by Richard Rutigliano, President, PriMedia
Helping customers get through hard times can help businesses do the same
Oil & Energy readers provide a critical service to our nation’s health daily, but even more so during national emergencies. The heating and cooling services you deliver can mean the difference between life and death, especially for the ill or elderly. So, let me begin by offering you and your employees, who enter the homes of virtual strangers on a regular basis, my deepest possible thanks for your efforts during the COVID-19 pandemic and all other national crises.
As I write this article, the coronavirus pandemic has ground most of the country to a halt. I hope this issue of Oil and Energy finds you and yours safe and healthy. At this moment (and I expect many changes before you see this), in the midst of this national emergency, New York’s Governor Cuomo has put the state “on pause” and ordered that “100 percent of the workforce must stay home,” exempting essential businesses, including fuel providers. Other states across the country have issued similar “stay at home” orders. Social distancing and voluntary self-quarantines are the “new normal.”
The home heating and energy industry is different. As an essential service, you and your employees work longer hours and walk into homes where people may be ill. During this pandemic, no matter how assiduously you follow safety precautions, your company is on the front lines and your customers have to trust that your technicians are healthy.
Also, at least at the moment I am writing this, Russia and Saudi Arabia are still in the midst of a price war. Crude oil has dropped below $30/barrel, and stayed there. The EIA’s Short Term Energy Outlook, which was revised after the March 9 fall, is now forecasting Brent Crude averaging $37/B in the second quarter, and rising to $42/b in the second half of the year.
Between the coronavirus, global price wars, and an economy in flux, there are challenges ahead for energy marketers. To mitigate your risk and maintain the health of your customer relationships, there are many things you can be doing over the next few months (and that are good to do at any time).
Communicate, Communicate, Communicate
We’ve said it before, and will say it again. In any crisis, communication is the key differentiator between positive and negative outcomes. Have you been in contact with your customers?
Since the pandemic started to spread throughout our region, PriMedia has been sending emails and creating website pop-ups for our retail, wholesale and association clients, announcing changes to business operations and meeting schedules. These notifications take a reassuring tone; alerting customers that the business continues to deliver fuel and service equipment, but asking that customers keep their distance, inform the company if anyone is ill, and to pay bills online or by phone. They also outline the company-wide procedures in accordance with CDC recommendations to limit the spread of the virus. These messages were mirrored on our clients’ social media feeds as well.
Now that we are a month in, I hope we are at a point where we can see an eventual return to some sort of normalcy. With luck, we have passed the peak of the infection curve and office staff have been able to return to work.
Regardless of the state of the virus, your business needs to continue. To do so, you need to strengthen your relationships with customers. Income for almost every household in the nation will have been impacted. Federal relief checks, paid sick leave, and other services notwithstanding, customers who were furloughed or laid off received only a portion of their salaries from unemployment insurance, if anything at all. Those who own their own businesses are facing unprecedented losses and struggling to stay afloat. Virtually every customer will be looking to cut expenses, even more than usual.
Heating and cooling, as you well know, make up a significant share of home expenses. When they do, they need to see more than their payment amounts. They need to see the value and loyalty your company offers.
Keep the Communication Channels Open
We hope you have been in ongoing conversations with your customers throughout the last month or so. We urge you to continue those communications. This includes website copy, home page pop-ups and banners, eblasts, personalized emails, letters and social media. Boosted social media updates and digital advertising are good ways to communicate with neighbors who may not be customers. And there is a lot you can say.
Low Prices. If, as expected, crude oil is still low, your prices will reflect that. This is a good time to point out the new low prices to your customers and set up price protection plans that guarantee these bargains for the upcoming season. Include account-specific notifications on your customer portal to urge customers to enroll, and send them personalized letters or emails showing how much lower their upcoming budget is expected to be. In the post-pandemic marketplace, these may be some of the most important messages you can send.
Reputation. Your reputation precedes you. New customers will be looking at online reviews. This is a fact of life. Before a consumer contacts a new business, they look at online reviews, and value those reviews nearly as much as recommendations from a family member. If you do not already have a review strategy in place, now is the time to get one going. There are ways to ask for reviews and make it easy for customers to place them on Google, Facebook and Yelp without breaking these platforms’ terms. PriMedia can help you set up the automated processes so that every service call is followed by an email or text message requesting feedback and a public review. Don’t worry too much about one or two negative reviews, either. Today’s consumer expects to see the occasional “bad apple,” and responds positively if you answer complaints in a professional manner. We can help with those, too.
Service. Your company provides service when others stop, and this is a good time to remind your customers of that fact. With the country shut down during the pandemic, you continue to deliver fuel and service their comfort equipment. You do the same, year after year, through blizzards, hurricanes and other severe weather events. You were there at 2:00 a.m. when their furnace stopped working, and you were there on Christmas day when the water heater shut down. When there is an emergency, your customers know who to call. Not Ghostbusters. You. Now is the time to remind them.
Value. There are still many customers who understand the meaning of value over price. In addition to the services listed above, they appreciate the convenience of automatic delivery, the savings of price protection and service plans, and the reliability of a company that has been in business for decades. The value, and values, you bring to every transaction need to be part of every communication you have.
I will end this as I began, with my sincerest thanks and appreciation for all you do, and my hope that this missive not only finds you well, but that it is also already moot. Please remember that our team stands by to help you with all your communications needs in the days ahead, as we have for the past 27 years.
PriMedia has been helping fuel providers and the associations that serve them communicate with customers for nearly three decades. For a free consultation on the email marketing, text messaging, social media, reviews and web presence optimization covered in this article, call 800-796-3342 or visit goprimedia.com.