Convert New Customers to Long-Term Accounts
By Rich Rutigliano, PriMedia, Inc.
Recruitment of new customers is essential to the success of most propane companies, but getting new arrivals through the door is only the first step. To achieve meaningful growth that lasts, a company must excel at converting new customers into productive, long-term accounts.
Owners used to be able to count on a satisfactory level of customer loyalty. Recruiting an account might have been challenging, but once onboard they were pretty likely to stay, provided your service was fair and reliable.
Customers are more fickle today, however, and many of them move on again at the first sign of a better offer. To boost retention of new accounts, companies need to target those customers for special attention. A mix of effective self-promotion and compelling loyalty incentives can help new customers settle in and develop a fondness for the company.
Cover the Basics First
Before examining the specific tactics a company can use to secure new accounts, let's take a quick look at the basics that you need to cover to win at recruitment. For starters, any premium company that is serious about finding and keeping new customers needs a strong online presence, starting with an impressive, informative website.
Today's consumers expect companies to have websites that reflect the quality of their work. If your prices imply that you are a high-quality provider, your website should not disappoint. Rather, it should portray you as a leadership company, because customers who are willing to pay more than they have to are going to expect your company to be a cut above the rest.
Your site should be a good source of information on home comfort and energy efficiency, and it should offer the conveniences that customers expect, such as online payment, program enrollment, and request forms for service and deliveries. It should be updated regularly so that the information remains fresh and you maintain a current selection of special offers.
Another marketing basic that helps foster long-term relationships is branding. When you want new customers to embrace your company, it pays to give them an image to embrace. Take the time to formulate a clear company identity, and then use a combination of logo, tagline, color scheme and messaging to express it. Make sure that every communication you have with new customers works to support your preferred image: Every phone call, every bill and every newsletter should reinforce the impression you want. Compared to a major corporate brand like Apple or Coca Cola, you will have relatively few opportunities to reinforce your image, so you need to nail every one.
Plan for Success
Once your website and branding are in order, you are ready to begin recruiting the right customers and converting them to long-term accounts. I recommend an aggressive conversion program that includes lots of regular points of contact with each new account for the first one to three years.
Plan on creating at least six positive interactions with your new customers in the first year alone. These can take numerous forms: phone calls, newsletters, letters, postcards, surveys and more.
The process begins with the first phone call. When a prospect calls your office for the first time, they will form an impression based on what they learn. Train your staff to listen effectively, say the right things, and demonstrate a professional attitude - and don't tolerate anything less. Put your foot down hard on this issue, because any bad experience on the phone can cost you an account. If your people are flubbing phone calls, they are driving customers and prospects away and weakening the company.
Develop a set of protocols for new customer calls. Be prepared to make the best of calls that start with the question "What's your price?" Instead of answering the question directly, respond with a friendly answer that gently shifts the focus from price to value. The true price shoppers will just end the conversation most of the time; anyone who stays on the line might be a good prospect.
If the caller demonstrates a willingness to converse, your representative should be prepared to answer all questions and provide a concise, effective description of your value proposition and services. To make the best impression, your CSRs must be friendly, alert and quick with answers, so that the caller gets a clear impression of professionalism. Respect the caller's time and help them complete their inquiry as quickly as they want to without rushing them. Learn to walk a fine line between encouragement and pushiness so the customer feels welcome but senses no desperation on your part.
Having a pleasant conversation every time is vital, even when a call ends without an immediate sign-up. As long as the caller forms a positive impression of your company, you stand a chance of becoming their oil dealer, maybe tomorrow or maybe next year.
Set a Positive Tone
When a caller does enroll, your representative can help set a positive tone for the relationship. By offering a bold prediction like, "We're confident you'll have a great experience!" you prompt your new customer to feel positive about the company and expect the best in the months ahead.
If you have "sticky" services like budget plans and service contracts that lock the customer up, offer them to each new customer but don't push. Some customers are wary of getting locked in against their will, and they may be looking specifically for a company they can trust. By being forthright and open about customer obligations in your programs, you demonstrate honesty and clarity that many consumers will find refreshing.
Be sure to flag all your new accounts for special treatment and track them so that every one gets the attention it needs. Plan on communicating with them at least once every two months for the first year, and follow up to ensure that the communications occur on schedule. See that your staff is punctual for any appointments with new customers.
Here are some ideas for nurturing those new relationships using battle-tested communications tools.
Company Brochure: A brochure can cultivate confidence in your company and help customers understand the value of your services. To develop a great brochure, conceive the company image you want to convey - efficiency experts, alternative fuel mavens, comprehensive service providers - and express it with authority. Have your CSR ask the new customer to look out for the brochure, then mail it promptly.
Newsletters: Done right, a company newsletter bolsters your professional image and portrays you as a communicative company that believes in informing its customers about energy efficiency and home comfort. It can also personalize the company and reflect an image that the customer can embrace. Be sure your newsletters are informative and well written with short articles and a lively, professional appearance.
Phone Calls: You can build an image of a friendly, thorough company with occasional brief phone calls. Call after the first delivery to make sure it was a success. Call a few months later to see if they are satisfied with your services and if they have any questions. Leave a brief voicemail if you do not reach the customer. Don't call too often, and don't engage them in lengthy conversations. Phone calls and voicemails succeed by demonstrating your company's attentiveness and good nature.
Postcards: An effective postcard provides good reinforcement of your company image. You can send one to promote a new service or remind customers to schedule preventive maintenance. By making it professional and attractive, you ensure that it reflects well on you, even as a quick read.
Surveys: Towards the end of the first year, you can conduct a brief survey by phone, mail or e-mail. Ask customers to evaluate your service, but take very little of their time. You'll demonstrate your interest in serving customers effectively.
Letters: A customer letter is a great opportunity to demonstrate your company's good nature. Focus on one topic, such as a new service or a change in your price protection program. Provide a clear message that portrays your dedication to customer choice and great customer service.
Give Priority Treatment
If the conversion of new customers to long-term accounts is vital to you, take every step you can to ensure success. Assign only your best CSRs to the follow-up phone calls and surveys, and let them work their magic. Set up an online loyalty rewards program that accumulates points, and make a generous award of points to new customers during their first year.
To cover the cost, don't hesitate to re-allocate resources to the job. If you've been using artificial discounts to bring in new customers, cut back on those and shift your focus to keeping your new customers. After a new customer finishes their first season with you, consider giving them a coupon book that allows them to reduce the cost of future deliveries and services. You'll still be sacrificing some margin, but your investment will have a better chance of paying off than an investment in introductory discounts would.
Be sure to let your entire staff know about the priority you are placing on new accounts. Create a metric for evaluating your success in retaining accounts after one year, two years and three years, and use it to set goals and evaluate company performance.
Be aware that the use of enhanced outreach and discounts with new customers will create a level of expectation going forward. Develop a plan to gradually taper special retention-related services after a few years, but maintain regular communications continuously with all customers through newsletters, letters, surveys and more.
If you've been losing too many of your new customers, start nurturing those vital relationships now, and convert more new accounts to the kind of loyal adherents that you cherish.
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.propane-advertising.com.