As I write this, more states are relaxing their restrictions. But for fuel companies, the “new normal” is likely to look pretty similar to what you have you have been experiencing. Techs wearing masks and using safety protocols in customers’ homes. Losing employees for weeks/months at a time when they get sick. Shutting down your office, or part of it, temporarily if someone tests positive. Customers feeling reluctant about letting you into their homes.
If we successfully flatten the curve while measures are relaxed, we will inevitably see a rebound of sickness and death. Some of your customers and employees will get acclimated to this higher level of risk, just as some people ride motorcycles without helmets, vape or root for the Jets. But many others will react by retrenching—being anxious about letting you into their homes and putting off expenditures. Some of your employees will be reluctant to go into customers’ homes or your office. A sizable number of customers will be under severe financial pressure, and will fall behind on their bills.
What can you do about all this? What steps should you take to protect your business and employees? How do you shape aspects of your company to mitigate the revenue loss? Are there ways to make lemonade out of lemons?
Over the last six weeks, we’ve been in touch with hundreds of oil, propane and HVAC companies. We’ve been collecting data from more than 125 oil and propane websites we manage. We have also been moderating biweekly Zoom meetings of our Breakthrough Groups™, whose members have been especially helpful to one another during this fluid situation.
I’ve assembled some of the better ideas I’ve heard, along with insights we’ve gleaned on our own. I hope they are helpful. Feel free to contact me if there’s anything you’d like to discuss.
From a sales and marketing perspective, you need to play with the wind, not against it. Win the safety battle. While customers are cutting back on many purchases, they are prioritizing spending on their homes. But if they don’t think you are taking precautions, they’ll either put off purchases and service, or get it done by someone else.
Think like customers, and help them feel OK about letting you in their homes. The key messages are:
This structure applies to many aspects of selling service and equipment. You should integrate these themes into your advertising and sales pitches and build them into your daily operating procedures.
To win the safety battle:
Most people will appreciate it. This is what they want from the people they do business with, and it is unlikely to change in the near future.
On a related note, give your employees scripts to follow when trying to perform tune-ups or installations with customers. One of our Breakthrough Group members was frustrated that tune-ups were only running at only 15% of normal. He listened to his people trying to make appointments. “Would it be OK if we came to do your tune-up?” Of course, large numbers simply said, “No, I’d rather wait.” So, he scripted a message that emphasized all the precautions they’d take, and why it was in the customer’s interests to get this handled now. The number of appointments doubled. Good communication works.
In times of crisis, your customers appreciate hearing from you more often than many of you realize. For example, when things started shutting down, we created emails for our clients to send to customers about going remote, closing offices to visitors, precautions they were taking, etc. Some of our clients resisted this, thinking “Everyone is getting tons of emails from the banks, airlines, etc. People won’t bother reading it.” Well, they were wrong.
A whopping 55%–75% of customers opened this email. And email open rates have continued to be very high on other promotions as well. They may not care what Delta has to say, but they do care about their school district, fuel company, plumber, etc. Use that to your advantage.
It may go without saying that people have more time on their hands, and they’re spending it online. But in case you’re a numbers person, we looked at all of the websites we manage. By early April:
All this is good, but it won’t matter if you aren’t executing effectively. Your market won’t see your Facebook posts if you aren’t active enough for Facebook to serve you up on their newsfeeds. The increase search on Google actually works against you if you aren’t getting ranked. Your ability to market via email won’t help if you only have one-third of your customers’ email addresses.
You can’t afford to simply hope for the best. Are you tracking your Facebook reach and engagement rates? How effectively is your SEO working to get you ranked on Google in all the towns you service? Are you looking at email open rates? Have you investigated all of the cool, cost-effective ways to use digital advertising to drive leads? This may sound like jargon, but it is no longer something you can deal with in the future. It is here now, and it is unlikely to change.
This is a tough time for your people as well as your business. It’s not likely to get easier soon. Finding ways to keep cohesion, focus and productivity strong while dealing with a more remote work force is challenging for everyone. Here are a few suggestions that have popped up in our group meetings:
Demand safe behavior. It is clear that you will need to vigilantly drill your people to ensure they are following your safety protocols at the office and at customers’ homes. You do not want a customer going on Facebook with a picture of your tech behaving “dangerously.” You do not want your tech getting sick. You don’t want a lawsuit if people die in homes that were serviced where employees were not using precautions. One of our members started surveying customers after service calls and asked whether they felt the tech had behaved safely.
Many of you have already seen how hard it is to get your team to adhere to safety measures, like congregating together before getting delivery tickets. You will need to police this in your office as well. Be strong about this.
What is your backup staffing plan? It’s one thing for drivers and techs to get sick in spring, but what about January through March? Will you keep more staff on board than you normally would? Are you cross-training employees to get CDL’s? Will you use a program like Angus Energy’s Adept to flatten your delivery curve? Are you building an appropriate margin into your pricing for extra staffing, especially into your fixed rate options?
Are you doing remote training of techs during this slow time? Are you keeping up morale? Several of our clients are using Zoom for management meetings, weekly department meetings and more. We extend that to our entire company. We have a Friday Zoom call at 4pm with all 30 people on it, reviewing highlights of the last week, successes we’ve created for clients, new innovations and any logjams. An important aspect is just having some time to smile with one another, as camaraderie suffers. We surveyed our people to see how they were adapting and what we could do to make it easier for them to be effective given the new reality. I’m happy to share the questions with anyone who wants to see them.
The truth is, no one has a crystal ball. But when you look back, you will want to know you’ve been adapting your approach to make the best of this tough situation.
Stay safe, impact what you can, and look forward to a brighter future.