Explore New Avenues to Success - Boldly!
By Richard Rutigliano, PriMedia, Inc.
As fuel companies strike out in new directions in search of opportunity, they find themselves in fierce battles with competitors looking to exploit the same niches that they've targeted. The rules of engagement change, and sales teams need strong, effective marketing support more than ever.
Carving out market share in new areas is a major challenge, and the service department that plays a supporting role in fuel delivery is suddenly cast in a starring role. They need to add new skills through retraining and/or acquisition and perform to exceptional standards on every job.
As if those pressures aren't enough, owners also need to find the time and resources to overhaul their marketing strategies and invest boldly in image building, message development and extensive outreach. They need to excite the customer base about new services, attract lots of new customers, and walk a tightrope on the issue of fuel conversion.
Why Service Only Your Base?
Full-service fuel companies that are looking beyond the customer base are heading in the right direction. The traditional model of offering maintenance and installation service only to your fuel customers is an albatross for many companies. Every home and business needs full service, and you have a lot more opportunity open to you when you're willing to serve anyone.
Heating equipment needs preventive maintenance. Customers need to know that help will be on the way if the heating system fails. And the vast majority of customers prefer to consolidate their comfort-related services with one company. Full-service is the best model, and full-service companies need to commit to it and sell as many service contracts as possible.
Gas-heated homes need your expertise, and so do homes that choose discount oil. It makes sense to develop a strategy for getting into more homes with a compelling array of services with a goal of becoming the exclusive comfort provider. At the same time, meet every need of the customers you have and let them know that you want to be their service company now and for many years to come.
To market an every-house strategy effectively, you need to excel on the basics and make calculated decisions on outreach. The essential building blocks are branding and online presence.
New Image for New Opportunity
Start with the basics of your identity. Gas-heated homes are a logical target for many companies, so you need to refocus your image for fuel neutrality. The change could be as simple as dropping "Oil" or "Fuel" from your name and replacing an oil-drop logo, but don't make a critical error by rushing through this stage.
You'll want to achieve the greatest possible success in your new ventures, and that will require making solid impressions on customers who know nothing or next to nothing about you. You might be spending tens of thousands of dollars - or more - on advertising, and your ads will be only as effective as the image and messaging that they convey.
Pause and explore your branding possibilities with an open mind. Develop imagery and language that will attract positive attention and help your potential customers form an immediate preference for you over the rivals who are also courting their business. This is not the stage where you should be looking for shortcuts or bargains.
Some companies might want to market to non-fuel customers in a separate channel by creating a subsidiary with its own image, messaging and outreach. You can link the identity closely to the parent company or strike out in an entirely new direction.
Be Beautiful Online
The second essential piece is your online presence. When you're trying to make new connections, your website is the linchpin. All your advertising and direct mail will drive prospects to the website, and it will be an essential influencer. Seize the opportunity and leave nothing to chance. Show potential customers that you have the expertise and the commitment to customer service that they want.
The site should deliver a strong first impression and then grow on the potential customer with each click as they explore the site. They should find helpful information that is smartly crafted and very positive in tone. They should find excellent conveniences that match what they want in a company.
There is a common misconception that customers are all looking for the best price. What they're really looking for is the best company. Demonstrate your commitment to their satisfaction with fast online ordering; value-oriented programs explained in straightforward language; and options in service coverage that allow them to choose exactly what they want. Give them nice opportunities such as paperless billing and an online Loyalty Rewards program.
The site should be clean and crisp in appearance but extremely functional. Make sure the site delivers everything that you would want as well as everything that the youngest customers in your market would expect.
Your Value Is in Your Base
Beyond the essentials of branding and website, the choices should vary depending on what you're trying to accomplish. Most companies will want to pay a lot of attention to existing customers so they you can keep them in the fold and serve them in as many ways as possible. I am forever beating the drum on company newsletters, and I'll do it again here. All the value that you have built through the years is in that customer base.
To let customers walk away without making your best shot at keeping them is to waste all the good work you have done. Instead, think of all the ways that you can help them appreciate the value you deliver, and then use a steady regimen of newsletters to make that message sink in. Saying it once in a while simply doesn't work. Hone your message and find different, thought-provoking ways to express it again and again.
For example, have you talked to your customers about the difference between full service and discount delivery? If you're losing customers because they like the idea of paying less per gallon, you are the only one with the motivation to dissuade them. Give them reason to stop and think about the importance of preventive maintenance. The value is real, but they can overlook it if you don't remind them. The same can be said for 24-hour emergency service. They don't want to get stuck in a bind with no one to call. Get them to think about it. No one else will do that for you.
Newsletters are great for building a personal connection too. Put a message from the owner in the newsletter. Include articles about your CSRs and service technicians. Customer's can turn their back on a company name more easily than they can on people that they feel connected to. You're the only one who can build those essential bridges, and the newsletter is by far the most cost-effective way to do it.
As you reach beyond your base, advertising and direct mail are excellent choices. Mass-market advertising may not have been cost effective if you were seeking only homeowners who could buy your fuel, but when every home is a potential customer, it's a new ballgame. Radio and television advertising require a substantial investment, but that kind of message amplification can have you counting new accounts by the hundreds instead of the dozens.
The fuel marketing business is changing rapidly and leaving lots of casualties in its wake. Sticking to the old ways of doing business may be comfortable, but stepping outside the comfort zone can be far more lucrative. The future belongs to the bold.
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.