By John MacKenna
Many energy marketers have a great opportunity to differentiate their companies and distance themselves from the competition by offering robust self-service capabilities on the company website.
John Redmond, Vice President for Product Strategy at ADD Systems, of Flanders, NJ, said he recently did an informal survey of 50 leading North American retail propane companies and found that only 13 of the 50 offer true self service for customers.
He believes that today’s customers strongly prefer companies that enable them to manage the relationship online, and there is a shortage of fuel delivery companies that provide that option. “I think a lot of heating oil or propane purchasing profiles won’t do business with you unless you offer self service, he said. “It is a benchmark of whether or not to do business with a company.”
ADD Systems enables clients who use its ADD Energy E3® back office software to create self-service customer portals using the SmartConnect® portfolio of web services. SmartConnect empowers third-party developers to create new applications or interface existing third-party applications to ADD Energy E3.
SmartConnect helps E3 companies satisfy customers and improve business processes by connecting customers directly and securely to data and functionality within the E3 system. They can enjoy the same kind of seamless experience they get with an ecommerce-enabled retailer, because SmartConnect allows for direct interaction between E3 and the customer-facing third-party applications. For example, if E3 has a reservations module for service appointments,
a customer on the website can schedule a date and time for an annual cleaning.
E3 will immediately book that appointment on the service schedule and can send a confirmation notice, as well as reminders on future dates. No staff intervention is required.
During a customer’s session, SmartConnect applies any business rules that are programmed into E3, according to Redmond. That means that if company data shows that the customer has a 275-gallon heating oil tank, SmartConnect would immediately disallow an erroneous attempt by the customer to place a 500-gallon order. The customer gets immediate guidance and is prevented from placing a faulty order that otherwise might require follow-up by a CSR.
Another situation where SmartConnect can provide a process advantage is when a customer has a credit hold
on their account. If they attempt to place an order, SmartConnect will immediately detect the credit hold, and the third-party application can alert the customer to the situation and explain their options. The customer receives accurate information in real-time and is prevented from placing an order that would require follow-up from customer service.
Amazon Is the Benchmark
A website that offers true interaction with the back-office software meets the expectations of today’s customers, according to Redmond. “Consumers are not comparing their energy provider to other local providers. They are comparing them to the Amazons and FedExes of the world. You place an order for a gift on Amazon, and you get an email acknowledging the order, another saying it shipped and another saying that it was delivered. That is the benchmark,” he said. “People think of a fuel company’s self service the way they think of any other company’s self service. They are looking for websites with a certain look and feel. If your website doesn’t fit the profile, they will not pick up the phone and call you. They will move on to another company with a modern website.
“Our industry is under a lot of pressure, especially heating oil companies, which are seen as old fashioned and not green, but when you offer great self-service, you are not an old company,” he said.
The ADD Systems executive said he finds it shocking that more companies are not rolling out self-service applications on their websites. “Even among ADD Systems customers, the percentage is not what it could be,” he said.
It is a myth that only millennial generation customers care deeply about self service, Redmond said, citing his own Baby Boomer lifestyle as an example.
“I no longer get a newspaper. I read Florida Today online. I recently went up on the Florida Power and Light website to see an electric bill estimate, and I am using CruiseCompete.com to choose a cruise for our next vacation.” He noted that the first self-service gas station opened in 1964, and Chemical Bank announced the first ATM (then called a “cash machine”) in 1969 with an ad that said, “On Sept. 2, our bank will open at 9:00 and never close again!”
“There has been a sea change,” he said. “Back in the early 2000s it was maybe only the younger generation that shopped online. In today’s world, it is probably 75 to 80 percent of customers who would like the ability to deal with a company via self service.”
Redmond believes that providing online self service is essential to derive the full benefit of the back-end system. Strong back-office software has lots of direct business benefits such as minimizing data re-entry and improving process efficiency. When a company combines those gains with improved competitiveness in customer acquisition and retention, they maximize ROI.
Once self-service functionality is in place, Redmond said, companies need to promote it to both customers and prospects. “People miss the marketing piece,” he said. “You have to market and promote it and make sure customers and prospects are aware of it. Then you need to measure the return on investment.”
SmartConnect also helps businesses grow without increasing overhead, because customers are serving themselves via fully automated processes rather than placing additional burden on the customer service team. When the company successfully shifts workload off customer service, it is better prepared for the busiest times of the year, when customer service teams can otherwise get overwhelmed. Redmond once worked on a study for a major heating oil marketer that showed that 15 to 17 percent of calls to customer service were questions about how much the customer owed — information that can be readily available in a customer portal. “Why not offer self service to customers that do want to go to the website and take the burden off the office? It’s the best of both worlds,” he said. “Technology is the only way to drive costs out of the business.”
SmartConnect also leverages tank monitors to optimize the fuel delivery process. The E3 back office solution provides forecasting to help marketers maximize drop sizes while avoiding runouts. For accounts that have tank monitors installed, SmartConnect can deliver the monitoring data to E3, where it replaces the forecast data. E3 continues to apply forecast data to every delivery site, so if a monitor fails, the forecast data provides an automatic failsafe without any need for human intervention.
Tank monitor data can also be fed to the customer portal in graphical format so the customer essentially sees their tank gauge on the company website.
Companies that use SmartConnect work with third-party providers such as PriMedia and Destwin, who provide and customize the software to meet the energy marketer’s specific needs. He recommends that marketers be sure to work with professional web developers who are familiar with SmartConnect, as opposed to website designers who lack proficiency in online application development.
A third-party provider can help a marketer maximize their return with innovations such as automated marketing. Redmond said that PriMedia has worked with clients to market budget plans proactively to customers based on parameters such as overdue payments. They can also market new equipment to customers based on efficiency tests results from the heating or cooling system that are entered as customer data.
“Hopefully, customers are using their data to the maximum for internal processes and marketing,” he added. “It is essential to see the value of your data on the marketing side. By offering self service, you are providing a reason for the customer to go to the site, where you can use their data for marketing purposes to upsell them. Otherwise, your website is just a billboard.”