You don’t choose your customers—they choose you. But you can do plenty to influence their decisions.
By Richard Rutigliano, PriMedia Inc.
A camera is a simple instrument that captures the image of whatever is in front of its lens when the aperture clicks open for an instant. And yet, an expert photographer takes better pictures than a typical amateur time after time after time, even with identical equipment in identical conditions.
In that way, fuel delivery is like photography. Different marketers can build the same “business machine” with the same trucks delivering the same fuel and point it at the same market, but the results vary widely, just as in photography. Some companies thrive year after year, while others, well… not so much.
There is no simple explanation, because many types of expertise and acumen must combine for a retail business to thrive. But experience shows me that there is one peculiar weakness that permeates our industry (and some others like it): a lack of appreciation for the return on investment that good marketing delivers. For every company that embraces marketing and focuses on the finer points of how consumers make choices, there is another company that views marketing investments as optional, if not downright wasteful.
Decision-making processes vary from owner to owner, but any company that sells commodities by the unit has a necessary concern with margin. If fuel sales are the primary driver of profit, then margin is king, and wasteful expenses are the enemy of margin.
The importance of preserving margin is indisputable, but we all know that many investments improve the bottom line because they generate savings or revenue over time that far exceed their costs. Back-office software, remote monitoring and hedging are examples of expenses that can improve the bottom line when they are used correctly.
The professional services that fall under the loose heading of “marketing” also appear on the expense side of the ledger, and like the investments referenced above, they can yield impressive results on the revenue side. But the benefits of marketing are difficult to quantify and can befuddle a mathematical mind.
There is no disrespect here. Margins must be minded, and expenses must be controlled. We fight those battles ourselves at PriMedia every day. Also, marketing is ephemeral by nature in ways that most other productive investments are not. Nonetheless, it’s a fact that agencies like ours help countless companies improve their bottom lines, and I want to offer my thoughts on why “connecting with customers” in subtle ways can be so beneficial. I’ll also suggest steps you can take now to improve your rate of customer acquisition.
Are You In Or Out?
If you are an owner or executive who “gets” marketing, you can read on and enjoy some pleasant affirmation of your wisdom. If, on the other hand, you have never been “big on marketing,” I strongly recommend you bite the bullet and read on—with an open mind. No matter what kind of thinker you are and what your experiences are with marketing, I know you like larger profits better than smaller ones, and you just might learn something here that helps you drive a better bottom line.
Before I get to into the changes you can make now, I want to share two quick thoughts on how a non-believer can “get religion” about marketing.
Ask around. Many owners and executives eschew marketing because they see only costs without any clear path to bottom-line returns. If that’s you, here is my request: Please talk with someone you trust who seems to be achieving success with marketing. Ask them to explain what they do and why it works. I won’t try to convince you myself, because I sell marketing services, so I’m not the one to hear it from.
Consider the consumer’s dilemma. In a world where every fuel company and HVAC provider sells virtually identical products and services, how does the customer choose among companies? It’s a personal decision every time. It’s their decision, and not yours, and that can be somewhat maddening. The fact is you can never control consumer decisions, but you can make your company extremely competitive with a few well-calculated marketing moves.
Once you decide to try “herding the cats” in your direction with a marketing investment, how do you do it? There are dozens of tactics to choose from, and I’m going to focus on just a few.
1. Get expert help. There are a lot of different skill sets involved in marketing, including website development, application development, graphic design and copywriting. Inventory your staff to see what might be available in-house and then seek outside help for the rest. A full-service marketing agency is often the best place to turn, because you can request an integrated strategy that combines top-level strategic planning with all the technological and creative skills it takes to execute the plan. Assign one person on the staff to serve as liaison to the agency.
2. Have faith. Please read Nos. 3 and 4 to understand No. 2.
3. Lead with a strong message. Invest in developing a solid message about how customers can benefit from using your company. The goal is to have people who see your ads or visit your website respond positively with thoughts to the effect that, “That’s exactly what I want.” Once you have crystallized the message, put it to work everywhere: in a snappy tagline, in a succinct paragraph on your website, in the company description you post in every online business directory serving your area. Teach the message to your CSRs, your salespeople and even your drivers and technicians, so they can say to anyone they meet, “You know the best reason to go with us?” and then share your simple message.
Messaging is one of the hardest things for marketing skeptics to consider writing a check for because, well, it’s just a few words, right? Surely someone on their staff could bang those out in their spare time. This is where you want to put your faith in the experts, because great copywriters know how to strike a chord with consumers in a way that the rest of us simply cannot.
4. Look sharp. That’s a solid idea for any energy marketer (and a great Joe Jackson song.) Consumers, by and large, have figured out that heating and cooling equipment is sophisticated, and Google/Nest Labs is spending millions to reinforce the idea as they promote the Nest Learning Thermostat. Homeowners care deeply about their homes and families, and they want to make a really smart choice whenever choosing any in-home service. They will do their very best to choose an honest company that understands cutting-edge home comfort systems and provides great value and service. Your job is to present yourself as that ideal company that they are hoping to find—and do it so convincingly that they select you.
Is there any direct connection between great graphic design and great home comfort service? No there is not, but consumers are trained, through lifetimes of exposure to sophisticated marketing, to equate professional appearance with top performance. When your company pays attention to details like color scheme, design and typography, you look sharp, and consumers make the inferences that you want them to. Put your faith in professional graphic designers, because DIY design never measures up to expert work.
5. Use your website real estate effectively. When a potential full-service customer checks your company out online, they will visit your home page virtually every time, which makes it by far your most important customer recruitment tool. Homeowners want to know which company is their best choice, and the home page is your critical opportunity to separate yourself from the competition. A strong home page marries the crisp message and appealing aesthetics discussed above with a highly comprehensible presentation of your services. It enables the visitor to know within a few seconds that (a) you know what you’re doing, and (b) you know how to take care of people like them.
The most critical space is the top section of the page. Use that vital “real estate” to communicate your key products and services artfully and immediately, which means writing your navigation menu and other large type so that they reflect your company’s strengths at a glance. As with No. 4 and No. 5 above, this is the unique expertise that marketing specialists have, and I strongly recommend taking that leap of faith and seeing if you can’t improve your customer acquisition by representing your company with a high caliber home page and website.
6. Tout your convenience. Fuel delivery is a straight-up commodity business, and HVAC service providers also can seem very similar to consumers. In other words, you have very little opportunity to differentiate your company on the basis of your products and services alone.
Aside from driving better perceptions as discussed in the last three points, what can you do to be more attractive than your competition? One of your best options is to cater to customers’ desire for convenience. If you can virtually eliminate phone conversations from the communications equation and enable customers to do everything online, you’ll harness a significant competitive advantage. With the right online apps built into your website, you can empower consumers to enroll as customers, sign up for price protection and service contracts, order fuel, and schedule service calls — all without ever picking up the phone. Consumers have been trained by large retailers that they can get all their business done online whenever they please, and they would rather not make an exception for their home comfort provider. Give them what they want, and there’s a much better chance that they will give you their business.
And once you’re doing that, you’ll want to promote your convenience prominently on your website and in all your advertising and customer outreach. Customers expect great service on their terms. Make it clear that you are the one who is there for them.
7. Tout your technology. Many fuel companies have become very sophisticated with their use of technology. They achieve impressive operational efficiency with a combination of back-office software, vehicle routing and dispatch systems, tank monitors, and wireless communications with both drivers and the electronic registers on the trucks. Dispatchers know where the trucks and vans are at all times. CSRs and technicians have in-depth information about customers at their fingertips instantly. Companies alert customers by text message about service appointments. All these technologies contribute to lower costs and much better customer service.
If you are taking some or all of these steps, don’t keep it a secret. Consumers are impressed when a company deploys advanced technology. It makes you look smart, and if you are that sophisticated with your own operations, it’s easy for consumers to infer that you’re smart with the technology inside your customers’ homes. That is something that truly desire, particularly as they learn more about learning thermostats and connected homes. When you present yourself as a leading-edge company, you build confidence, and that improves your customer acquisition.
8. Sell a premium fuel product. Leo Verruso, of Advanced Fuel Solutions, made a great point in his article in last month’s Oil & Energy: The major gasoline retailers are branding their premium fuels, and heating oil dealers should follow suit. When you offer customers a higher-quality fuel and explain how it is better for their home heating equipment (which they own, and which is costly to replace), you can turn heads. Every retailer faces unique considerations based on the market they serve, but if you are targeting premium customers, it makes sense to differentiate yourself on your core product and push the point.
9. Be great on the phone and in the home. Creating great customer experiences is essential in a competitive, customer service business such as home comfort. Take control of this issue with all your employees, and be sure that everyone has a good idea of how to talk with customers on the phone and in person—and understands how essential their performance is to the company’s success. Make sure they understand that customers appreciate learning how your company can help them. Instruct employees on how to promote the company’s services tactfully, and make it easy for them to share information using informational brochures and/or links to exactly the right web pages on your website.
If you take only one thing away from this article, please take this: Consumer choice plays a critical role in your company’s success, and without a monopoly hold on their business you can’t control consumers. The trick is to accept that uncomfortable truth and embrace the art of gentle persuasion. You are never really in control of your customer acquisition, but you can exert tremendous influence by employing marketing strategies to make your company a compelling choice.
If you’d like help creating a powerfully attractive website that provides top-level customer convenience, please give me a call at 800-796-3342 or e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org. PriMedia has all the tools you need, and we’re happy to help.