Route planning software and tank monitors receive almost all of the press attention these days for propane businesses – and with good reason.
Drivers can deliver more gallons in fewer hours, and sometimes the time savings can be significant. I know a retailer who was able to reduce its fleet size from five bobtails to four after implementing robust route planning software. That’s $125,000 to $150,000 over the useful life of a bobtail. That can buy a lot of groceries for the family (or buy most, if not all, of the software described in this article). A combination of route planning and tank monitoring software is an integral part of operating a profitable and efficient retail propane business.
There are, however, a lot of other important technologies that don’t receive as much attention, namely: your website, your customer management software, your phone system and the connectivity among them.
Let’s start with the website. If you don’t have one, get one. If you have one, but it’s not robust, you should consider making it robust. A robust website attracts traffic from a combination of both traditional and digital marketing. Your print, direct mail, radio or television advertising should all be driving traffic to your website.
Once the customer or, more importantly, the prospective customer gets to your website, it ought to be similar to the Amazon experience. Amazon customers can buy almost any physical thing virtually and have it delivered to their doorstep within several hours or days. In other words, Amazon is a huge “internet of things” business.
Propane businesses ought to consider an internet of things approach. After all, many of your customers are already used to the Amazon experience. To that end, here’s what we have done with our business:
■ Our customer application, pre-buy and price-cap contracts are on our website. We no longer have paper applications or contracts. Customers submit their application and sign their agreements electronically. Customers without computer access sign their paperwork at the time the gas check is performed.
■ Customers may order gas or pay their bills on our website.
■ Customers have access to our standard terms and conditions and all other contracts on our website. More importantly, they have access to safety materials, including some interactive materials prepared by the Propane Education & Research Council that are available to all of us.
■ The application and contract are created in-house using an “add-in” to our website software that costs only a few hundred dollars a year. The programmer can write an application program interface (API) that puts the data on the new customer application into your customer management software. Many of our customers pay their bills on our website using a similar link that puts the payment information into our customer management software. No keystrokes (or labor) required.
■ Beginning soon, customers who call us instead of working with us through our website will have their calls monitored and recorded for training and quality control purposes. This ensures that we provide a consistent, high-quality customer experience and, in the unlikely event of a dispute, we have a clear factual picture of what happened.
What’s next for us? Tying it all together:
■ Some of the front-end, web-based forms and operations are not yet “connected” to our customer management software. Linking those APIs will reduce paperwork, error rates and labor, not to mention speed up customer service.
■ Automating “field” forms such as gas check and leak test forms to include digital signatures (our invoices are already digital), which will reduce paperwork, error rates and labor.
Finally, all of these things will require the cooperation and experience of your customer management software vendor. They will need to write the APIs, digitize forms and make sure they are integrated from website to bobtail. Make sure you choose your vendor wisely. While all of this sounds expensive, it can all be done for far less than the cost of a bobtail you might replace.
Christopher Caywood, together with his brother Michael, is a co-owner of Caywood Propane Gas Inc. They have owned the business for more than 20 years, but only recently became actively involved after careers in the retail, pharmaceutical, higher education and legal professions. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.