Embrace Fresh Ideas for the New Year
By Rich Rutigliano, PriMedia, Inc.
Just as this magazine has embraced a new idea this month with its transition to the new title Indoor Comfort Marketing, many of the company executives who make up the audience are ready for a fresh approach.
If your company is not performing to the standards you demand, it might be time to set aside some old ways and reach for new solutions. Change is easy to discuss but hard to achieve, and the problem often starts at the top, with a reluctance to innovate. When you've been running a successful company for years, it can be hard to admit that your approach has lost its effectiveness, but resistance to change can be a huge threat to company livelihood. Many Oilheat companies are alive today only because someone made a decisive move decades ago to move away from coal and ice and into heating oil. Similar boldness is required again now.
This industry has seen a lot of change in recent years, as the economy has foundered, price consciousness has risen, the gas utilities have moved in aggressively. In some markets, companies can't hold onto customers like they used to, and they struggle to find and retain new accounts. In the face of these challenges, it's clear what companies need to achieve: better retention, more effective customer acquisition, and more consistent conversion of new customers to long-term accounts.
Pursue the Right Customers
One problem I see quite frequently is a flawed customer acquisition strategy. I spoke with one Oilheat owner recently who runs a premium, full-service company and uses deep discounts on the oil price to bring in new customers. This approach worked well enough in the past, but in recent years more and more of the newly acquired customers were leaving as soon as the introductory offer expired and they saw the "real" price.
The problem? This acquisition strategy is out of sync. Rather than marketing on its strength - premium comfort services - this company is playing a bait-and-switch game. They win customers with a low price, then hope that the customers will develop a newfound tolerance for premium pricing, but it's not working, and the loss rate is too high.
The loss of new customers is a huge problem in and of itself, but this strategy also represents a painful waste of company resources. By sacrificing margin on thousands of gallons, the company has left itself less cash in hand to invest in marketing initiatives that might bring in compatible customers who would stay. Worse, the company has spent too much time, energy and money for too little return - while going another year without solving the real problems.
A more effective approach would be to invest in attracting customers who appreciate the company's value proposition. Many customers still prefer the full-service model, because they like the convenience and reliability of working with one company that can meet all their needs and has a proven track record in the community. It's not the easy sell it once was, though, so you have to market it very effectively.
Specialized Websites Add Niche Appeal
One new idea that makes sense for a lot of indoor comfort companies is using multiple websites to maximize exposure and promote premium products and services. Rather than rely on one site to promote every offering, you can add satellite sites to expand your presence and attract more attention.
For example, if you are selling an alternative fuel blend to tap a niche market, you can create a second website that is focused on your fuel product. That way, when a prospect goes online looking for a product like that, they'll find your satellite site. You'll make it easy for them to choose your company on the basis of your commitment to that product.
Any product or service that has the potential to attract new business by itself is a candidate for a specialized website. Topics could include indoor air quality services, home energy audits, propane sales, gas heat service, vacation home services, solar heating, or radiant heating, to name a few.
Even if your company site addresses these services, you are not capitalizing on the full marketing potential. A customer who is looking for a biofuel blend is most likely to be impressed by a site that focuses on biofuel. Your regular site might highlight biofuel blends, but the message can get buried in the broader context of a company site. The satellite site solves that problem and creates a direct path that niche customers can follow to your door.
In addition to attracting niche customers, satellite websites give you a big, across-the-board advantage in search engine marketing. If each of your sites is well optimized for search, your company will be more dominant in search results. With more sites, you generate more listings near the top of the search results, which means more attention for you - and less for your competitors.
The Strength of Good Ideas
Another strategy that is underutilized in indoor comfort marketing is a very simple one: the marketing of innovation. Many of the best companies in this niche succeed on the strength of their ideas. In the course of trying to satisfy their customers they have come up with smart solutions that their customers really appreciate. It can be as simple as a coupon book that keeps customers loyal or as complicated as a pollution protection policy that provides free coverage for customers' homes.
Company owners and executives innovate constantly, but they don't always recognize the value of their own creations. When you're trying to attract new business (without sacrificing too much margin), nothing succeeds like good ideas. One great innovation can be the key to a successful marketing campaign. By making your new approach the centerpiece of your advertising and outreach, you shift the focus and generate enthusiasm. Imagine someone reading your advertisement and saying, "Now, that's a good idea."
If your company gets enthusiastic praise from customers for one of its ideas, you're probably onto something good. Think about building a marketing campaign that uses that idea to illustrate the kind of company you are. If possible, build a service bundle around your good idea, give it a name, and roll it out to your market. Get the focus off price and onto your distinctive value proposition. You might be surprised how far a few good ideas can take you.
Reward Loyalty Systematically
Another area where many companies can improve is in reinforcing customer loyalty. Given the difficulty of attracting and keeping new customers in this market, the value of your established, steady accounts is greater than ever. It might be tempting to focus on new business when you budget for marketing, but a lack of attention on existing customers can undermine your company's future.
Some of our clients are addressing this vital issue with a unified rewards program that includes an online portal where customers redeem their loyalty points. These programs outperform offline rewards programs by focusing more attention on loyalty points and adding an interactive element. Customers can track their points, see what prizes are within their range, and make redemptions on their own schedule.
The goal of a rewards program is to build loyalty, so an ideal program is both conspicuous and engaging. It makes sense to award points as often as possible and keep the program on customers' minds. Every delivery, service call and service plan renewal can be a rewards occasion, and you can announce the new points in an e-mail to the customer and summarize them on their invoices.
I recommend offering a few tangible prizes, because some customers would rather cash in for a box of golf balls or a portable radio instead of waiting for a price reduction on a future equipment upgrade.
When you combine an online loyalty program with consistent customer communications and excellent customer service, you are actively cultivating your customers' affection. Instead of standing by and hoping for the best, you are taking affirmative steps to protect your hard-earned customer base and keep your company strong.
Make Every Phone Call Count
The final topic I want to cover in this column is a vital one: customer communications over the telephone. Opportunities to interact one-on-one with customers are rare. Any time the phone rings, it could be a prospect making an initial contact or a customer calling you for the first time in several years. A great performance by your CSR can win a new account or reinforce a wobbly one, but many companies put themselves in jeopardy by tolerating mediocre performance - or worse - on the phone.
If your company's telephone performance is uneven and uninspiring, it's time for decisive action. Some companies need to change the rules entirely. For instance, if there are people answering the phone who consistently rub customers the wrong way, prohibit them from answering the phone. You want your customers exclaiming after a phone call, "They are so friendly!" not complaining about how grouchy you are. You don't tolerate sloppy work by a technician, and you should have similar standards for telephone calls, because an account could be at stake any time the phone rings.
We help a lot of companies take customer service to a new level with training that focuses on telephone calls. The training helps everyone in the company understand the dynamics of customer relationships and the vital role that telephone contact plays. Once CSRs gain an appreciation of the huge contribution they can make and learn the basics of effective interaction, performance tends to improve dramatically. Managers have an easier time setting and enforcing standards, because everyone shares the same understanding about the importance of effective customer contact.
If you're running a good company but not getting the results you want, it might be time to try something new. Make 2011 the year when you take a critical look at your company, fix what's wrong, and launch initiatives that set the stage for greater success in the future.
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.