Cater to Consumers' Preference for Online Convenience
By Richard Rutigliano, PriMedia, Inc.
DIFFERENTIATING YOUR OILHEAT OR PROPANE company from competitors is easier when you draw on the advantages that advanced customer service applications can deliver.
Offering web applications that improve customer relationships and improve the company image by making it easier for customers to do business with you is key. The same applications can also make administrative functions more efficient through automation and a reduction in office chores.
Many of today's customers are doing business online, and they prefer companies offering a superior customer experience that includes online convenience. Evidence of the Internet's central role in local commerce is everywhere. A recent BIA/Kinsey survey showed that 90 percent of consumers use search engines when researching products or services locally. Another survey, the Local Search Association's Local Media Tracking Study, indicates that three-quarters of consumers have used search engines in the past year to find local businesses. And a survey conducted by BrightLocal.com this year shows that 59 percent of consumers use Google each month to find a local business.
BIA/Kinsey's Director of Research, Steve Marshall, summarized his company's findings: "The Internet has indeed become an integral part of consumers' local commercial activity. The data suggest we're at an inflection point where the balance of power in local shopping is shifting to online."
These findings strongly suggest that a premium customer experience is a key to winning customers. The Customer Experience Report conducted by Harris Interactive showed that customer experience plays a significant role in determining where consumers choose to shop and how much they are willing to spend. Eighty-five percent of respondents to the Harris survey said they would be willing to pay more than the standard price of a good or service to ensure a superior customer experience. Fifty-five percent said they would pay 10 percent more, and 27 percent said they'd be willing to pay 15 percent more.
Similarly, a study by Aberdeen Group found that best-in-class customer experience organizations have 75% greater the customer retention and 65% better customer satisfaction than the average company. Moreover, companies that pay attention to the customer experience get more customers, too, with over 300% more leads in their sales pipeline that result in closed business.
REDEFINING GREAT CUSTOMER SERVICE
Consumers' growing appreciation of e-commerce has major implications for customer service in the retail fuel industry. Companies that have always worked to "make the phones ring" need to shift gears and recognize that a lot of customers prefer to skip the phone call altogether. If those customers are to choose your company, you need to make a commitment to your online presence and provide the robust self-service options that they are seeking through your website.
Every company needs basic online appeal and interactivity to have even a chance of attracting customers who search online. You need a professional looking website that functions well and portrays your company as a modern provider which embraces energy conservation. There must be an online "Contact Us" feature that enables customers to send you an e-mail, and customers should be able to place orders for fuel and service.
Meeting those basic standards gives you a chance of winning some new business online, but not much more. Energy companies are rushing to refurbish their websites and extend their convenience features, and those basic features might already pale in comparison to what competitors are doing. If your competitors are ahead of you, you need to catch up and, better yet, surpass them.
Expect a lot of progress in this area every year, and reach now for the strongest feature package that your investment budget will support. You can gain a strong competitive advantage by aiming higher than your competition and rolling out a package that truly sets your company apart.
ELEMENTS OF ADVANCED CUSTOMER SERVICE
The most essential premium self-service feature is online account lookup. Many customers expect to be able to look up their accounts to see what they have ordered in the past, what they have paid and to manage pending orders. Without account lookup, you risk being seen as behind the times.
You can add a custom interface to your site that links customers to the back-end system without risking the security of your customer data. Customers get the account access that they want while your data is shielded against hacking.
I have spoken with quite a few dealers who thought that their back-end systems were too primitive to support account lookup and management, but that is often a misperception. If a system can export data, it can probably be paired with customer-facing software to provide a surprisingly useful form of account lookup. Customers might not be able to manipulate the database with fresh information, but they can view their account details in an interface that closely replicates the functionality of true account management. If your back end is up to date, of course, you can offer customers real-time interaction with their accounts.
To achieve meaningful differentiation in your market, plan on rolling out additional advanced features that will make people want to choose your company. One excellent choice is a loyalty rewards program that provides online interaction. Rewards programs are widely used by companies from airlines to supermarkets to coffee shops, and customers appreciate the extra value they provide.
You can give customers a strong incentive to choose your company with a rewards program that allows them to accumulate points and redeem them for valuable extras, such as discounts on your services or on merchandise. By choosing desirable prizes such as a box of golf balls or even an iPad, you provide additional value for current customers and create a nice enticement for prospects.
Making your rewards program accessible online also increases its value to you, because you drive customers to your website, where you can expose them to coupons, special offers and announcements about new services. As long as you are keeping your online specials interesting and current, you can gain broad exposure to your best offers at minimal cost.
By linking the rewards portal to your back-end system and building the rewards points into your transactions, you automate the entire process, which reduces the work for your staff and makes it easy for customers to check their current points total and make redemptions.
When your products and services are very similar to the competition's, the rewards program can be the deciding factor for a new customer. Be sure that the program is easy to see on your home page so that visitors do not overlook it.
Another extra that many companies can add economically is a paperless billing option. Many customers prefer to conduct business online and reduce the clutter of paper bills. By offering them the option to go paperless, you come across as a technologically savvy company that is interested in conserving physical resources. Paperless billing can be great for your internal operations, too: You can reduce the cost and labor of preparing printed bills while also saving on postage.
Still another attractive convenience you can offer is online enrollment for programs like price protection, service contracts and budget plans. Add software to your site that enables customers to develop a custom price protection plan from the options that you offer, and they will be more likely to lock in with you for the season.
Online price protection is another program that benefits both the customer and the company. For the customer, enrollment is simple and can be done at any time of day. For the company, contracts can be executed on the spot without long delays for mailing contracts back and forth. A good online price protection program creates contracts in PDF form that are executable online using electronic signatures - and relieves your staff from lots of onerous paperwork. We've been helping many of our customers to migrate to these new ways of transactions, and our customers love it!
UPDATING YOUR IMAGE
Online conveniences like account lookup, loyalty rewards and online program enrollment help you in multiple ways. Not only are those features attractive in and of themselves, they also provide an image upgrade that is particularly beneficial in fuel delivery. Oilheat may be perceived as old-fashioned, but a highly interactive website paints a very different picture.
An array of modern features suggests that you are a cutting edge company. If you combine them with an updated company image that emphasizes energy conservation, your website will portray you as a smart, friendly, 21st century operation.
While you are adding conveniences to your website, think like a customer. Imagine that you are seeing your website for the first time and make sure that it is easy to see your conveniences and understand how they work. Consider grouping all your online services together with a clear description so that a customer can easily understand what you offer - and imagine doing business through your site.
The home page should create a clear, easy path to becoming a new customer. You might add a "Become a Customer" button that takes them to a single page where all your services and your value-added features are clearly and succinctly explained. You want customers to quickly understand why they should choose you and make it easy for them to sign on with you.
By making your website a transaction hub where customers can conduct real business without relying on the telephone, you'll be more attractive to the ever-growing number of customers and prospects who like to do their business online.
Richard Rutigliano is President of PriMedia, Inc., a full service marketing and communications firm with offices in New York City, Long Island and Boston. The company is now offering free marketing consultations to Oilheat retailers. Phone: 800-796-3342, or visit their Web sites at www.primediany.com and www.oilheat-advertising.com.