Embrace Fresh Ideas for the New Year
By Rich Rutigliano, PriMedia, Inc.
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.
The propane industry has seen a lot of change in recent years, as the economy has foundered, competition has increased, and price consciousness has risen. 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.
Specialized Websites Add Niche Appeal
One new idea that makes sense for a lot of propane 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 install high-efficiency equipment, you can create a second website that focuses on installations. That way, when a prospect goes online looking for a new heating system, they'll find your satellite site. You'll make it easy for them to choose your company on the basis of your commitment to those products.
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, 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 high-efficiency heating system is most likely to be impressed by a site that focuses on equipment. Your regular site might feature some of the equipment you install, 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 propane marketing is a very simple one: the marketing of innovation. 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.propane-advertising.com.