The Essentials of Marketing

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Cover all the basics to maximize new leads
By Richard Rutigliano, PriMedia, Inc.

As Oil & Energy focuses this month on the essential skills and knowledge that a home comfort service team needs to thrive in today’s competitive landscape, I’m going to take a similar look at marketing in our industry.

Much has changed in recent years. The business climate is even more challenging than usual. Natural gas utilities are aligning with state governments to plunder Oilheat market share. And the Internet has emerged as the top venue for connecting with customers.

As companies compete to serve a shrinking pool of heating oil customers, marketing is the key differentiator. Businesses that know how to connect with prospects, how to convert them to customers, and how to retain them over time have a huge advantage over the competition.

Let’s take a quick look at 10 essentials of marketing a full-service fuel company. (Next month, we’ll take a look at the essentials of marketing a diversified full-service company.)

 

1. Take Inventory. 

Every great marketing strategy begins with analysis and planning. First, get a good handle on the business you are running. Form a clear sense of where your company is today. Identify your strengths and weaknesses, as well as the challenges and opportunities in your market. Take stock of your personnel and resources, and make informed projections about the future.

Does it make sense to continue operating in your current mode, or do you need to make changes? Are there new services you can provide that have strong growth potential? How do you lay the groundwork for selling and delivering a new service? You have to decide what you are selling and who your best target customers are in order to develop a plan that aligns marketing initiatives with specific sales goals.

 

2. Align Your Policies With Your Market. 

Heating oil providers who are losing fuel customers to natural gas must decide how best to defend and support their companies. Are you educating customers about fuel choices and encouraging them to stay with heating oil? What are your CSRs saying to customers who are considering fuel conversion? Are you going to perform conversions yourself and grow your gas service business?

State officials and natural gas utilities are targeting customers in several states and writing policies to get homes off Oilheat. It’s harsh treatment of our valuable industry, but it’s also a reality that must be managed. Be realistic about the threat of fuel conversion and develop a plan that will put you in homes that don’t heat with oil.

 

3. Develop a Marketing Plan. 

Once you have answered the key questions about your company – what kind of business you want to be, who you want for customers, and what services you will offer – it’s time to develop a marketing plan. Set realistic goals for the next year and the years ahead and decide what you need to do to achieve them.

Are your goals based on bringing in new customers or on selling more to the customers you already have? In either case, you need to excel at self-promotion. If it’s new customers you seek, you need a plan for increasing your visibility in the marketplace and making positive impressions. For existing customers, you need to get their attention and convince them to buy something new from you.

Businesses don’t grow through chance or good luck, especially not in this economic climate; you grow only by setting goals and pursuing new business aggressively. When do consumers buy? When the right opportunity comes along. It is up to you to connect with the right buyers and convince them that opportunity is knocking. Anything short of a solid commitment to marketing your services is just wishful thinking.

 

4. The Elements of Identity. 

Creating a strong, recognizable identity is a challenge for any local business, but you have to do your best with the resources at hand. Start by taking inventory. How visible and well known are you? What are you communicating about your company? Do you have a problem with low visibility? Are you projecting an image that is well suited to your business model and your ideal target customers?

Like it or not, your company has an identity, and it’s on display every time one of your company vehicles drives down the street. By definition, your customers and prospects all live in communities where your trucks are driving, and virtually every prospect will see your trucks periodically and form opinions, conscious or subconscious, about your business.

Take control of those “rolling billboards” you are driving through town day after day. Make sure they convey a message that attracts the right people and inspires confidence. Have a name, logo, color scheme and tagline that expresses your value proposition well, and display it on nice, clean vehicles driven carefully by uniformed drivers. If your location is visible, its appearance is also sending powerful impressions about the company every day. Seize the opportunity! Invest in great signage and beautify the property.

 

5. Read From the Same Script. 

Once you are clear on your identity and your ideal customers, it’s vital to get your whole team on the same page, pulling together. The company’s messaging should not vary based on who is doing the talking.

A great example of this is your approach to fuel conversion. You have decided where you stand on the fuel choice question, and your team needs to execute your plan effectively. If you have decided to fight conversion within the customer base, prepare every employee to play his or her part. What does a CSR or technician say when a customer asks about fuel choice? (They should always be prepared to say something that supports the company’s goals and policies.) Does the company offer information about fuel choices? How do you get it in front of customers? How will you follow up when you know a fuel account is at risk?

A very different example would be supporting a new service, such as indoor air quality. If you have decided to sell whole-house air purification systems, develop talking points that cover, at the very least, (a) a first mention of the service; (b) a quick description of the benefits; (c) answers to questions. When everyone knows how to pique a customer’s interest and generate enthusiasm, you are much better prepared to sell.

When you launch an initiative to improve the company’s fortunes, don’t roll the dice on in-house support. Help everyone understand the importance, and be clear about what you need from your team members.

 

6. Be Compelling Online. 

Fuel delivery and home comfort are extremely competitive industries, and most consumers have plenty of choice. When a prospect is browsing online and finds you, your site needs to entice them at first glance, or they will move on, and you’ll miss the opportunity – without ever knowing it.

It’s important to accept that customers are picky and fickle – even those ones that are a perfect match for your company. You want them to choose you instead of your competitor, so it pays to go the extra mile to make a show-stopping first impression. Represent your company with a website that will attract new business. The home page should exude professionalism and make your value proposition extremely clear.
If, for example, you are targeting high-end homes, your emphasis should be apparent within a few seconds through the imagery, headline and other key images.

Nearly every new customer who is considering your business will visit your website before signing on for any services. Take excellent care of your most valuable online asset, and it will reward you.

 

7. Be Ubiquitous. 

Customers use the Internet to find local service providers, so it pays to be easy to find. Create multiple points of contact by getting listed in online business listings such as Yelp and Angie’s List. Prospects will have new places to find you, and the company website will perform better in search, so you’ll get listed above competitors, instead of below them.

Other strategies for improving online visibility include improving website search engine optimization; being active in social media; and using pay-per-click advertising. Whichever choices you make, remember that online visibility is essential for attracting new business. If they can’t find you, they can’t choose you. Guaranteed.

 

8. Eliminate obstacles. 

E-commerce has transformed consumer expectations, particularly regarding the telephone. Business relationships that used to begin with a phone call now begin at the website with the customer filling out an online form. Businesses must redesign their new customer intake so that no phone call is required. That way, new customers can (a) avoid the phone, (b) make a snap decision to use your company, and (c) sign up at any time of day.

Make sure your website prominently displays a “Become a Customer” button or similar device, so prospects will understand that they can secure your services on
the spot.

 

9. Accept Credit Cards Online. 

E-commerce has trained consumers that they can buy anything online with a credit card, and your customers and prospects do not have any kind of special exemption for providers of fuel and home comfort. They will not find it quaint or “Old School” that you won’t take their credit card online; they will find it annoying.

Setting up online payments requires some investment, but it is money well spent. You reduce the risk of customers passing you by – or leaving you – because you are inconvenient. You also give customers an easy way to pay you, which can improve your cash flow and help keep receivables manageable.

 

10. Communicate. 

Unless you are content watching customers switch to discount oil or natural gas, you need to communicate with them regularly – and not just with bill inserts. At the very least, a full-service company should educate customers about the value of the annual tune-up and the importance of having you just a phone call away on a frigid winter night.

 

Next month, we’ll explore communications in much greater depth as we look at the essentials of marketing a diversified home comfort company. As always, PriMedia is happy to help you achieve your marketing essentials – and more. Please give me a call at 800-796-3342 today to begin the process.

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