Why (and How) to Revamp Your Web Site
By Richard Rutigliano, PriMedia, Inc.
A strong Internet presence is no longer optional
The Internet is an important divide for oilheat companies, and it's critical to your company's continuing success that you are on the right side of the line. Many savvy oilheat dealers are putting distance between themselves and the competition by publishing strong, interactive Web sites that enable customers and potential customers to transact business online and access multimedia information resources.
Those dealers understand how integrated the Internet has become in 21st century life. Most likely, they wouldn't be surprised by the recent University of Southern California survey that found Internet use is so prevalent that more than 50 percent of U.S. wives and 39 percent of U.S. husbands say they feel ignored because their spouse spends so much time online. They may also have heard about the recent Pew Research Center study that found that 63 percent of adult Americans use broadband Internet at home. These studies confirm the fact that Americans appreciate the Internet and turn to it regularly for information, entertainment and commerce. In an era when the users package and display themselves through popular services like Facebook and Twitter, expectations are high for companies like yours — and the old excuses don't wash. The Internet is the new Main Street, and you not only need to be there, but you must be ready to interact.
Not long ago, an oilheat dealer could get by with a site that was little more than an online brochure. As long as your phone number was there and the site made a favorable impression, you had everything you needed. These days, however, e-commerce leaders have created a widespread expectation that customers can conduct business through Web sites at any time of day or night. If you think your customers will have a separate standard for their friendly oilheat company, you're playing a dangerous game with your customer base.
Any existing customers who are on the Internet are probably going to search for your website before long, and their opinion of your company will be at stake. If they find a professional site that enables them to contact you, pay you and request service, they'll likely judge you to be compatible with them.
On the other hand, if you're not online or your site is behind the times, how will customers react?
Getting Up to Speed
Here is a look at some of the interactive features oilheat dealers can deploy on their websites.
E-mail. E-mail is essential on an oilheat site. Customers can easily reach out to you at any time of day or night without using the phone.
Request delivery/schedule service. In addition to customer e-mail, you can enable customers to request fuel deliveries and schedule service through the site. These are basic functions that are available online in all kinds of industries, and every ambitious oilheat dealer should provide them.
Pay online. With today's technology, you can equip your Web site for secure online payment for a reasonable price, and it's a smart move. You make it easy for customers to pay by credit card on their own initiative, and that can help keep receivables under control. Paying online is also an important differentiator on the Internet, and you're much more likely to be perceived positively when your site has it.
Multimedia. Today's websites can easily serve up multimedia that engages customers and gets them thinking. If, for example, you discuss the benefits of high efficiency in a video, podcast or blog, you give site visitors a good reason to stop and listen for a while. It's hard to overstate the potential benefits of grabbing their attention with high-quality materials. They'll form a favorable impression of your knowledge and expertise. They'll learn the value of upgrading to new equipment. They may even make a decision on the spot to hire you for an upgrade.
Live help. You can build an instant-messaging interface into your site that links customers to your staff in real time. Instant messaging is a popular Internet technology that enables customers to get information immediately without using the phone. Deploying this technology will provide a strong indication that you run a smart, sophisticated operation.
Interactive display. If you offer a wide range of services, you can use an interactive display to help customers explore all the possibilities. They'll get engaged with your site, form a favorable impression of your technological savvy and get some new ideas for home improvement projects.
Service area search. You can enable a customer to find out in less than 10 keystrokes whether you serve their area. They just type in their zip code in a dialog box, and the site immediately returns an answer. It's another handy tool that helps the consumer and enhances your image.
Open an account: Potential customers can sign up to become actual customers instantly when you offer this service. If you have a convincing Internet presence, it's a no-brainer to add this feature and capitalize immediately on the strong impressions that your site makes.
E-mail signup: Customers can provide their e-mail address with no prompting when you offer this feature, and you'll be free to e-mail them with special offers and company news.
Online newsletters: You invest a lot to publish a strong company newsletter, and you can get extra mileage from it by posting current and archived editions on your site. It's an easy way to get prospective customers engaged in learning more about you.
Will they cut you some slack and think it's fine to continue doing business with an oilheat dealer who is not technologically savvy? Or will they punch up a search engine and see who else is out there? It's never wise to give your customers a reason to shop around.
Given the Pew Research numbers cited above, you can't assume that only some small fragment of your customer base is at risk. You could be jeopardizing accounts you thought were bulletproof, like a loyal little old lady who appreciates you but now finds it unacceptable that she is more Internet savvy than you are.
Dealers also need to come to terms with the implied messages that their Internet presence, or lack of presence, sends. When existing and potential customers view your site — or discover that you don't have one — they will make inferences. For example, you might have a true cuttingedge company when it comes to heating technology, but your DIY Web site makes you look like country bumpkins. Your long-term investment in technical expertise should have tremendous marketing value, but you squander your hard-won advantage by relying on an outdated site.
One of your most important goals is to have customers hire you to perform complicated installations of sophisticated equipment. Your Web site plays a subtle role in that, because customers who visit the site will be evaluating your competence. A Web site that integrates advanced Internet technologies implies that the company is up to the job, but an uninspired site could take you out of the running.
In addition to making strong impressions, an interactive website can engage your customers and motivate them to do more business with you. If you have a professional site that includes multimedia presentations (videos, podcasts, slideshows, etc.) about the benefits of high-efficiency equipment or improved ventilation, customers might watch or listen, decide to upgrade and even send you an e-mail on the spot.
The Internet is the new Main Street, and you need to be there, ready to interact.
A strong site is also a great draw for new business, because Web surfers use Google and Yahoo the way people used to use the Yellow Pages. When they enter a term like "heating oil" and the name of their town, they expect to find company websites, and they might well make their choice based on what they find.
To be prepared, you need to create an excellent first impression. If your site has a range of interactive features in addition to a professional look and feel, potential customers will view you favorably. If you have the most impressive site in your market, you're likely to attract the most new business, and interested customers will be able to e-mail you right away to initiate the relationship.
A robust Internet presence becomes more important every day as consumers increase their time online and their expectations. With a strong interactive site, you reinforce the loyalty of the customers you have and position yourself to capture more than your fair share of new business. If you continue to go without one, it won't be long before you're left behind.
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.