, VP of Warm Thoughts Communications, especially when it pertains to something as important as heating or cooling their homes.
Among Warm Thoughts Communications’ clients, a spike in email open rates occurred. According to Media-Post, 89.04% of emails containing information about the health crisis hit the inbox and COVID-19-related retail emails drew a 28.05% open rate. This data shows that when an email contains important information, customers open it and deliverability is less of a concern.
While emails are an efficient form of communication when there’s a thorough database in place, it’s only helpful if a company has a majority of its customers’ email addresses. It’s the responsibility of individual businesses to get the message in front of their clients, whether through an email blast, social media post, text, printed letter or another means of communication.
With a well-executed digital marketing strategy in place, as well as safety guidelines and superior customer communication, fuel companies can expect growth and retention among their customers, in addition to a positive effect on operations if a safety buffer is in place.
Marty Kirshner, Director & Chair of the energy practice at Gray, Gray & Gray, emphasized the importance of scheduling extra drivers to cover if someone tests positive for COVID- 19.
“If you don’t plan for this, you’re going to put a huge strain on your remaining drivers and techs,” said Kirshner. “You need to evaluate—in a normal season—how many delivery and service calls are made relative to the hours that they’re putting in and what their capacity is for taking on additional work.”
Strategies & solutions
With challenges come solutions, and fuel companies have shared some of their most successful strategies to mitigate the effects of the pandemic via the Breakthrough Groups led by Goldberg. One strategy includes an opt-out approach to budget enrollments. Rather than asking customers to opt in and putting the onus on themselves, businesses can ask customers to opt out.
Related messaging can include using budget enrollment to help customers get control of their billing during hard times. When implemented strategically and in a way that clearly says that the customer comes first, Breakthrough Group participants report very little pushback.
On a global level, market research has shown that customers appreciate when companies make the transaction process easier for them. To that end, budgeted billing, online bill paying and paperless billing can make life easier for customers and businesses alike.
The current health crisis has changed perceptions around exchanging cash as many people now consider it unsanitary. The U.S. Federal Reserve increased the minimum holding period for bills coming from Asia and Europe to 10 days, versus the previous five-day minimum, stating it was a precautionary measure. As such, analysts expect consumers to increasingly turn to electronic payment methods such as Vemo, Paypal and ApplePay for in-store purchases.
According to the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta, the share of consumers using bank account numbers for payment at least once a month (often online bill pay) increased from 59% to 66% from 2017–2018. Similarly, the use of payment platforms like PayPal increased from 41.1% in 2017 to 43.3% in 2018. This long-term trend has accelerated in recent months, as current consumer search trends on fuel company websites have revealed a spike in online bill pay since March 2020.
Delivery fees have also become a common solution for fuel companies looking to recoup lost revenue from purchasing personal protective equipment. Many companies have increased their flat-rate delivery fees by 15%–25% or have implemented a material fee in order to protect their service revenues. One heating oil company implemented a $5.99 delivery fee with minimal pushback from clients; it led to over $150k in profits, noted Goldberg. With the uncertainties around how the current crisis will impact the industry over the next few months, generating additional revenue in this innovative way is an effective strategy.
The long game
While many businesses worried about the effects COVID-19 would have on their livelihoods, “the [fuel] industry has shown that it’s a very resilient industry,” noted Joseph Ciccarello, Partner at Gray, Gray & Gray, since fuel is a commodity.
“You know you’re going to be needed—you need to make sure that you do it in a way that keeps you in business and allows you to grow the business and be profitable.” ICM