By Richard Rutigliano, PriMedia, Inc.
Whether this article finds you soaking up much-deserved sun on a beach somewhere, or helping your customers deal with the latest in a string of intense and sustained heat waves, I trust it finds you in the headspace of a home energy provider who’s still eight weeks or more removed from the start of the next heating season. This being the case, I figured I’d use this opportunity to offer up something a little less time-sensitive than usual, though perhaps perfectly timed for the end of summer — some light beach reading as it were; or, if that doesn’t suit you, a primer for your pre-heating-season energy-marketing strategy session.
No matter who you are in this industry, last winter gave you plenty to think about but very little time to think. Hopefully, you’ve been spending some of the past few months considering how to protect and grow your margins next heating season, and part of that involves the ways you’re going to engage your prospects and customers. For many of us, last heating season enforced a crash course in back-to-basics customer communications. For others, it offered opportunities for field-testing new marketing and sales strategies. But for all of us, it provided possible indicators as to how we might more successfully reach out to consumers in the months ahead.
Comparing these industry-specific indicators with some of the bigger trends already taking hold in the general marketplace, we find a number of “flash points” wherein slight but well-timed adjustments to one’s energy-marketing strategy provide the spark needed to turn prospects into customers and make customers stickier. Here are three you might look to follow and/or talk to your marketing partners about before the start of this coming heating season.
1) Proactive Engagement
You probably already have a good sense of who your “problem customers” are. That phrase means something different to just about every heating oil and propane dealer, so I won’t waste your time running down all of the possible variants, but suffice it to say, there are those (hopefully select few) customers who always seem to make the jobs of your reps, dispatchers, drivers and techs even tougher whenever the going gets tough.
Fortunately, although the problem customer’s call is often the most troubling and difficult to handle, it is also sometimes one of the easiest to prevent. Perhaps counter-intuitively, the best way to do so is by making the call yourself.
This doesn’t necessarily mean you ought to have your CSRs pick up the phone and call every problem customer on your list. However, following a hectic heating season, it’s always smart strategy to beef up your “just-in-case” communications in order to educate your customers and answer their questions in advance.
What are you doing to help ensure your customers don’t run out of fuel? How can they prevent untimely system shutdowns? What do they do in the event one occurs? What actually constitutes a heating emergency? What do you do in the event one occurs? Last season, this, this, and this happened — how are you going to handle things differently next time around?
These are all examples of the FAQs your customers are going to have this heating season. You can answer all of them easily and in a few fell swoops by putting the necessary information out there in a format that your customers will latch onto. The key is to give them foreknowledge, reassurance, and in some cases, fair warning, but without scaring them away — and the tools to spread these messages effectively are probably already in your toolkit.
Newsletters and Blogs: Odds are many of the customers who had a difficult time last heating season would read them cover-to-cover and post-by-post now. Talk to your marketing partners about the customers you most direly need to reach and trust in your communications specialists to develop a sharp, effective message as well as the best possible means for delivering that message.
Website Pop-Ups: Have them written, reviewed, and automated to launch as needed. Use them to reinforce the reassurances you put out there, and have timely updates ready for posting on the fly. Know that social media can be used similarly, but proceed with caution, knowing also that you might have to take certain measures (e.g. in extreme cases, disabling comments or reviews) to keep away the trolls.
And in addition, yes, you might even consider emailing, writing or calling some specific customers individually. It doesn’t even have to be the problem customer; it could be at-risk customers who previously brought in more money for you than they have lately. How can you find out what’s going on with them? Try sending out a direct mailing as a feeler.
If you know a customer has unused loyalty rewards points or hasn’t logged into their online payment portal in a while, shoot them a courtesy email. Maybe they simply forgot their username and password. Incentivize follow-ups and prepare your CSRs with a quality call script and integrated back-office software so conversions can be made and leads won seamlessly.
2) Subscription Services
Much of the preceding plays directly into what has re-emerged as one of the most in-demand sales platforms everywhere from media to fitness to grocery shopping and meal prep. I’m talking of course about the subscription model, which, after a long drought, has found new life in the 21st century.
According to a study by McKinsey & Company, subscription-platform e-commerce has grown by more than 100% per year over the last five years, with the biggest subscriber demographic being 25-to-44-year-olds who make between $50,000 and $100,000 per year and live in the Northeast.
The super-popularity of platforms like NetFlix and Spotify has doubtlessly played a major part in the rise of subscription services, as 46% of consumers surveyed for the study said they subscribe to an online streaming-media service. Subscription box services like Blue Apron and Dollar Shave Club have been on the rise as well, as 15% of online shoppers have subscribed to an e-commerce service over the past year.
In other words, contrary to popular belief, today’s consumers are actually brand loyal, as long as they see a specific value, such as dollar savings, convenience, or a more personalized experience in the service they’re signing up for.
Now, let’s see … savings, convenience, personalized experience … why, these are the very selling points that many full-service home comfort providers have been marketing to their prospects and customers for years. Then again, heating oil and propane delivery aren’t quite as gripping as Season 6 of The Sopranos. So, we’re back at the old question of how to get people to sign up in the first place.
What if, instead of trying to convince will-call customers to sign up as automatic delivery customers, we told all of our customers about a new free subscription service? Automatic delivery is the first service that jumps to mind, but there are numerous other products, services and customer programs that can be re-introduced via subscription models. How about loyalty rewards programs, equipment service plans, online payment portals, tank monitors and newsletters?
We’ve already explored how today’s consumers want to be a part of something, so think about ways you can turn your company’s ideal customer experiences into the model for a branded customer club. One area where PriMedia has seen some success is in updating generically named “My Account” or “Loyalty Rewards” portals using more personalized and inviting brand identifiers.
Rebranding a customer program as a subscriber service is a great first step to making customers stickier. From there, like Netflix or Spotify, you need to do your best to curate the subscription platform in such a way that your subscribers keep coming back for more. The McKinsey & Company study finds that 55% of subscription customers sign up in order to “receive a curated selection of different items, with varying levels of consumer decision making required.”
Granted, fuel delivery isn’t exactly a business that screams “variety,” but most companies do put a number of consumer decisions on the table, whether they’re as fundamental as budget plans and price protection programs, or more complicated, consequential decisions like choosing a new home heating system.
You can help curate your customer’s experience by providing them with detailed, accessible information that’s specific to their needs and lifestyle. Talk to your marketing agency about your company’s core demographics and how you see them split up among your core services. This will help ensure that the subscription models on offer are tailored directly to your target audience.
Get your whole team on board with the initiative. Then follow up with the same personalized service that your customers know and love.
3) Using Infographics to Convey Hard Data
The third and final energy-marketing trend I’d like to look at for next heating season is one that my company has been employing on behalf of some of our association partners throughout 2018. That is, using visual cues like icons and basic charts to illustrate industry-specific information that could otherwise be difficult for the layperson to grasp.
If you start by thinking about this as PriMedia and our partners at the New England Fuel Institute (NEFI) did — using infographics to show policymakers the region-wide and state-specific emissions reductions provided by B5 Bioheat® fuel — you begin to get an idea of just how much you can convey using a few choice icons and well researched data.
Bring that down to the consumer level, integrate social media, or even Flash-based web elements, and you can really pique people’s interest. Plus, Bioheat ultra-low sulfur heating oil (ULSHO) is really just one product of many that you might promote using infographics.
Price protection programs are ripe for this kind of dissection, as indecisive customers will truly appreciate the visual aid. And that’s not all. How about the old problem of illustrating boiler efficiency beyond the misleading AFUE rating? Again, this is something we’ve had some experience with, via the Fuel Savings Analysis Calculator PriMedia built for the National Oilheat Research Alliance (NORA).
Looking to convince a service-failure-prone account once and for all that it’s time to finally replace that old boiler in the basement? You could talk about the benefits of a condensing oil boiler for days and few would listen, but show your audience what’s actually going on along with what they’re missing out on, and suddenly they see the light. Energy marketing is considered a niche industry not because people don’t use fuel — but because people don’t think about using it, unless of course they have to. Last heating season, many of them did. Now, it’s time to reframe the discussion surrounding your company’s products and services, take the initiative, and begin talking seriously to your marketing team about some of the many new and exciting communications strategies that home comfort providers are using to help improve their margins.
For 25 years, PriMedia has been the energy marketer’s source for cutting-edge sales and communications solutions, as well as comprehensive marketing campaigns. To set up your free consultation, call 1-800-796-3342 or visit GoPriMedia.com.