Speak Up Now About How You Can Help
By Richard Rutigliano, PriMedia, Inc.
Part 7 of 7
As this difficult heating season winds down, it's time to plan for a successful off-season that will lead to better results in 2012 than you saw in 2011.
The combination of high oil prices, low natural gas prices, warm weather and a stagnant economy has gutted sales of fuel and equipment and crushed company profitability. Many owners are struggling just to make ends meet, but it is important to keep your eyes on the road ahead, adjust your goals and continue working to preserve and expand your customer base.
The best place to start is by identifying the opportunities that are available to you this year. Can you introduce new services? Recruit customers from struggling competitors? Increase your enrollments in service contracts and budget plans? Sell equipment to existing customers?
Plan Your Strategy
Once you set your goals, the next step is to determine how to achieve them. In most cases, that will mean reaching out to customers and prospects and motivating them to make the choices you want. Let's take a look at the messages you can send and then consider the communications vehicles that will best support your goals.
If you are faced with customer losses to competing dealers and/or other fuels, take steps now to reassure customers that you are still the best choice for them. That means demonstrating your expertise and your commitment to helping them achieve the comfort and convenience they want while controlling their costs.
It might be tempting to attribute customer losses to all the bad publicity about high oil prices and low gas prices, but in doing so you might be overlooking important holes in your own game. Take a critical look at your own marketing efforts. Evaluate what you are doing and how you appear to customers and prospects, and compare your image and online presence to what your competitors are doing.
If you are not presenting your company in the best possible light, you might be losing customers simply because they don't understand all that you can do for them. They might not know how interested you are in helping them conserve energy or what kind of expertise and sensibility you bring to the table.
When a company does not actively promote itself as a forward-thinking provider that is focused on conservation and advanced comfort technology, customers can mistake it for an old-fashioned Oilheat company that has nothing new to offer. Take steps to give your clientele reasons to choose you or stick with you, and they'll be less likely to look elsewhere for help.
Focus on Cost Control
The best way to build confidence in your business and motivate customers is to communicate a proactive program for gaining control of energy costs. Identify all the things you can do to help customers reduce and control costs, then reach out to them with a positive message about taking action.
Look over your equipment selection and identify packages that you can promote with a good/better/best type of presentation. The low-end solution might be a new control or a programmable thermostat. The mid-tier package could be an affordable boiler, furnace or combined heat-hot water system. For the high end, pitch your best high-efficiency system. If you can develop an attractive financing package, include that in your offer.
Plan to educate customers about high efficiency as a solution to rising energy costs and to make a case for how much they can save. When you provide authoritative information about the benefits of high efficiency, you do more than just promote equipment sales. You also help customers see you as a solutions-oriented company that understands customers' needs and helps solve their problems.
In addition to communicating a strong message about your company and services, plan to deliver some truth about the competition. If discount dealers are chipping away at your base, develop a powerful comparison between your full-service program and the discount oil approach. Full service matches a homeowner's real needs for maintenance, energy conservation and emergency coverage, while discount service exposes them to risks. Dare to be bold. Confront the price issue head-on and justify your price for what it is. You have created a company that truly meets customers' needs, and that means carrying more overhead than a discounter does. Explain that your price is the right price, while the "bargain" price shifts risk to the customer.
Challenge the Current Beliefs
If it's a natural gas utility that's taking your customers, provide a reality check. Natural gas prices are low now, but there is every reason to expect them to rise - and soon. Several gas producers have obtained permits to export liquefied natural gas, and Congressmen such as Ed Markey (D-Mass.) are sounding the alarm about the likely effect on domestic gas prices. The Department of Energy has taken notice and projected that natural gas prices could increase by 54 percent in six years. Producers like Chesapeake Energy Corp. and Encana Corp. also have indicated they will reduce production because the prices are too low. Natural gas use for electricity production is also expected to increase. These low prices are too good to last, and they won't.
Speaking up about natural gas prices is particularly important, given the current disposition of the media and the politicians. They have bought in completely to the pro-gas, anti-oil hoopla, and it falls to individual dealers to set the record straight.
Once you're ready to deliver an effective set of messages about your company, your services and the competition, it's time to choose your communications vehicles. Your best choices are your website and your company newsletter.
Your website should be the focal point, because a great site supports both retention and customer recruitment. You can put strong messaging and special offers on the site, then use bills and postcards and newsletters to drive customers there. You can also use effective online marketing, such as social media and pay-per-click advertising, to help new customers find your site when they are searching online.
Newsletters Accomplish a Lot
If you have fallen behind in your marketing efforts and need to make a solid connection with customers this spring, the best choice is a special edition newsletter that focuses on energy-saving and cost management solutions. A special edition is preferable to a more routine newsletter in 2012, because this is the time to make a strong statement and emphasize your solutions.
A newsletter might seem like an anachronism, but it remains the single most effective - and cost-effective - solution for inspiring action throughout your customer base. A 2012 newsletter that is squarely focused on energy savings will reach every customer, and it will be well received and well read. With the right messaging, it can help you change customer perceptions, motivate customers to buy equipment and enroll in programs, and create doubts about your competition.
Companies that communicate electronically with some customers can produce one newsletter version that is suitable for both print and electronic transmission. When sending an electronic version, be sure to use a bold message header so that customers take notice and open the e-mail.
The strain on fuel and HVAC companies is enormous in 2012, and budgets are tight everywhere. As you set your priorities for the off-season, however, keep in mind how valuable customer outreach can be, and find a way to go to bat for your business and your employees.
March Marketing Reminders
- Prepare a spring special edition newsletter
- Add energy conservation messaging to your website
- Ramp up your social media marketing
- Develop special offers on equipment upgrades
- Develop new incentives for customer retention
- Update your pay-per-click marketing for spring
- Develop 2012 price protection program
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.comand www.oilheat-advertising.com.