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Wednesday, October 21, 2020

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The Oil Industry’s “Virtual Reality”

by Barry Aruda, Advanced Fuel Solutions


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Separated by necessity, fuel professionals embrace online business solutions

Stay-at-home orders. Social distancing. ‘Coronavirus.’ In the future, when reflecting on what 2020 meant for our industry, there will be no shortage of groans, no lack of newly minted terms that nobody had ever said before. The 2019-2020 heating oil season wasn’t a fan favorite to begin with, and yet it became worse in February 2020 when the world slowed and stopped, if only briefly.

In mid-April, oil prices fell into the negative for the first time in history. Storage facilities were maxed out and concern for the market was palpable. And there have been challenges beyond that. Meeting with customers face to face, entering basements of homes to complete service calls, or working in a garage with other folks, inspecting and repairing diesel parts in a demanding environment — these are all “in-person” necessities.

So, how are we overcoming these challenges? As a fuel quality consultant, I visit many different customers of mine and have discussed what changes they’ve made to position themselves and their customers in the best spot for this new reality. Some heating oil dealers are not conducting routine service calls — only emergency ones, minimizing the chance of being inside someone’s home when they don’t really need to be.

Diesel jobbers who decided to buy big when prices were low understand that the fuel is going to age. It’s going to sit in the tank for a long while in the summer heat before it goes anywhere. Those in the know have taken the opportunity to keep the fuel fresh by stabilizing it.

The Vermont Fuel Dealer’s Conference was the first get together to fall prey to the virus (currently rescheduled for September 2020). Next was the Northern New England Energy Conference, followed by the Eastern Energy Expo and, most recently, NEFI. In the wake of these postponements and cancellations, a number of “virtual conferences” have popped up, flooding your email inbox with information that promises not only a different experience than actually attending an event, but a better one. How is that possible?

It really depends on what you get out of any conference you’ve ever attended. If your main goal is for you and some of your employees to visit the trade show—to touch things, examine new products, and collect all the little gifts vendors have displayed—yes, you may find yourself disappointed that these wonderful shows are on hiatus.

However, what the virtual conferences cannot provide in stress-balls and free drink tickets, they do provide in ongoing educational tracks that both you and your staff can view whenever it is convenient. Many of the virtual conferences are leaving educational information and recorded sessions up for the entire month, allowing the viewer to start, stop, and start again on any particular session. And since they’re completely digital, any of us now have the option to watch them after-hours, on our phones, or during downtime at work. I know what you’re thinking, that maybe “after-hours” isn’t your favorite time to learn about hedging — that’s all right. The point here is that you now have the option. Nobody needs to validate your parking, you don’t need to sleep on a deflated hotel pillow and, for the most part, your own business can continue without the need to drive to an expo hall.

For vendors, the experience is a bit more challenging, but still has advantages. Unfortunately, there will be no handshaking. There will be no conversations with new acquaintances or customers over dinner. There will be no field demonstrations of what your new “thing” can do. However, just like the educational presenters, vendors now have the opportunity to leave their “booth” up for weeks on end. This is helpful in a couple of different ways. In speaking with someone that may be interested in your services, the virtual conference page is an excellent place for them to read your bio, learn more about why you do what you do, and look at pictures or videos you’ve put together in preparation for the event. And believe me, there’s going to be more “traffic” on the conference page that month than your website.

One of the more unique things that our industry is doing with these virtual events is bringing in experts that may otherwise have not been able to attend, either due to travel limitations or other responsibilities in their own lives and careers. A COO in Chicago may not be able to get away in order to attend a conference in Boston. However, due to the virtual connectivity, now each of us have the opportunity to hear him/her speak about their particular topic. Same goes for technical experts from refineries, science-focused personnel from laboratories, and engineers, who can now speak to us comfortably from their living rooms.

But I do understand the weight and importance of a handshake. It’s part of our culture, and become so engrained in what we do in business, that to not do it feels awkward, leaving a strange pause at the end of any of our rare in-person meetings. Truthfully, I don’t know if the handshake will ever return. If it does, it will be a rare occurrence, maybe phased out over the next five to 10 years. Folks will call it antiquated, a thing of the past, and I’ll tell my grandchildren someday, “It was just a different time.”

That doesn’t mean meetings won’t return. Of course they will — but they will look different. Masks, the most noticeable of those differences. But, just as handshakes move away from the norm, masks will move in. They will become a courtesy to whomever you’re meeting with and, hopefully, that person will return the favor.

Virtual meetings will become a much larger part of what we do in the oil industry, not only because they allow us many of the benefits I’ve previously outlined, but because so many people (who previously wanted nothing to do with computers and iPhones) have now become quite adept in the worlds of Zoom, Skype, GoToMeeting and Microsoft Teams. Because they’ve been required to learn the basics of these software platforms, they now have another weapon in their arsenal of how they will learn, understand, communicate, and shop. “Shoot me an email” isn’t going anywhere. I hear it every day, still. What I’m hearing more and more of is “Let’s do a Zoom next week if that works. Send me an invite.”

As a closing thought, I would like to thank the energy marketing reps that have worked tirelessly during the last couple of months to bring packaged, quality information to our inboxes almost every day. Their dedication to the industry and keeping you informed is to be applauded. If you live in New England, signing up with your local state association is a fantastic way to stay informed, make connections, and help your brand.

Barry Aruda is the Northeast Regional Territory Manager for Advanced Fuel Solutions. He spends his time testing fuel for analysis, recommending preventative defensive strategies, and working with dealers to overcome the challenges of housekeeping and changing technology.


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