Communications Strategies Must Change With the Times
By Richard Rutigliano, PriMedia, Inc.
We all hate to be the bearers of bad news, but it's a role we can't avoid in 2008.
You might have no idea what to say to your customers about the prospect of heating oil at $4.75 or $5.00 a gallon, but there is a helpful message that you can weave in with the disturbing information about prices. Your customers are eager to hear it all: the good, the bad and the ugly. They have a lot at stake, and they would appreciate you keeping them in the loop.
In fact, the rampant price escalation of 2008 should be the catalyst that drives our customer communications to the next level in the months ahead.
Here and now, the main topic we must address is how customers manage their oil bills. Payment is already a serious problem for many customers, and those ranks will only grow. We have solutions available, particularly budget plans, and we need to talk them up and be as flexible as possible to help more customers take advantage of that helpful option immediately.
Conservation is another critical discussion point. It truly is the best way to cope with high fuel prices, and dealers should stop at nothing to promote high-efficiency upgrades, energy audits, and all other conservation services they offer. It's a good time to partner with a company doing audits, insulation or window replacements and get the word out to customers.
Talking up your company's financial good health would help too. There has been enough bad publicity about Oilheat company failures to make customers wary, particularly when it comes to advancing you money. If you have solid financials, tell that to your customers and assuage any fears they might have about doing business with you.
Dealers also need to actively provide information about fuel assistance and any other state or local programs that can help customers make ends meet.
And then there is the elephant in the room: price protection. A lot of dealers delayed their programs this spring while waiting for prices to come down, and some have gotten out of the game completely.
Those moves might prove prudent, but they represent significant interruptions for your program customers. They don't just buy heating oil from you - anyone can sell them that - they buy fixed-price heating oil or capped-price heating oil. When someone tries to sell them the oil without the program, they're offering a lesser product.
Denial of price protection, even if only temporary, constitutes a significant change in operations. For the customer, it's like going to the dry cleaner and finding out they no longer launder shirts, or stopping in the grocery store and finding out they've discontinued bread and cereal.
You would expect the dry cleaner or the grocer to make every effort to explain this radical departure from standard operating procedure to their loyal customers. What about the Oilheat dealer?
From where you sit, it may be perfectly obvious why price protection is not viable in 2008, but what about the customer? You can't expect them to (a) know that energy price inflation has remained vigorous in the offseason; (b) know that you have to buy oil contracts before selling next winter's oil; or (c) connect the dots and read your mind.
When you don't provide an explanation, you leave customers to draw their own conclusions, which could easily include any (or all) of the following: (a) your company is in trouble; (b) you don't care about them; and (c) they'll have to go elsewhere to get price protection.
There is nothing wrong with adapting your strategy in times of change; the problem comes when you don't communicate your thinking to your customers (and potential customers.)
But spreading the word about an unplanned change in practice to customers is difficult using traditional communications channels. These were decisions that you made based on current market conditions, but you're not in the habit of spontaneously contacting your entire customer base with important news.
What's needed is a full and thoughtful explanation, and that is best delivered in writing. Any company that has delayed or canceled a program should send out a thoughtful letter as soon as possible explaining what they've done and why.
Even if your programs are out now after some delay, you should explain the situation. If you delayed the programs because you were trying to get better pricing, what's not to like about that? This is one of those occasions where you can make lemonade from lemons with some well-crafted words.
Going forward, we need to acknowledge that we have become a conspicuous industry. Heating oil payments used to be minor affairs for most customers, akin to the cable or electric bill, but our bills are now apt to be the second largest in the household, trailing only the mortgage.
This causes customers to think about us more often. When they set the thermostat lower than they used to, they think of us. When they cancel the newspaper subscription because they can no longer afford it, they think of us. When we call and ask them to pay their overdue bill, they think of us.
When a customer is giving this much thought to a business that they patronize, the business has a lot at stake, and silence becomes an extremely risky strategy. We didn't ask for this high profile, but we have it, and we have to act accordingly. The price of energy is one of the hottest stories in America, and retailers need to get their point of view heard in order to shape the debate and guard their ground.
The good news is that it's very easy to get your message out to customers in 2008, and the best strategy is to use your Web site like never before. Your site is the perfect vehicle to deliver timely information and perspective - and can be updated as often as needed.
Transforming a Web site into an effective, time-sensitive public relations platform is easier than you might imagine. There are several ways to serve up fresh information online, and you can highlight the timely postings without even performing a major site overhaul.
The job begins with development of your message. Once you know what you want to say, you get it onto the Web site. With good professional assistance, you can deliver your message with a combination of letters, articles, links, videos and podcasts. (It won't be long before we see blogs on Oilheat sites.)
Once the information is posted, you have to direct customers to it using all your existing channels. You can easily train your employees to send people there. (If your Web site is superior to the competition's, your employees will take pride in it and tell customers about it without any prompting from you.) You can also use on-hold messages, newsletters, letters, signage and advertising to publicize your new site content.
Once you have made your site an effective communications hub, you will steadily reap the benefits. Existing customers will have more respect for you and will give you generous word of mouth to the effect of, "You should see what my oil dealer does!" or "My dealer already explained that to us." Also, Internet search engines will find your informative postings and return them in search results. Prospective customers will find you on the Web, and they'll form a favorable impression of you relative to your less communicative competition.
People are hungry for information about oil prices and home energy use, and the companies that fill this need will have a huge image advantage. Price inflation has shoved us into the Information Age - like it or not - and success awaits those who seize the opportunity.
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.