Shaping Customer Perceptions

Shaping Customer Perceptions

By Richard Rutigliano, PriMedia Inc.

There is no sound reason for converting from heating oil and natural gas. Not one. Close examination of the facts bears out that assertion, and you don’t need to be pro-oil to believe it.

  • The price differential between the fuels has dwindled to the point that natural gas’s economic advantage is virtually non-existent. In an honest analysis, an oil-to-gas fuel conversion offers a minimal-to-negative return on investment.
  • Choosing natural gas over Oilheat or Bioheat® fuel for environmental reasons makes no sense. Methane leaks are already leveling the playing field by offsetting natural gas’s burner-tip advantages, and as Oilheat supply loses sulfur and adds biodiesel, dealers can offer heating oil with lower carbon emissions at the burner than natural gas. ULSD Bioheat with increasing B-blend levels offers a better path to reduced carbon emissions than anything natural gas can offer.
  • Improvements to heating equipment and building shells are fuel agnostic. Customers who invest in building shell improvements and equipment upgrades can ignore the fuel type completely without diminishing their return on investment.

Public perceptions, unfortunately, align poorly with truth, and the Oilheat industry bears the heavy burden of helping consumers see the light after decades of unfavorable publicity and deliberate misinformation.

The utilities will not rest in their well-heeled efforts to turn your customers into their customers, so it’s important to use the resources you have most effectively to keep your customers loyal to your company and, ideally, to your fuel. Here a few suggestions to how to leverage the positive information about your company and your fuel to your advantage.

1. Maintain a Strongly Positive Image

It is essential to cast your company is a positive light. Homeowners like to make good choices and associate themselves with people and entities that they view as essentially beneficial. This is particularly true where in-home services are concerned, because you are doing work inside their homes.

Keep this in mind and take proactive steps to develop a positive image and message for your company. Work with your marketing agency to formulate a message and image that emphasize comfort, energy conservation and great customer service. Consistently reinforce these themes across all your communications channels to help customers perceive your company as a business partner that they would like to keep.

Being friendly and providing good service is vital, but you need to do more to imprint your good company image in customers’ minds and hearts. You must proactively remind customers that you are an excellent partner to them. Otherwise they might not really notice you but instead take you for granted and think that another company might be just as good or better. Staying silent puts your relationships at risk.

Cultivating an image of a thoughtful, hard-working company will not make you bulletproof against fuel conversions, but it will help in several ways.

  • Customers will feel good about doing business with you, so they will be less inclined to shop around for alternatives, including fuel conversion.
  • Consumers have some natural wariness about contractors and fuel providers. They are afraid of making a bad choice and getting cheated or mistreated. When you communicate proactively about your company’s good nature, you make them more likely to stay and to give you the benefit of the doubt if they endure a bad customer experience with you.
  • By reinforcing your image as a helpful, caring company, you improve your credibility. This gives you the authority you need to criticize natural gas and utilities and have customers believe you are looking out for their interests.

2. Be Informative.

We all know that the natural gas industry has lots of money and many powerful friends. Consumers have been thoroughly brainwashed about natural gas and heating oil, and they are largely unaware of many important new developments regarding these energy sources.

Heating oil may lack the resources of the natural gas industry, but dealers have smart, determined allies who are working the issues and providing strong informational resources that you can use. Valuable data and news links are available from your state associations, the National Oilheat Research Alliance (NORA), the New England Fuel Institute (NEFI), the American Energy Coalition (AEC), the Petroleum Marketers Association of America (PMAA) and the National Biodiesel Board (NBB).

Familiarize yourself with their work and use it to enlighten your customers and teach them the truth about home heating fuels. Natural gas conversion truly is a bad investment these days, and you help yourself and your customers by telling that story.

To achieve credibility on natural gas, however, you have to establish yourself as a source of valuable information that addresses customers’ interests and concerns. This means proactively and systematically publishing useful information about energy conservation, comfort and indoor air quality. If you do nothing but criticize natural gas, you could sound like you’re just promoting your own interests without regard for theirs.

At PriMedia, we recommend informational publishing as a great investment for all energy-marketer clients because of the multiple values it delivers. You engage customers, which gets them thinking about you. You tell them who you are and how you can help them, which helps them appreciate you and improves customer retention. You help them better understand heating and cooling and energy conservation, which they appreciate. You also create interest in new products and services and generate sales leads.

And there’s more. When you publish good information on your website, you improve search performance, because Google rewards websites that publish high-quality information. You also enliven your social media activities by providing informational links that customers will use and share and which are suitable for Facebook advertising. You can also derive great value for your dollar by creating informative articles once and then repurposing them across all your publishing channels.

By publishing regularly through a combination of blogs, website articles, newsletters, public relations, social media and e-mail, you give yourself outlets to reach and influence customers while establishing your credibility. When you start laying down truths about natural gas and heating oil, customers will pay attention and consider you a credible source.

3. Tell Your Stories.

The facts are squarely on the side of Oilheat and Bioheat companies. Work with your marketing agency to develop your best narratives and leverage them to your advantage. Here are a few of the key storylines share with customers.

  • You are a customer-focused local service provider. In my 20-plus years of working with home comfort companies, I have met many outstanding owners and executives. Most home comfort providers walk the walk: They are deeply concerned with their customers’ welfare and believe that excellent company performance is the key to the company’s success. If you run a company like that, your customers appreciate you and you are good presence in their lives and their communities. This is a great story to share, but it isn’t one that tells itself. You need to communicate explicitly about your corporate culture and values so that your customers can understand what a good thing they have in you. Helping customers appreciate what you do for them is one of the best defenses against customer defections. PMAA has launched a new social media campaign for this very purpose called #FuelMatters that emphasizes the positive aspects of local petroleum businesses. Their posts fit well in your positive news mix.
  • Expert service work saves customers money. Your service team understands that expert installation and service work saves your customers money, but your customers really have no idea. When an installer ensures that a new high-efficiency system is properly adjusted and vented, they save the customer money by delivering the advertised efficiency and reducing the chance of premature failure. Customers have may have “sneaking suspicions” about bad contractor performance, and they probably never “put two and two together” and realize how valuable your well-trained service team is to them. Do not leave this story untold. You invest lots of money to have a service team that does the job right, and your customers are reaping the benefits year after year. How are they supposed to know this if you don’t tell them? What’s to keep them from switching to another provider if they think all companies are the same? Tell the story of your corporate values and your service team.
  • The U.S. oil supply is dramatically improved. It is not a fluke that oil prices are 35 or 40 percent lower than they were two years ago. There are real market forces at work, particularly a massive increase in domestic oil production. AEC regularly posts news articles at americanenergycoalition.com that tell the stories of supply and price. Use those posts in your blogs and social media feeds. Use AEC’s informative bill inserts, and mine the Coalition’s news feed for information you can use in newsletter articles.
  • Bioheat® fuel can be the cleanest home heating fuel: Dealers who want to cater to environmentally minded customers – and who doesn’t? – have a great tool in Bioheat fuel. B20 blends of ultra low sulfur heating oil and biodiesel are approved by ASTM International, and they can outperform natural gas on greenhouse emissions right now. NORA has published a study (available at NORAweb.org) that documents the fuel’s cleanliness. The Alliance is also working to develop a burner that can enable Oilheat customers to burn higher biodiesel blends all the way up to B100. Bioheat dealers need to share this story. While they’re promoting Biodiesel, they can reference NBB’s recent announcement that the famously strict California Air Resources Board has rated biodiesel as the best alternative fuel, capable of reducing carbon emissions by as much as 81 percent.
  • Natural gas is dirtier than coal when methane emissions are taken into account. This is another issue for oil dealers to raise for environmentally minded customers. The natural gas industry has a serious problem with methane emissions throughout production and distribution, and there have been several studies (Cornell, Stanford, Harvard, Environmental Defense Fund) that documented emissions and their effects. AEC tracks these issues every week, making it easy for you to pass the news on to customers across all your publishing channels.
  • Natural gas pipelines have questionable payment schemes and motivations. Oilheat has been getting bad publicity for many years, and now natural gas is starting to get its share of unfriendly coverage over issues like pipeline subsidies and export agendas. Customers can quickly lose interest in spending thousands of dollars to convert fuels once they fall out of love with natural gas. When news stories come out that raise serious questions about who is going to pay for natural gas pipelines or whether they are really being built to enable exports, it’s important to pass the news along to your customers. As long as you consistently emphasize positive things like energy conservation and your company values, you can succeed in deglamorizing natural gas and giving customers motivation to skip the fuel conversion.

One final word about communicating with your customers: Be direct, and be purposeful. Today’s customers appreciate honest information, and this works to our advantage on all of these issues. The facts are on our side. Your job is to get the information into your customer’s hands so they can make smart choices.

If you want help informing your customers. PriMedia is happy to help. Please give me a call at 800-796-3342 or email me at rrutigliano@primediany.com.

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