Behind the Numbers

Today’s energy marketers have a wealth of valuable data at their fingertips. The question is how does one parse all that info, and what to do with it afterward…

By Richard Rutigliano, PriMedia, Inc.

You’ve probably heard the old axiom, “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.” Samuel Clemens (better known by the pen name Mark Twain) gets almost all of the credit for popularizing this saying. What most people don’t realize is that Clemens attributed the quote to British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli, perhaps one of the most influential figures in the history of Western governance.

What even fewer people realize is that there is no known record of Disraeli ever uttering or writing the phrase. In fact, it didn’t even appear in print until at least a decade after his death. So, what we have here with “lies, damned lies, and statistics” is a case of the general population misattributing a quote to a famous author who was himself misattributing the quote. Oh, what a tangled web…

Speaking of webs, in today’s information age, access to little factoids like the above is more open and widespread than ever. The same could be said for consumer data, which is so widely available that an entire industry, known as Big Data, has sprung up around it. Unfortunately, misinformation, disinformation, and, to use the latest buzz phrase, fake news, are just as ubiquitous.

If the challenge for consumers is to read between the lines, then the challenge for companies is to look behind the numbers. It’s not enough to simply collect customer data and run it through an algorithm in order to make important business decisions. You also need to know what the data represent on a micro and macro level, and more importantly, what you can and should do with all that information.

Where Does Data Come From?
In the old days, before the internet age and long before the rise of Big Data, a typical heating oil or propane dealer’s customer data would’ve been stored in two places: in “the books,” which were any accounting documents your business kept on file, whether neatly organized in a well-managed ledger or strewn about a backroom maze of overstuffed file cabinets; and in the memories (or, if you ran a tighter ship, the notes) of the employees who serviced those customer accounts.

The first of those data sets would’ve likely included important figures like gallons delivered, budget payments and enrollment dates. The second set could’ve included some numbers too, like family size and last date of service, but it also could’ve included abstract information about the account, like “Mr. Jones is a Mets fan.” (While this article will focus primarily on quantifiable data, it’s important to never lose sight of those real-life qualities that define your customers and your company, because in a sense, that is what’s truly “behind the numbers.”)

Today, data is collected very differently, not only in that it’s entered into a computer program at the customer’s point of enrollment, but also in that it’s often the customers who physically key in the data themselves. Today’s customers demand self-service. As facilitators of your customers’ needs, it’s critical when offering those self-service options that you strike the right balance between comprehensive and convenient. When you sign up a new customer, you want to collect as much useful data as possible, but you don’t want to overwhelm, confuse or otherwise turn away that customer.

PriMedia’s inVue Customer Account Management tool walks new customers through a step-by-step enrollment process, collecting all the data you need without putting any unnecessary obstacles in the way. Contact information, delivery location, tank and fill pipe locations, billing information, and employer and credit information are safely secured in the system.

If you want to go deeper, and you should, our developers can build your inVue customer portal with dynamic, customized content fields for additional data entry. Now, your employees and your customers enjoy 24/7 access to account information; transaction, delivery and service history; invoices and statements; service, budget and price protection agreements; and loyalty programs. Each of those modules includes data that can be harnessed by your team to anticipate and meet the needs of your customers.

Where Else?
Customer data isn’t the only valuable data that’s readily available, not by a long shot. Any company with a website can utilize Google Analytics to its advantage. This free web service shows you how many users are visiting each page of your site each month, how long they’re staying, and how many are “converting” or completing a desired task like watching a video, clicking a link or submitting a form.

This quantifiable data will help you determine where your online communications are connecting with existing and potential customers and where improvements are still needed. As a Google Analytics Certified Partner, PriMedia can provide website owners with detailed monthly reports that outline all of the above in terms that make sense (and good business sense) to laymen as well as seasoned web users. Of course, as a business owner, you probably don’t want to stop there.

Other data that can inform the way you do business include the number of oil- and propane-heated homes in your state, congressional district, county or ZIP code, as well as the number of gas-heated homes. Thinking of expanding into a new service area? Then it helps to know how many businesses, homes and residents are in that area too. The average age and income of those potential customers are also useful data, especially from a marketing perspective.

If your marketing agency isn’t showing you data like this upfront, and isn’t showing you how it might inform your marketing campaigns, you’re being done a disservice — plain and simple. This data is invaluable not just to your business, but to the entire industry, so if you’re not looking at it, you can bet that your competitors are. That’s why I firmly believe one of the things that sets great marketing agencies apart is their ability to perform solid research based on real, quantifiable data, not just the word on the street.

What Does Data Tell You?
Ask your fellow heating oil and propane dealers this question and you’re likely to hear a range of different responses. Some will say that a basic understanding of customer data helps them allocate their marketing budget for the coming year. Some old-timers might quote Mark Twain for you. A more tech-savvy dealer might start expounding on the powers of predictive analytics. The truth is that they’re all correct, to an extent.

Let’s look, for example, at a hypothetical delivery customer who’s been with your company for four years, never calls for system service, and has been buying more gallons from you each year. At first glance, you might assume that you’ve got a great thing going here. You might say, “The customer hasn’t complained, so I’ll just keep doing exactly what I’m doing.”

But look more closely at the data and you might realize that you’re actually in danger of losing this customer to the first company that comes at them with a pitch to improve their heating efficiency. With that in mind, customer data showing increasing gallons and zero service calls might tell you to sell the customer a tune up and a service plan.

If you have additional data showing that the customer’s heating system is 20 years old, you might decide to market an upgrade offer or rebate program. Some account management systems like inVue even allow you to automate these and other marketing messages in accordance with the customer data on file.

Similar principles can be applied when looking at Google Analytics data. You might see that your website’s delivery-dedicated webpage is getting more hits than any other section on your site. Thus, you assume that the page is doing great, that it doesn’t need to be changed at all, and that, if anything, all the other pages of your website should be modeled after it.

But look more closely. If you also find that your delivery page has a low conversion rate and high “percent exit” — indicating that customers typically leave the website after visiting this page, and do so without requesting a delivery — then you probably want to add a “request delivery” link or contact form to the page, or make any existing links or forms more prevalent.

Little updates like these can make a big difference for your company. Just imagine how many more service plans you could sell by marketing them directly to the customers who need them most, or how many more delivery orders you’d get if everyone who assumed you didn’t offer an online request form realized you actually did.

With quality account management software and skilled web developers at your disposal, it’s easy to access such data and act on it in a way that can benefit your company. Of course, this doesn’t mean that the “old ways” of doing business should be tossed out the window.

If Stats Lie, Does Data Too?
There’s a story arc in Star Trek: The Next Generation (if I didn’t lose you with all that talk about data collection and analysis, I imagine a little sci-fi trivia won’t hurt either) in which Lt. Commander Data, an android serving aboard the Starship Enterprise, travels back in time to 19th-century San Francisco, where he meets Samuel Clemens. At one point, Clemens mentions to Data an employee in the county assayer’s office.

“I have spoken to several people in that office,” Data says.

“Yes, I know,” says Clemens. “And in the hall of records, and in the Geological Society, and in a little-known mineral shop in Chinatown. You do get around, don’t you?”

“As apparently do you, Mr. Clemens,” Data replies.

I bring up this exchange to reconnect with the quote that started off this article and to reassure our readers that the increasing prevalence of data analysis does not represent a complete reinvention of the wheel. On the TV show, Data is known for his investigative prowess, yet despite his superior computational abilities, he aspires toward the emotional insights and intuitive powers of human beings.

All of this is to say, yes, data can be an invaluable resource for your business, but without the personal talents of your team, it’s essentially worthless. On TV, Data is virtually incapable of lying, but in reality, an over-dependence on data can make it seem like the numbers are indeed lying. And make no mistake, without the right human resources in place, data is just that — numbers.

The dependability of your services, the quality of your products, and the skills of your employees remain your most vital assets. Data simply gives you an idea of how to get the most from those assets.

If you’d like to begin putting your data to better use, PriMedia can help. Please give me a call at 800-796-3342 or visit GoPrimedia.com to find out more and request a free demo.

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