How COVID-19 is Affecting Your Fuel Business: Some Helpful Ideas - Warm Thoughts Communications
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How COVID-19 is Affecting Your Fuel Business: Some Helpful Ideas

Posted on March 30, 2020 - By Ben Gutkin

Warm Thoughts Communications has been in touch with hundreds of oil, propane and HVAC companies during this crisis. In particular, we have been moderating virtual meetings of our Breakthrough Groups™, who have been especially helpful to each other with ideas for coping with this fluid situation.

We’ve assembled some of the better ideas we’ve heard, along with things we have been implementing ourselves. Depending on where you operate, you might be in deep lockdown, or simply waiting your turn. Wherever you are, we hope these ideas help you make smart decisions to support your business. Call if we can be of further help.

Sales and Marketing: Making Lemons Out of Lemonade

  1. Use the drop-in fuel prices to take customers off the table before price wars start next fall. Consider getting early price protection promotions out, such as caps, pre-buy, budget plan, etc. If they are not yet done with their current programs, allow them to lock in now. Consider offering to use Budget Balances to cover price cap or other service fees. Several members report much greater success than normal doing 18 month or 2 year caps.

  2. If you are trying to maintain installation appointments, call several days ahead of time to put customers’ minds at ease. Explain the precautions you’re taking, offer to use a side door, etc. Also, use this call to confirm no one in the house is sick or exposed to someone who was.

  3. Ramp up customer communications. In times of crisis, your customers appreciate hearing from you. If you’ve passed the point where you are overloading them, you will see it in people not opening your messages or opting out.

    For example, some companies were reluctant to send emails to customers outlining all the precautions you were taking, because you thought they were being inundated from all sides. They may not care what Jet Blue has to say, but they do care about their school district, fuel company, plumber, etc. A whopping 48-56% of customer are opening the COVID-19 service update emails we have created.

    In addition, use your Facebook page to keep people updated on any service changes or other important information, and refer them to a dedicated page on your website that will have all updates to your service, hours, restrictions, etc.

  4. Counterintuitive Alert: You might think with all this craziness, that people are searching less for things like propane, oil, equipment, etc. You’d be wrong. Evidently, people still need what they need, want what they want. They may not pull the trigger on large purchases until the crisis passes, but they are investigating options, especially since they have more time on their hands. And they will be attracted to oil and propane offers that save them money going forward. It is critical that you are there when they are looking.

    We looked at all of the websites we manage. Over the last 2 weeks:

    • Organic traffic to our digital clients’ websites is up 14%.

    • Pay per click campaigns for oil, propane and HVAC are up 18%; the click through rate is up 13% and total leads are up 10%.

    • One of our campaigns for propane tankless water heater had its best response ever the day after the governor of the state issued shelter in place directions.

    • The whole category of “stay at home services” is a shining spot in the otherwise gloomy picture. There is a definite increase in interest in Indoor Air Quality products as people face the reality of staying at home. Propane pool heaters (giving people an opportunity to get their kids outside and into the pool earlier than normal can be very enticing), outdoor living appliances, grills, etc. are all potentially very popular as people spend more time at home.

  5. Facebook use is up 50% this month. That is amazing. People have more time on their hands, and they are spending much of it on social media. Be sure to be there positioning your company as caring, competent, responsive. Find tips to share; not just about ways to stay safe, but fun ways to pass the time at home without killing your kids and spouse. Recipes with leftovers. Show pictures of your people taking precautions. Give them something to smile about.

  6. Companies are starting to do Virtual Sales calls using Zoom or Facetime with customers. Better than sending someone into their homes now. Remember, not everyone will lose their job, but everyone will get hot in a few months. People will need water heaters. Boilers will break. Make it easy to connect.

  7. Use this closing technique: “Once restrictions are lifted, we expect a huge surge in installations that may back us up for weeks. If you are sure you want to get a new ______ installed, lock it in now and put down a deposit so you will be early on the list. (You might consider offering to make that deposit refundable if they change their minds.)

  8. If your CSRs have more time on their hands, get them to make outbound calls. They can be switching people from will call to auto, enrolling people in budget plans (big), price protection, autopay, paperless billing, etc.

  9. Some companies are looking at ways to beef up the appliance part of their website so that customers can see what they offer in terms of grills, patio heaters, hearth products for which they would otherwise visit the show room. E-Commerce may offer some interesting solutions to consider going forward.

  10. Get some positive press. Some Breakthrough Group™ members reported the following:

    • Donated installation of propane heaters for hospital tents to several hospitals (not the tank or the fuel, just the set up.).

    • One utility offered to give 200 $20 gift cards to a restaurant of the customers choice if they switched to paperless billing.

    • Find ways to help elderly in the community get necessities.

    • Use your imagination!

Operations: Cover your butt and keep the plates spinning!

  1. Make sure all truck drivers and service techs stick to their own vehicles. Don’t let them congregate in or out of the office. Go through safety procedures repeatedly. Don’t just assume they “get it.”

  2. Dispatch techs from home. Don’t allow techs to shop. Have parts and work orders delivered directly to their homes. Have service slips dropped off and picked up if it is not done electronically. Don’t require customers to sign for work.

  3. Make sure that your answering service is prepared to work remotely should anyone in their office get the virus. Some can. Some can’t. You don’t want to find out only after you have lost them.

  4. Set up video conference meetings with drivers, techs, CSRs. Most anything you could do in regular meetings with them can be done via video chat, including training. It’s actually pretty cool once you start doing it. The “face connection” is more important than you may realize, especially if you are limiting company interaction. Breakthrough Group™ members are using platforms like Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Facetime, Skype, and Go To Meeting.

  5. If you are considering necessary layoffs, also plan for the fact that some of your people are bound to get sick, and they will be out for an extended period.

  6. If they are working remotely and connecting to your office computer via VPN from their home computer, make sure it is equipped with Malware protection that has been updated.

  7. Let customers know that if they have second homes, they should notify you if they are moving into them for an extended period. Let Will Calls know they need to give you more time for deliveries.

  8. Many of your automatic delivery customers are using more fuel now because they are home when they are normally at work, and it has been chilly in many places. Keep on top of it.

  9. Along these lines, several group members reported that they have started using a program called ADEPT offered by Angus Energy. It is an algorithm-based program that seamlessly integrates with your back office system to enable you to make more deliveries with fewer trucks. This might be a good time to check it out to keep costs down going forward.

  10. Warn employees of Fueling Station pump handles as a source of transmission. Distribute fueling mitts to staff.

  11. Change your web site “contact us” page. Make it more robust in case remote working conditions constrain phone resources.

I hope you have found these tips to be of interest and valuable. If you have any you would like to share, please send them to me! And of course, if there is anything that we can do to help, please be sure to give me a call. Our team is always available to help you.


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