The Power of Connection

Written on: December 4, 2012 by Ed Cardell

Many of you have been going through hell in the mid-Atlantic and lower New England states because of the impact of Superstorm Sandy. You’ve had no gas to run your service trucks, no fueloil to deliver to customers, and in some extreme cases, your companies have literally been under water due to flooding and major storm damage. This has been a challenging few months to be sure. One of the really amazing bright spots in all of this are the stories we’ve heard or played a part in, of dealers bailing each other out during this time of crisis. A number of our Breakthrough Group members have been doing just that.
We started these Breakthrough Groups because we felt there were increasingly big challenges that companies faced, and keeping pace with evolving energy world require an infusion of better answers, stronger solutions and a support structure to help dealers achieve real results. What we didn’t realize was just how valuable the connections made in these Breakthrough Groups would be in times of crisis.
One Breakthrough Group member from northern New Jersey was without gasoline for his service trucks and simply could not secure any gasoline to reach his customers. The call went out to his Breakthrough Group members, and a Pennsylvania dealer sent a truckload of gasoline to bail out his fellow member. Another Breakthrough Group member had a flooded warehouse, no power and no gas for trucks or heating oil. One of his Breakthrough Group members came to the rescue and sent supplies that were needed to the dealer get through the crisis and keep the business running.
There are some really powerful lessons that have been reinforced for me and for our industry during the post-Sandy recovery:
1. Our industry is made up of a group of players that are really good in a crisis. We have always been driven by weather events. We are survivors that act quickly and effectively. Knowing what to do first, then next—before, during, and after an event comes to us intuitively. Securing resources, working around the clock, looking out for employees and customers are not things we have to think about; we just do it.
2. Our industry is still uniquely good and decent. While it can be difficult to remember that during the day-to-day operations of our businesses, as we fight discounters or lowball offers or any other number of challenges, our industry is populated with extremely kind and generous people. And it’s worth remembering that.
3. The power of connection is stronger today than ever before. It’s becoming unbelievably difficult to succeed in business without a strong support system in place. In a time of crisis, it’s virtually impossible to operate without that support. Our Breakthrough Group members have found that support within their groups, and it’s critical that all of us find the connections and build the relationships that can help us weather a crisis, and also help us move the ball forward during “normal” times.
As I’ve done in the past, I always like to share with you some insights from our most recent Breakthrough Groups. This month’s contributions may not be recovery related, but I think they are still worth noting.

If you can’t beat ’em—dealing with the natural gas challenge

We all know the value of oil heat and all of the reasons that conversion to natural gas is just plain risky business. A few of our Breakthrough Group members are approaching the fight from a different corner. They have become certified as natural gas equipment installers and have hooked up with a gas provider that needed their services. It seems that the non-oil independent contractors have been unable to fill the needs of the gas companies—who, in turn, have been reaching out to more reputable equipment installers (like us). Once in the door, the fuel dealer who is certified to handle both gas and oil, can provide estimates for “both” types of heat (of course, discounting the oil system) and to help the customer make an educated decision. If the customer chooses to go to natural gas, they can also sell them a service agreement or in some cases even supply the natural gas.

Check your customer contact process—or
have someone else
do it.

Many of our Breakthrough Group discussions revolve around the customer experience. Have you listened in on your customer calls lately? More importantly, have you conducted “mystery calls” of your own team, acting as a customer calling in for a price? How is the process? Is it easy to grab the phone number from online or other resources? How quickly are you connected? How clean and easy is your automated attendant phone tree? Does it get you to where you need to be in the least number of steps? Once you connect with a CSR, are they mining the call in the right order? Name, address, and call back number—within the first few seconds? A really valuable Breakthrough project/benefit that has been embraced is the “pairing” of Breakthrough Group members to explore and evaluate their member partner’s new customer entry system. Make a commitment to do it yourself or assign someone to it. It is important. You may be surprised by the holes you find.

Beef up your online presence

SEO and pay per click have become the fastest and most effective sources of lead generation (more details on this in future articles), but there are other aspects of your online presence that you should be focusing on as well. Posting reviews, for example. One of our members takes all of his paper reviews (customer thank you notes and comments) and follows up with his customers, asking them to post them online (by the way, he rewards them for their efforts). It keeps his online reviews fresh and positive and helps to drive business. And in a world where social media and online social interaction increasingly drive buying decisions, positive customer reviews are critical in setting your company apart from your competition.
Which brings us back to Superstorm Sandy. Many of you have done heroic things over the last few weeks. Your phones have been ringing off the hook from people worried about getting deliveries. Then they started calling because they had no heat, their oil tank is floating in their basement, etc. All of them wanted you there fast, and they wanted their problem solved. You also probably got calls from customers of other fuel companies that did not “come through when it mattered most.”
While marketing and communication may not be foremost on your minds during times like these, you need to capture these moments and use them to your advantage going forward. You may have done terrific things for many people over the last few weeks, but it likely represents only a fraction of your customer base. The rest will be oblivious to all the effort you put out, and would have put out for them if they were in that situation. You’ve got to get them thinking, “I want to stay with my guy because if bad stuff happens, I know he will be there for me.” That will only come from leveraging moments like these with smart promotion. So be sure to capture these “above and beyond” stories. Share those stories in your newsletters. Post these stories online. Connect with your customers and encourage online reviews.
You deserve to reap the rewards of your heroic efforts, so be sure to leverage your good work.
I personally want to extend my best wishes as you recover from the storm, and I hope that this holiday season brings you much joy with your families and lots and lots of degree days. Happy Holidays.