Give Your Market an Image to Embrace
By Richard Rutigliano, PriMedia, Inc.
A great way to build customer loyalty and stand out from your competitors is to be a distinctive company that flashes some personality. By cultivating a particular image and reinforcing it at every turn, you help customers identify with you and decide that you are "their kind of company."
Existing customers will stick to you like glue if you help them develop some real affection, and new customers will more likely choose you over your competitor if you strike a chord with them. This is especially true in the wake of the Wall Street meltdown, when people are exasperated with "business as usual" and looking for "white hat" companies that they can trust and respect.
You already make strong individual connections in the course of providing customer service, and you can build on that by engaging in proactive image building to forge a bond with potential customers and the "silent majority" of existing customers that you never see. The goal is to put a human face on the company and help customers and potential customers feel like they know you.
You can begin establishing your personality right away with a series of small but significant steps.
Reinforce your commitment to great service. Before you talk the talk, make sure you're walking the walk. Bring all your employees on board with your plan to humanize the company, and if necessary offer new training on customer service. Focus especially on your technicians and CSRs who do most of your one-on-one interaction. They need to understand and embrace the image that you're building. Make sure that they all see every outreach piece before it goes to the customers to help them understand the process and get invested.
Make every interaction easy for the customer. As a propane dealer, you have a direct connection to each customer because you visit their home. Train your technicians to make every interaction a positive one. Keep it simple, and focus on the basics, like being prompt, courteous and respectful. Don't overburden techs with sales-related responsibilities. Customers warm up to technicians precisely because they are not salespeople, and it's important to let the relationship develop in that vein. Similarly with CSRs, train them to be helpful and tend to the customer's immediate needs, because that is the kind of friendly, respectful treatment that wins loyalty. Leave the sales to the salespeople, and train them to be direct and positive with their pitches. This way the customer feels respected in each interaction, and they are more inclined to return the respect.
Put voices and faces in your newsletter. People relate easily to other people, and you make your company more likable by adding human touches to your company newsletter. A letter from the company president is a great opportunity to forge bonds. Use a warm, colloquial tone and focus on the positive changes that people can make with your help. Be sure to sound knowledgeable and smart, because customers want on know that you are a leading authority in your field. You can also humanize your employees by including a feature article in every newsletter that focuses on a member of your staff. Have the employee talk about both their work and their personal interests. When they reveal their love of fishing, for example, they create a potential bond with any customer who fishes.
Personalize your Web site. Most company websites don't tell visitors enough about the company's culture and employees, and that is a significant missed opportunity. Your company may be a very friendly place with employees who truly care about excellent service, but most of your customers have no way of knowing that. For every customer who appreciates your employees because of the positive experiences they've had, there are 20 who have never had a meaningful experience with a member of your staff. Your Web site is a great place to tell customers and prospective customers who you are. Post mini-biographies complete with photos of all your employees, and use an "About Us" page to talk about your people and how they enjoy helping customers. Use photos of employees throughout the site, being sure to identify them all by name. When your site reflects the real people who make up your team, customers and prospective customers have more reasons to like you.
Don't forget the backstory. Include a page on your website about the company history - and make it good. When you identify your founders and tell how they got started and how the company has evolved through the years, you show a distinctive human face. Use historic photos if you have them, complete with captions. The mere act of presenting the history sends an implied message that the company is a significant entity in the community.
If it's lovable, use it. To build a likable public persona, use anything that might help. If you have an excellent cook or two in the company, publish a page of their recipes on the Web site. If one of your employees is a great nature photographer, publish a page of their best work. The benefit goes far beyond mere affinity with chefs and photographers: By presenting your company as a team of real people with real interests, you differentiate yourself from the utilities and other faceless corporations.
Correspond with your customers. Send a few letters to your customers every year. You can write about new initiatives you're launching, new products you're selling, or about world and national events that relate to your company, such as an energy price forecast. Whatever you write, put some of your personality into the letter and relate the topic to your customers' lives. You want the customers to feel that you are a concerned, informed company that is truly on their side.
Multimedia makes you real. Your website can also host multimedia files such as video introductions, podcasts, blogs, video blogs and more. If you or a member of your staff is passionate about any of the equipment or services you sell - or even issues relating to energy and home comfort - online broadcasts will convey that enthusiasm. Site visitors who tune in can form an instantaneous connection. High-quality podcasts and blogs connect you to customers like no other media can, and they stamp you as a progressive provider who embraces technology - a strong image for an energy provider.
Offer Live Help. Install a Live Help module on your website so that visitors can immediately engage a CSR in a real-time online discussion using instant messaging. You'll make your staff more accessible by using a popular Internet technology that many users prefer to the telephone. A help module also stamps you as modern, pro-technology company.
Embrace a cause. If you are involved with a charity or cause, wear your support on your sleeve. As long as it's not religion or politics, reference the cause in your newsletter and on your Web site, and be a visible participant in any local fund-raising efforts. Your involvement can include sponsoring events, raising money, and offering the use of your facilities.
Let customers do the talking. Customer testimonials about your employees' performance are powerful. If you are not already collecting customer comments, start doing so. Whenever someone calls to compliment an employee, take a "statement" and ask if you can use it in your marketing. If you are already collecting customer testimonials, maximize use of them. Place a prominent link to the testimonials on your Web site home page. Put a few testimonials in your company newsletter. Your customers and potential customers will take those comments to heart, because they came from ordinary people like them.
Throw a party for your customers. Show your customers some real love by hosting a picnic or barbecue for them this summer. Send them a letter saying you really appreciate their loyalty, and you want to thank them in person. The customers who attend will never forget your generosity. Even the ones who don't come will be impressed that you invited them. And when party day comes, you can hand out hats and pens, or raffle off prizes, but don't try to sell your customers anything. Give them food and good times, and feel their loyalty grow.
Seek out media opportunities. Energy use and efficiency are hot topics. If you or your employees are passionate and well spoken about your business, look for opportunities to get on the radio, on television or in the local paper. If you write an op-ed piece in the local paper, you'll raise your profile with the local media and create more opportunities for free publicity. (If you have something to say but lack confidence in your writing skills, reach out for professional assistance.) People love a straight shooter who is well informed, and some of them will bring their business your way if they appreciate what you have to say.
Take Advantage of Social Media. Make a Facebook page for your company and tell your customers about it in your newsletter. Encourage them to sign up as members, and link to your Facebook page from your home page. Making connections is what Facebook is all about, and many businesses have Facebook pages where users can subscribe. Facebook has 175 million members, and the adult membership is swelling as people urge their friends to join. If you were a Facebook user, would you prefer the oil company that knows enough to have a Facebook page, or the other one?
By incorporating a few of these ideas, you'll build a pleasing public image that will reinforce the loyalty of your own customers and serve as a magnet for new business. In the short run, you'll reduce your attrition rate and attract some new accounts. In the long run, you'll build a foundation of brand recognition and goodwill that will support future efforts to grow through acquisition or diversification.
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.