When it comes to managing your oil, propane or energy company, we’re willing to bet you use some type of schedule or calendar to keep track of your to-dos and operations. Why not utilize the same strategy when it comes to planning your marketing? Planning ahead takes stress off your plate and optimizes your schedule to help you reach your goals.
Proactively Address Fuel Prices
Prices are extremely volatile lately, and customers expect you to promote how you’re doing your best to offer competitive pricing. Communicate honestly and openly about what your company is doing in response to surging fuel prices and offer alternative solutions to make fuel prices more manageable like signing up for a budget or pricing plan. Emphasize that, while fuel prices are out of your control, you’re doing everything you can to make their cost as fair as possible. Successfully communicating these details will prevent your hard-earned customers from shopping around this Fall.
Come up with a clear, concise and authentic message and work that into direct marketing pieces like email marketing or a seasonal newsletter, where customers expect to get important updates from your company.
Fill Job Openings with a Streamlined Hiring Process
If you’re looking to find qualified candidates to fill driver and technician roles, now’s the time to hire. Don’t wait until delivery requests start rolling in by the dozen to start looking for seasonal drivers. Companies like ours can create, optimize, post and monitor your job ads to maximize the number of qualified inquiries you receive.
Set Goals for the Season and Focus Your Marketing Efforts
Outlining objectives for the year will give you something to focus your marketing efforts on. You can do this yourself or outsource to a qualified marketing company that can use its experience and staffing to take these important responsibilities off your plate.
Start by taking a step back. Ask, what are our top two goals for this season? Maybe you’re looking to expand your customer base in a specific area, or you’d like to increase service plan enrollment.
Identifying measurable goals will help your Fall marketing strategy take shape. From there, you can consider your audience, the best channels to utilize and the most effective messages to appeal to your targets. Some examples can be:
* Target existing customers to increase service plan enrollment through an email marketing campaign.
* Expand your customer base in a specific town with targeted social media and pay-per-click advertising.
* Increase traffic to your website by refreshing its design, updating programming and incorporating more SEO-friendly content.
Keep this checklist handy when planning your Fall marketing strategy and you’ll be able to go into the busy season with clear goals and a focused plan to get significant results. ICM
Visit ConsumerFocusMarketing.com to learn more.
Fuel companies and auto dealerships share a remarkable amount in common. Many are family-owned and have been in business for generations. Both are essential businesses, selling products to consumers who have many options from which to choose. They need to battle to retain customer loyalty and attract new customers. Both are seeing increased consolidation and the emergence of large competitors with deeper pockets. Additionally, both are facing radical changes in the ways their customers evaluate their options, find people to buy from and make buying decisions.
Buying decisions are where the two industries differ. After a slow start, auto dealerships have fully embraced the power of online and social marketing and shifted the vast majority of marketing dollars to digital tactics. Fuel delivery and service companies have been much slower to make that shift.
The recession of 2008 upended the automotive industry and accelerated its pivot to digital marketing in order to recover. Cayce Lindsey, who is now Regional Sales Manager at Warm Thoughts Communications, started working in the automotive industry during this shift. He helped dealerships throughout the country take advantage of online tactics that could generate leads and sales more effectively and at a lower cost. He also helped enhance service profit centers.
When Lindsey joined Warm Thoughts at the end of 2020, he didn’t expect to see much overlap between the two industries. In speaking with propane and heating oil companies, Lindsey finds that although they have much in common, their approaches to marketing differ.
“The fuel industry is several years behind the automotive industry,” said Lindsey, specifically referencing digital marketing strategies.
He recalled that when he began working in the automotive industry nearly a decade ago, “the marketing spend was split, with 70% spent on traditional media and only 30% on digital.” However, when he left the auto industry in 2020, those numbers had shifted to an “80% spend on digital with only a 20% spend on traditional.” This shift in spending was accompanied by growth, particularly in lead generation through traffic to company websites.
Car dealerships and oilheat providers share a lot in common.
Photo by standret
Warm Thoughts recently conducted a benchmark survey of 60 fuel companies. The results revealed a split reminiscent of where the auto industry was about eight years ago. Most propane and oil companies still spend a majority of their marketing dollars on traditional advertising. What’s more, they are not taking advantage of many of the more sophisticated tactics that can significantly boost response, in part because they don’t understand them.
Proven marketing strategies to explore
Based on successes he observed in the automotive industry, Lindsey shared four opportunity-making marketing strategies that have proven successful.
1. Build mobile-first responsive websites.
As of October 2020, more than 48% of all web traffic came through on mobile phones. In 2010, that number was less than 4%, meaning there has been a drastic increase in a short period of time. In order to win at the digital game, fuel companies need websites that are friendly for mobile phones, tablets and desktops. In addition, companies need to run litmus tests to ensure that the web design and code is beautiful yet error-free when loaded by multiple operating systems.
Finally, companies need to build these sites bearing in mind that inevitable, frequent updates will surely affect how their customers interact with their websites.
2. Implement a robust blogging and SEO strategy.
One key element in Lindsey’s automotive experience was helping companies win the search engine optimization (SEO) competition to boost their Google rankings. Lindsey said that when working with auto dealers, “the goal was to have a significant majority of website traffic be driven by organic search. It’s like having a sales and marketing team that works 24/7.”
“Effective SEO is complicated, and, frankly, it baffles many typical business owners,” Lindsey continued. “Plus, Google often changes the ground rules. They don’t focus nearly enough effort and dollars to make this a strength. However, in many respects, it is the most effective way to ensure you are ‘in the conversation’ when a consumer decides they want to buy something or make a change.”
For auto dealers, blogging was a big part of their marketing strategy, as well as using an effective “keyword” strategy in the copy and structure of their websites.
“Auto dealers learned that Google owns the board, and you’ve got to play by its rules if you want to get in the game,” Lindsey said.
Fuel companies, Lindsey finds, are way behind in this regard.
“Many of the propane and oil companies I talk to don’t even realize that their company isn’t showing up in many towns they service when someone types in keywords like ‘propane company near me,’ ‘quality oil deliveries’ or ‘water heater options.’ They think their ‘web guy’ is doing the ongoing work needed to win the ranking competition, and it’s just not happening.”
3. Make social media your ally.
Lindsey highlighted dealerships’ use of social media as a way to connect with customers.
“I had one dealership with a YouTube channel that had over 160,000 followers and another dealership with 80,000 followers on Facebook,” he said. “They also posted about topics that were related to cars but not self-promotional.”
This is a strategy that propane and oil companies can incorporate as well. Social media, particularly Facebook, is a phenomenal way to build and expand a brand, in the same way that traditional TV advertising used to work. Unfortunately, most fuel companies make
serious mistakes that undermine their social effectiveness.
“When I look at fuel company efforts, too often I see missed opportunities,” Lindsey noted. “They either post too infrequently for Facebook to serve them up to followers, or they do too much pure business, not enough fun and engagement. They are also not taking advantage of all the ways you can pay Facebook to advertise your brand and services in amazingly targeted ways. This advertising capability is why Facebook is one of the most profitable companies in human history, and fuel companies are completely missing the boat on this tactic.”
4. Generate positive reviews.
Lindsey emphasized the importance of generating positive reviews to attract new customers. The automotive industry was likely the first to master the process of generating positive reviews. Think back to the last time you bought a car. Did the salesperson ask you to write them a review or respond to a survey? This positive experience is cultivated from the moment the customer expresses interest through to the close of the sale—and beyond.
The dealerships Lindsey served were hyper-focused on calling prospects, following up on questions, making appointments, emailing and performing other outreach as needed. According to a 2020 survey, 87% of customers read online reviews for local businesses and 92% said negative reviews make them less likely to use a business.
“Many fuel companies have not structured an approach for regularly recruiting five-star customer reviews, even though the overwhelming majority of their customers really like them,” he said. “This is a significant missed opportunity.”
The good news, according to Lindsey, is that many of the same issues he sees in the delivered-fuels industry are things that plagued auto dealers less than 10 years ago, and auto dealers have turned them around.
“There are absolutely ways to help fuel companies catch up on the digital front,” Lindsey said. “If anything, the pandemic has made this even more of a priority, as a larger share of the older population has also grown more comfortable engaging online for business services.”
“I look forward to helping connect the dots for fuel companies, and opening up some exciting doors for them to grow and defend their businesses,” Lindsey concluded. ICM
BrightLocal 2020, Dec. 9. Local consumer review survey 2020.
Oberlo 2021 Global mobile phone website traffic share from 2001 to 2021.
Years ago, I made a name for myself in this industry by figuring out how oil companies could charge up to 75% more for service plans. I remember our first project—a company called Abbott & Mills in Newburgh, NY, tried to raise its contract from $89 to $99 dollars, but pulled back when they started getting numerous customer complaints. We did some analysis, conducted several focus groups, put our marketing caps on and came up with a strategy that actually raised the price to $149, and introduced a more comprehensive plan at $189. And the phone calls? There was barely a peep. They made a huge profit with less pushback than they received from the $10 increase.
That experience taught me a great deal about what fuel companies can and can’t get away with, and why. More importantly, I learned how to get very good at making fuel dealers more money.
Consumers are accustomed to fees so why not implement an oil delivery fee?
Over the years, I’ve used that acumen in a variety of ways. I remember when Agway Energy was still in the retail oil and propane business, with hundreds of thousands of accounts. They had been giving a price cap for free to 40,000 customers, which was viable when it cost only 2¢ per gallon to execute, but not when it cost 20¢–25¢ per gallon. I implemented a strategy that allowed those customers to either shift onto budget plans (which helped the company with cash flow and retention) or pay 10¢ per gallon for the cap. Either way, the company came out ahead. Again, there was little customer pushback.
We went on to help hundreds of oil companies increase service plan charges or introduce cap fees. We also pioneered an “opt-out” strategy to get 25%–30% of customers on budget overnight. We’ve reduced or eliminated earlypay discounts, eliminated coverages and shifted customers in and out of various options.
In virtually every case, owners and (especially) employees were initially fearful of upsetting the apple cart. In each case, we found a way to accomplish their objectives with far less customer resistance than they expected.
It’s time to start charging delivery fees
I bring this up because there’s an opportunity staring you in the face that could give your bottom line a serious, permanent boost. It’s called “adding a delivery fee,” and if you handle it the right way, your customers will tolerate it with barely a whimper
Many propane companies have been adding delivery fees for years. We’ve helped many of them either introduce fees or increase them.
Heating oil dealers have been hesitant to follow suit, worried that such fees would trigger customer losses, or create a competitive disadvantage when it comes to new sales. It turns out, those fears are very overblown.
Over the last two years, we’ve introduced oil delivery fees for multiple companies in very different markets. In each case, our strategy increased profit significantly with little downside. Retention stayed strong. New sales stayed strong. Only now, they had a brand-new source of cash flow to count on every year.
Customers shop price, not fees
U.S. consumers shop for price, but tolerate “nuisance fees” surprisingly well, as long as they:
a) Aren’t exorbitant;
b) Aren’t hidden; and
c) Are explained in a way that makes sense.
Your costs are certainly rising each year (health care, tech and driver wages, liability insurance, regulatory compliance costs, etc.); gallons are dropping; you are also facing increased regulatory pressures. Your delivery fee offers a safer bet than raising your margin, and it is not as dependent on weather.
Do the math
To calculate the impact of a delivery fee, take your active customer base and multiply it by the average number of deliveries they get per year (usually around four or five). Then multiply that by the fee—usually $5 or $6. For a company with 3,000 customers, you’re looking at $70,000–$100,000 per year. For a company of 6,000 customers, it’s $140,000–$200,000 per year, and so on. The best part is that all this money drops to your bottom line. There are no on-going costs associated with it. If you are ever selling your business, the value of your fee simply multiplies.
But my people are scared…
I started this article by reprising my history so that you would realize that I know more about this subject than your team of naysayers. I’m not saying it to brag. I’m saying it because I want you to make a lot more money. Most of you know me long enough to trust that I’m not exaggerating the results.
The challenge is that most customer service or sales managers operate defensively. It’s the nature of the industry. We are constantly on the defensive. We mostly hear from customers when they are upset, or when our prices are higher than some competitors, or when someone wants to covert, etc. Ten calls can feel like an avalanche.
Some companies are reluctant to charge fees because they have built their previous promotion around the fact that they don’t charge them. I have a unique vantage point, because we work for companies that charge fees as well as those that don’t. There is no distinguishable difference in the results. The “we don’t charge fees pitch” is not a magic bullet, even if you did win some customers by saying it. If “no fees” was magic, everyone would fly Southwest airlines and not United or Delta. No one would rent from Airbnb, whose fees are substantial. Everyone would stop subscribing to cable TV. You get the picture.
Now is the time to start
It does not take long to get started, but there are questions to be answered:
• What do you need to include in your customer communications?
• Do you tell them about it beforehand, or does it simply show up on the delivery ticket?
• When is the best time to roll it out?
• Do all customers get charged, or are some excluded?
• How do you handle new customers?
• What should you call it?
• What should you charge?
• How do you get your customer service team trained so they can confidently deal with calls?
• Can you test it with a smaller group rather than roll it out to everyone?
Please contact me if you would like to discuss this, but it’s best to move fast. There are still plenty of deliveries left this year and you are leaving a lot of money on the table that you will need in the years to come. ICM
Rich Goldberg is President of Warm Thoughts Communications, Inc. Warm Thoughts is the nation’s largest marketing firm focusing exclusively on the heating oil, propane, heating oil and HVAC industries. See more of their ideas at warmthoughts.com. You can reach Goldberg at [email protected]; or 551-482-8133.
If 2020 has taught us anything as energy marketers, it’s that online marketing matters. Whether it’s growing your customer base, communicating with your existing customers, selling equipment or even recruiting drivers, you need to be online and you need to do it well.
In the not-so-distant past, relying on a phone book listing, some print ads and equipment stickers would’ve been enough to acquire new customers. Today, those strategies are obsolete. Homeowners may see your postcard mailing and it may help them notice you, but before they make a call, they’re still going to Google you. They’re going to read customer reviews, go to your website and decide whether or not to do business with you based on your digital presence.
With more time at home, customers can shop around for their energy needs, increasing competition.
This was true of customer tendencies before 2020, but the COVID-19 pandemic and stay-at-home orders accelerated these trends, meaning if it’s not already your focus, digital marketing needs to become your primary focus come 2021.
Trends and lessons we learned
Because Warm Thoughts Communications manages over 130 fuel company websites and conducts consumer research specific to the oilheat and propane industries, the findings below come from the company’s internal 2020 data.
In 2020, overall digital engagement increased
Click-through rates on pay-per-click advertisements increased by 5%, website traffic increased by 3% and Facebook’s total reach increased by 101%, with total engagement increasing by 35% on Warm Thoughts’ fuel clients’ websites. This is due to a coordinated marketing strategy focused on the combination of meeting the needs of homeowners who are at home and those individuals increasing their screen time.
Home comfort is of utmost importance
Warm Thoughts data demonstrates a larger global trend, as well. With so much more time at home, people want to improve their home comfort, which in many cases includes heating and cooling equipment. The data indicates homeowners were online throughout 2020, shopping for fuel companies and interacting with them at higher rates than they were in 2019.
Digital marketing paid off
Fuel companies that capitalized on this trend and increased their digital marketing spending saw a return on investment. For example, Warm Thoughts ran a pool heater advertising campaign on Facebook and Google for a client. Within a six-week period, the campaign delivered more than 140 pool heater leads. We expect the focus on home improvements to continue into 2021 and will doubledown on this increased opportunity with the right strategies and expertise.
Work-from-home has and will become the norm
In addition to digital usage trends, the pandemic also brought a new normal to the way we work and live. According to Global Workplace Analytics, 56% of the U.S. workforce holds a job that is compatible with remote work and 30% of the workforce will be working from home multiple days a week at the end of 2021. This shift means fuel companies can expect more calls pertaining to heating and cooling as usage increases. They can also expect more interest from homeowners in updating equipment, maintenance calls and fuel deliveries as a work-from-home schedule allows for increased flexibility and customer availability. While these trends sound promising, there’s a downside. More time at home for customers can also increase competition between fuel companies. Homeowners no longer have to take off from work to be home for service appointments or limit themselves to weekend- only service. As a result, it’s easier for homeowners to compare fuel companies. That comparison will happen on search engines like Google and social platforms like Facebook. To stand out from your competition, you need to outperform them in the digital landscape.
5 digital strategy tips for 2021
The following items should serve as the baseline of your digital marketing strategy for 2021.
No. 1: Maximize your website’s potential
Whether you’re building a fresh website or updating an already existing site, ensuring you have a website that’s working for you should be your top priority. Build a custom website—do not use templates! Template-based websites may be cheaper to build, but custom websites perform better on search engine rankings, allow for greater customization with branding and can grow with you as your business grows. In addition to how the website is built, it has to look good and evoke a feeling that’s consistent with your brand.
These days, your website is your brand. To successfully communicate your message, your website must go beyond the products you offer to deliver your unique selling proposition. When a consumer lands on your homepage, they need to immediately understand why your business is the right choice for their family’s comfort and safety.
No. 2: Pay attention to SEO
To further complicate the task at hand, your website needs to tell this story in a way that’s not only aesthetically pleasing but that also conveys this message to search engines so you rank on results pages. Search engine optimization (SEO) is key to your business’ success. You can have the best website, the best pricing and the best staff, but if a customer can’t find you in their service area, none of that matters. Unless you’re a techie, it’s easy to overlook SEO. It isn’t glamorous. It’s about content, coding, meta descriptions, title tags and algorithms—and it’s constantly evolving. However, without it, you’re setting yourself up for an uphill battle.
SEO is the key to bringing organic traffic to your site. It’s the way you show up on the first page of results when a homeowner searches “boiler repair near me.” Without it, you’re likely missing out on those types of searches. What’s worse, you wouldn’t know it unless you conducted an audit or had an SEO expert on staff.
No. 3: Be active on social media
In March 2020, Facebook reported an increase of more than 50% in user activity across its products. With that trend in place, Warm Thoughts Communications optimized its clients’ Facebook pages to drive engagement, resulting in a 101% increase in total reach throughout 2020. If you’re not active on social media, you’re missing out on this opportunity.
It’s not enough to simply have a Facebook page. You need to actively post engaging content three to four times a week in order to satisfy Facebook’s algorithm. Because of that, it’s best to include a variety of content that isn’t strictly promotional. Encourage users to like, comment on and share your posts. Ask them to provide you with the golden goose of digital content: a positive review! Social media is also an important medium to communicate with your customers about company changes, such as office hours or in-home-appointment policies. Be sure to include social media as part of your digital strategy for 2021.
No. 4: Communicate with your customers
For many businesses, one of the greatest lessons of 2020 was realizing the importance of customer communication. With the outbreak of COVID-19, fuel companies needed a way to quickly communicate office hours, health policies, appointment changes and more. Unless a business was already equipped with a comprehensive list of customer e-mails and cell numbers, it was left struggling to communicate efficiently and effectively with its customers. Creating a customer communication strategy is no easy task. It involves the following components, at the least:
• Customer service training
• Establishing a system to collect customer details
• Setting up an e-mail marketing platform
• Website design that’s easily customizable
• Software that allows you to send confirmation messages to customers
• Implementing chatbots (a.k.a: conversational agents) on your website
Performing the function of a call center, a chatbot is a must-have on your website.
As you head into 2021, having a digital customer communication strategy will allow you to quickly adapt. Research shows that a robust strategy on this front will also improve customer retention. With homeowners spending more time at home, it’s much easier for them to shop around, so relying on their first interaction with your business isn’t enough. In order to improve retention of new customers and increase your customer base, you need a plan for customer communications.
No. 5: Manage your online reputation
The business impact of customer reviews is undeniable. Studies indicate that 97% of customers say reviews factor into their buying decisions. If your website doesn’t feature customer reviews, you could be losing potential business.
It’s important to have a strategy to manage your online reputation, as online reviews are trusted just as much as referrals from friends. This is a complex process as it involves your ability to both solicit and aggregate reviews, and ultimately, show them off. When done well, it can aid business growth. When you ignore it, it can drive potential customers away. According to marketing firm BrightLocal, 93% of customers determine whether a business has a good or bad reputation based upon their review star rating.
The big picture
Digital marketing is constantly evolving. As a fuel company, you might be comfortable with the notion that your business is essential, but essential isn’t enough to grow. Growth comes from staying ahead of the curve, adapting and competing. As we move into 2021, there’s no better time to push forward with a well-executed digital marketing strategy. ICM
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.
During this time, customers want to know their safety comes
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.
Online services, such as payments and budgeting, have
made life easier for both customers and small businesses.
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
At a recent association meeting, I found myself engaged in a conversation with a dealer about the best ways to acquire new customers after the heating—or should I say, after the “no-heating”—season. We talked at length about the tactics he’s employed in the past, the merits of digital marketing versus more traditional methods and the role that customer service representatives (CSRs) can play in the success or failure of an acquisition effort.
What became clear from our conversation, however, was that this business owner was going to struggle to find success. He was so focused on the tactics that he was missing out on the strategy. Like so many in this business, he was a “marketing tweener”—too small to afford a full-time marketing professional on staff, but not small enough that his business could be successful simply by word-of-mouth.
For those of you who might feel like a “marketing tweener” yourself, here are a few suggestions to manage your marketing and succeed in building or maintaining your business.
Know Your Numbers
I lost gallons last year, so I need to add customers this year is not a goal; it’s just a statement of fact. To be successful in this business—or any business for that matter—you’ve got to be able to identify the numbers that matter most, and that means knowing what your key numbers are.
How many customers do you want to or need to gain this year? Or how many gallons do you want to add?
Who is doing most of your selling: CSRs, outside sales, website sign-ups?
What is your closing ratio? In other words, how many inquiries does it take to acquire a customer?
Based on that ratio, how many leads do you need to generate in order to achieve your target sales number?
Answer these questions first and you’ll be well on your way.
Commit to a Budget
Once you know what numbers you need, you can begin to allocate resources to achieve them. There are a few ways you can go about calculating your budget. If you don’t have a proven customer acquisition cost, then your best approach is to establish your marketing budget as a percentage of your margin.
Committing to a budget helps to clarify what it takes to attain a customer.
The most important factor is that you treat your marketing dollars with the same respect as you treat other necessary expenses. How can you expect to grow if you don’t support the activities that will allow you to do it?
Best-in-class companies establish their marketing budget based on 5–6% of their gross margin dollars. If that sounds like too big of a leap for you, start at 3–4% and go from there.
Once you’ve established your budget, pay attention to your numbers. If you’ve ever watched the TV show Shark Tank, you know that’s one of the first questions they ask: what does it cost to acquire a customer?
Create Your Plan and Stick to it
You know your key numbers. You’ve identified your budget. Now it’s time to devise your plan. This is the part of the process that all too often becomes a cake-baking exercise. You take a little bit of what you’ve done in the past, add a little bit of what your sales manager thinks, include some online marketing because “everyone is online” and top it all off with something you saw a competitor do. If you use this approach, stop!
The creation of your marketing plan needs to be thoughtful and filled with strategies that have either been proven to work for your business with your customers, or have proven success for energy companies like yours. Your money is too valuable to stray from a winning recipe.
Next, you have to make sure that your team is fully aligned. Nothing will undermine your efforts more than spending resources and money on making the phone ring only to lose a prospect to poor salesmanship. If your CSR’s answer to what’s your price today is $X per gallon, you’ve wasted your money. If you don’t have the time or skill to train your CSRs, call in an expert. Customer service training can cut your customer acquisition cost in half!
The last thing to remember about your plan is that once it’s finalized, you’ve got to stick with it. You can add to it, or modify it, if conditions in your business change, but only do so strategically. If you are changing your plan on a weekly or monthly basis just because someone has come up with a “great new idea,” you’re likely to undermine your efforts and waste a whole lot of money in the process.
Track Throughout the Year
If you’ve come this far, you’ve got to see it through the entire way. All of your good work will be for naught if you aren’t able to look back on your performance and determine what worked, what didn’t work and what should be done differently for future success.
You should capture the results of your various activities in two ways—upon completion of each individual activity and in total (for the month, quarter and year). Consider creating a marketing calendar with a “results” section for an at-a-glance look at which activities delivered and which should be modified or dropped in future years.
A marketing calendar could help to pinpoint which initiatives worked—and which didn’t.
It’s not easy to grow in an ever-changing industry like ours. In fact, it’s downright difficult. However, if you adopt the recommendations laid out here, you’ll transform how you market, you’ll elevate your performance and you’ll significantly increase your likelihood of hitting your growth goals.
If you’re struggling to put all of the pieces together yourself, give us a call. We do this for companies all over the country and would be happy to help you set up a marketing planning and management structure for success. ICM
Rich Carrione is Director of Operations at Warm Thoughts Communications, the nation’s largest marketing and advertising agency dedicated entirely to the residential energy industry. Rich can be reached at 201-330-9276 x232 and [email protected].
Consider this—when was the last time you searched Google for a business in your local area? In all likeliness, you’ve probably done it countless times in just the past week. And you’re not alone—research shows that 89% of consumers search for a local business at least once a week, with 58% searching at least once a day 1. So when customers in your service area search for “propane delivery near me” or “HVAC services” how do you get your business shown in the top of the search results?
Local SEO (search engine optimization) is proving to be the solution. Whether it’s including your business information on your website, claiming your business’ Google My Business listing or even creating listings in online directories such as Yelp or Angie’s List, local optimization is all about gaining visibility where it matters most—in the areas you service.
With nearly half of all Google searches being local, it’s never been more important to have a local SEO strategy for your business. Local SEO gives potential customers and searchers the information they want, when they want it and perhaps most importantly, where they
want it. There is no better time to connect with potential customers than when they’re already searching for businesses like yours. Better yet, since these prospects have already expressed an interest in the products and service your business offers, they are presumably qualified leads that will likely yield a higher conversion rate.
Lead the Pack: The Local 3-Pack
With a vast majority of online experiences starting with a search engine, it’s extremely important for your business to appear at the top of results pages. When it comes to local searches, there is no better spot than Google’s local 3-pack. This block of three listings appears at the top of the results page along with an area map to showcase local businesses relevant to the search query and criteria. With the local 3-pack appearing in 93% of local
searches 2, this presents an unmatched opportunity to drive traffic to your site and generate more phone calls. In fact, a recent study found that 44% of people who performed
a local search clicked on a 3-pack listing, while just 8% opted to load additional results 3.
Meeting the Mobile Audience The days of the printed phonebook are coming to a long-anticipated end, as more and more customers are turning to the web to find local businesses—both on a desktop, and increasingly, on a mobile device. In fact, Google states that between 50% and 60% of global searches now come from mobile devices 4. All it takes is a simple search via a Smartphone or tablet for users to find businesses on-the-go from anywhere, at any time—which is especially good news for local businesses. A recent study found that as many as 95% of Smartphone users have used their device to perform local searches, of which 61% called the businesses 5. With 78% of local mobile searches now resulting in offline purchases 6, you cannot afford not to connect with this ever-growing audience.
With so many people conducting searches multiple times a day, landing your business a top spot on Google’s results page could make a difference in acquiring a new customer or closing a sale. With less than 50% of businesses taking advantage of local SEO services 7,
there is a big opportunity to get ahead of competitors and stand out in local search results, maps and even social media platforms. Take advantage of it! ICM
Word-of-mouth marketing has been around for centuries. People love to recommend companies that they’ve enjoyed doing business with, and conversely, warn others of bad experiences. Whether it is a local eatery, health care office or contractor, people are more likely to use a business that has been recommended to them.
With the rise of social media sites, online directories and instant-sharing apps, reviews are just a click away at any time. Word-of-mouth still goes a long way in the digital world. As a matter of fact, 84% of web users value reviews as much as they would value a personal recommendation from a friend. With this in mind, it is no wonder why more and more propane, oil and HVAC companies are shifting their focus to online reviews. However, what exactly, can reviews do for your retail energy business?
Your propane, oil or HVAC-related business may be the best in the area—but if nobody knows about it, you’re not going to get leads. Customer reviews expose your business to readers and increase awareness of who you are and what services you provide. In fact, online reviews are often a customer or prospect’s first exposure to your business. Reviews also tend to build on themselves. Once people start leaving reviews of your business, others will be more compelled to join in. With each new online review creating an opportunity for someone else to come across your brand, your chances of being discovered increase.
Build Credibility & Trust
While you can write the best content about how great your business is, there is no better endorsement than approval from actual customers. With 88% of consumers trusting online reviews when considering a business, reviews are critical to earning their business. Even those less-than-shining, negative reviews help to build trust. Customers increasingly value transparency. By displaying these reviews, you can show that your business has nothing to hide—all while making your positive reviews come across as even more sincere.
Word-of-mouth is crucial to business and, whether you like it or not, people will give an opinion of your business online.
Increase Search Engine Rankings
Reviews are crucial to local search engine optimization (SEO) because they get more of the right people to see your business—that is, those who are conducting searches for businesses like yours and the services that you offer.
Better yet, a steady stream of reviews helps boost your rank and visibility on Google and establish a more prominent online presence. The more times your business is mentioned online, the more important search engines consider you to be. With 56% of consumers using search engines as their top source to look for reviews about a business, you want to make sure your business is ranked high.
Gain Insights into Customer Satisfaction
While online reviews are helpful to prospective customers, they’re just as important to your business. Reviews provide existing customers an opportunity to provide objective feedback about your business and the services that you offer. Take time to read through them and use this feedback as indicators to how well your business is doing in terms of customer satisfaction, service and overall experience. Understanding your customers and their expectations can ultimately steer you toward the goal of meeting their needs. In addition, reviews can help you identify who your top employees are and which team members may need some additional training or coaching.
Influence Purchase Decisions
Reviews give prospective customers the information they need to advance from consideration to actually doing business with your company. In fact, 90% of people report that reviews influence their decision to make a purchase. Once prospects browse star ratings, your number of reviews and basic business information, they’ll start reading individual reviews from your customers to see what it’s actually like to do business with you.
While your price range, products and services will likely be somewhat comparable to those of your competitors, it is important to focus on what sets you apart from the rest. Delivering best-in-class service, having a well-trained and courteous team of customer service representatives (CSRs) and offering extended service hours are fairly simple ways to gain high praise from your customers and attract prospects.
Responding to Reviews: The Dos and Don’ts
Once your company starts generating reviews, it’s important to take the next step: responding to them. A recent study found that when businesses respond to customer reviews (even the bad ones), their overall ratings subsequently increase. Skillfully responding to your online reviews not only builds your brand identity, but also keeps your online reputation in check. With so much at stake, it is important to get your responses right.
• Always Apologize: One of the most important things to do when addressing a negative review is to start by acknowledging the customer’s concerns. Even if they seem unfounded, it’s important to empathize and show sympathy that they had a bad experience with your company. This means apologizing—even if the mishap is not your fault. Owning up to the mistake and offering a sincere apology helps diffuse the situation and puts your company in a better light.
• Resolve Any Issues: Don’t just respond to a negative review; fix the problem at hand. By openly explaining what went wrong and how it won’t happen again, you show customers that preventative measures are being taken to truly solve the issue. With consumers trusting online reviews more than ever before, it’s important to go the extra mile, turning a bad situation into a good one.
• Take it Offline: Remember, in the digital world, everyone is watching and the last thing you want is a back-and forth-argument for all to see. If possible, ask the reviewer to call, email or even private message your business so you can privately discuss and resolve any issues they may have. No matter the platform, it is all about making it right and providing a solution.
The way you respond to bad online reviews builds trust with both current and future custom
• Ignore the Negative Reviews: When it comes to addressing negative reviews, they simply cannot be ignored. Not responding to a negative review is a response in itself and it tells everyone who comes across the review that you don’t care about your customers’ feedback or experiences with your business. On the contrary, responding to complaints can help increase customer advocacy and better yet, set your business apart from competitors who are failing to do so. It’s all about showing customers that you’ve heard what they have to say and are more than happy to resolve the issue.
• Be Argumentative: Customers yield a lot of power online, and if you do not carefully think through your response to a negative review, you may fuel an angry customer. When you see a bad review about your company, it’s important to maintain professionalism at all times and under no circumstance become argumentative with customers. Avoid hastily typing up a response to the customer or commenting when you are angry. Instead, stop and take a minute to clear your mind so you can better assess and approach the situation in a calm way.
• Take it Personally: While it’s one thing to take pride in your business and the work that you do, it’s important to remember that your business reviews are not personal. When people leave reviews, it’s a response to the experience they’ve had with your business, just as they would do with any other business. Rather than getting defensive and explaining why the customer is wrong, it is important to show a human side and take a professional approach to express that you generally want to make the upset customer happy. While negative reviews and criticisms of your business may be tough to hear, it should ultimately act as the basis for how your company can evolve and improve.
Recent research found that 70% of customers will leave a review. All you have to do is ask! With reviews playing a pivotal role in generating new business for your company, you can never have too many. Obtaining reviews is an important part of any marketing strategy and must be an ongoing process. ICM
If you have a Facebook page—congratulations, you’re ahead of several of your competitors in the residential energy market. However, there is a big difference between simply having a Facebook page and leveraging it to its full potential. Many heating oil, propane and HVAC-related businesses alike struggle to manage their social presences in a way that both impresses audiences and drives interaction. With Facebook now boasting over 2.2 billion monthly active users, this platform is proving to be a crucial place to reach your customers and best prospects.
Success can be found by understanding how to attract more followers, and more importantly, engage with them. Social interactions for retail energy companies should include creative posts and targeted strategies. By tapping into the power of Facebook and its advertising opportunities, you can increase your effectiveness and have more people liking the pages you manage.
While navigating this social media giant may seem overwhelming, there are a few simple things to note that can directly impact the effectiveness of your page. Here are some of the most wondered about and frequently asked questions to help you maximize your business’ Facebook presence.
“I have a page, now what do I post?”
While posting industry information may seem like a given, people on Facebook are human—and nobody likes to read the same information all the time. Turn up the engagement and make your followers feel connected by asking them questions, creating competitions and delivering original, fun content. It’s all about delivering the correct ratio of business and non-business posts. Consider some of these posts to drive engagement rates and traffic to your page.
• Advice/Useful Information: host a Q&A session on your Facebook page to establish your expertise in the field. Offering advice, such as how to prevent pipes from freezing in the winter or what to do if you lose your heat, is a great way to position yourself as a point of reference for followers. You can even post safety tips, whether precautions for using a portable heater in the winter or grill safety tips in the summer.
• Company Culture: people prefer to do business with companies they like—make yours one of them! Provide a behind-the-scenes look into your company by posting live videos or pictures from around your
office. Whether it is introducing new employees, sharing milestones or celebrating a birthday or holiday, posts about these happenings provide a sense of
community among your followers.
• Community Ties: as a local heating oil, propane or HVAC-related business, your most important audience members are homeowners in your service area. Appeal to your community by posting local stories, charity opportunities and events happening in your neighborhood. Dig those community roots deeper!
• Trending Topics: just because you’re a business page doesn’t mean your page can’t take advantage of trending topics on Facebook—in fact, you should! Facebook ranks pages featuring trending topics higher in the newsfeed. Stay on top of what’s going on around your community and don’t be afraid to share viral videos, heartwarming stories and spotlights on local heroes. Whatever people are talking about, join the conversation! Just avoid participating in any posts deemed political, religious or controversial.
No matter what you’re doing, consistency is key. The same goes for your Facebook page. Posting content on a regular, consistent basis builds up your following and keeps your company relevant in newsfeeds. It is recommended to post five times per week to maximize reach and create a more robust presence.
“What, if anything, should I be tracking?”
It’s no secret that Facebook is a goldmine of data and information. While having access to information on the performance of your posts and page activity can provide powerful insight, it only matters if you understand which metrics are important to your business.
• Reach: if you’ve noticed a decrease in Facebook performance or want more people to see your posts, Reach is a great place to start. Also known as “unique impressions,” Reach is the number of people who see your content in their newsfeeds. Reach can be determined at both the overall page and individual post levels and further broken down by city, country and other demographic variables.
• Engagement: while Reach tells you how many people have seen your content, engagement takes this a step further—showing you how many people have interacted with your content. Engagement is the most important currency on Facebook, and the social media giant defines it as “the number of people who clicked anywhere in your post,” whether it is clicking a link, sharing your post, making a reaction or leaving a comment. The higher your engagement rate, the more likely Facebook’s algorithm is to surface your post, maximizing exposure to your audience.
• Impressions: Impressions provide insight into the visibility of your post, tracking how many times it has been displayed. Unlike Reach, impressions account for posts seen multiple times by a single user. If someone saw your post in their newsfeed and then again when a friend shared it, this counts as two
impressions. With so much content in the newsfeed, having people see your content multiple times is vital in getting them to take action.
• Likes & Followers: While the number of page likes and number of followers do not directly represent the success of your marketing efforts and posts, they’re important in tracking the size of your audience. Your number of followers should grow over time. If it stays stagnant, you’re either losing followers at the same pace as you’re gaining them or you are failing to attract new followers altogether.
Metrics are vital in measuring the growth of your page and the effectiveness of your posts. Monthly progress reports and insights help companies measure progress against objectives.
Boosted Posts vs. Facebook Ads
If your Facebook activity is lacking, a simple fix may be to promote your content. When it comes to amplifying your brand, there are two key options: boosted posts or Facebook ads—which one should you use?
• Boosted Posts: if driving engagement is an
important part of your Facebook strategy, boosted posts can be a great fit. A simpler, quicker alternative to traditional Facebook ads, boosted posts ensure your current audience sees your post in their newsfeeds by enabling you to select your desired audience, maximum budget and tenure of the ad. With the option to display your content on both desktop and mobile newsfeeds, boosted posts are optimized to
generate engagement, like comments and shares.
• Facebook Ads: while boosted posts are optimized to drive engagement, Facebook ads take this a step further, allowing you to run a more detailed, targeted campaign to meet a wide array of different goals. The Facebook Ads Manager offers advanced capabilities and options to define your ad placement, specific objectives and design. Its sophisticated platform enables you to target your audience by several variables including location, age, gender, interests and behaviors. This option allows you to reach those not already in your audience, further amplifying your brand and messaging.There is no single “best” method to reach your audience. You need to develop a unique strategy specific to your company’s brand and personality. The decision to use boosted posts or Facebook ads ultimately depends on your company’s goals, budget and overall strategy. If you’re new to promoting Facebook content, boosted posts are a simple way to drive engagement. However, for more advanced targeting and customization, Facebook ads offer a more robust structure and diverse capabilities.
With social media becoming an inescapable factor in our lives, businesses who fail to tap its power are missing out on a significant opportunity to build their brand, engage with customers and generate leads. ICM
Branding is often overlooked, especially in the propane, heating oil, HVAC and home comfort industries. This is understandable—with expenses tied to fleets, equipment and staff, little budget is left for branding initiatives. However, consider this: research shows that consistent presentation of a brand increases revenue by 23%.
Customers consistently seeing a brand can boost revenue by 23%.
In nearly any industry, the most successful companies are the ones that have created a strong brand presence to position themselves as industry leaders. Branding provides an unmatched opportunity to establish your company’s identity in the ever-crowded energy market, incentivizes potential customers in your area to call you and transforms current customers into brand ambassadors. What does your current brand say about your
company? It may be time for a rebrand if the following statements are true for your company.
Your Current Branding Methods are Inconsistent
Consistency is key! Even at a quick glance, all of your company materials should have a “branded” look that connects throughout all marketing initiatives. While all marketing materials should share a common denominator, the reality is that most (if not, all) heating oil, propane and HVAC companies do not have a guidebook for branding standards. While some may have a few file formats of their logo to share with various vendors, each will likely interpret your brand implementation differently.
Your Current Brand is Indistinguishable from Competitors
Think about how many utility or service vehicles you’ve seen with the traditional blue and red arrows or weather-related clipart—probably a lot, especially if you live in the New York Metropolitan area. If your business has the same logo or look as all the other companies out there, it’s nearly impossible for potential prospects and customers to remember your company. With competition at an all-time high, being unique and standing out is more important than ever.
You’ve Expanded Your Business
Whether you’ve acquired or merged with another business, augmented your geographical territory or expanded your service offerings, your business has likely grown and evolved over the years. Has your brand actively kept up with these changes? As heating oil, propane and HVAC companies are growing, brand identity could be a key factor in helping yours reach its full potential. Sometimes all it takes is looking the part.
If your business is indeed in need of rebranding, there are some key considerations and steps to take to guarantee a successful outcome.
1. Do Your Research: Perhaps the best way to decide what changes need to be made to your branding is to talk to people. Whether they are your loyal customers, current employees or even industry experts—the goal is to gain valuable suggestions and opinions about your company to determine what changes will generate the greatest benefit. Is it
Do your research first to see what customers want from your brand.
hard to do business with your company? Are your customers satisfied with your service? Does your brand need a major overhaul or just a little tweaking? These are all key questions to consider in talking with stakeholders. And don’t be afraid to research your competitors to see what they may be doing better.
2. Define Your Objectives: Once you’ve done your outside research, you need to do some internal research, and that means asking yourself the hard questions about your business. What makes your energy company different from the rest? What is working? What needs to change? Taking stock of your company’s strengths and weaknesses is key to revamping the look and feel of your business. Knowing your objectives and the problems you are trying to solve will help in crafting a new vision—shedding your current identity and determining what your new identity will be. A little SWOT (strength, weaknesses, opportunities and threats) analysis never hurt anyone!
3. Set Your Plans in Motion: You’ve determined your weaknesses and established objectives. Now you need to decide how you will implement changes. Your plan of action should account for all changes that need to be made, including elements such as your logo, signs, website, social media pages, invoices and even service vehicles. While planning for all these changes may seem daunting, you don’t have to go it alone. Whether you are making design decisions or engaging in important dialog back and forth, get your team involved in accomplishing the change by specifying and outlining their individual roles.
Spreading the word about your new brand does not need to be expensive
4. Spread the Word: Now that you’ve finalized your new branding, it’s time to communicate the changes. There’s no better place to start than with your employees. As your new brand rolls out, all employees should be equipped with updated brand guidelines and messaging to effectively communicate with the public. You can even make custom T-shirts and apparel that they can wear to inexpensively promote your new logo or brand elements. Customers and prospects also need to be kept in the loop. Whether through press releases, emails or social media updates, these key stakeholders should be informed on what they can expect to experience under the new brand.
The thought of rebranding can be a lot to wrap your head around. It’s not tangible like a piece of equipment. It’s a feeling, an idea—one that lives (or dies) by the way a company treats it. Your long-term success is the direct result of how well you both define your brand and implement it day-to-day. ICM