Need new customers? Look online

July 1, 2005 By    

No matter what the weather and how efficiently and effectively your propane business runs, nothing happens – and no money is made – without customers.



And because the propane industry largely thrives on word of mouth and repeat business, new customers can be hard to come by.

To combat this, the Propane Education & Research Council (PERC) instituted the Find a Propane Retailer program, and it has been successfully linking interested consumers with propane retailers since its September 2003 launch.

“The program came out of our Consumer Education Advisory Committee as an effective tool to bring propane retailers and customers together,” says Nisha Starks, PERC senior projects coordinator.

As a part of PERC’s national advertising campaign, the program is a part of its mission to boost consumer spending in the propane industry.

“The program was the next natural, logical step in our national campaign,” says Kate Caskin, PERC senior vice president. “It’s a bridge between the advertisements and the website. It enables retailers to make connections within their own communities.”

Basically, the online program generates leads from prospective customers who are led to the PERC’s consumer website (www.usepropane.com) from advertisements shown in the national campaign. Customers log on, enter their zip code and what types of services he is looking for. A list of local propane retailers offering requested services is displayed with contact information. Customers also are given the option of requesting that the retailers contact them.

According to PERC, its national database contains businesses engaged primarily in the retail sale of odorized propane to the consumer or to retail dispensers. Services provided by eligible retailers include residential services, appliance installation, tank installation, cylinder exchange programs, cylinder repair and refilling, gas plumbing and piping, motor fuel service, and engine conversions/fuel system repairs. PERC may expand this list of services later this year.

 When a customer logs on, he is able to choose his location and what types of services he is looking for. The FPR then leads him to retailers in his area that can fill his needs.
When a customer logs on, he is able to choose his location and what types of services he is looking for. The FPR then leads him to retailers in his area that can fill his needs.

Pricing services, equipment suppliers, producers, and other similar businesses are not eligible to register for the program, and information specific to propane prices is not permitted to appear on the site.

Retailers can register their company in the program and set up their account by going online to leads.propanecouncil.org. Company logos can be added to the listings to make them unique and recognizable. All registrations are reviewed for compliance with the program rules.

The program also allows you to add additional users to your account. This feature allows multiple persons to access to the company’s account without sharing personal passwords. All users will have the ability to update information in the company profile and check consumer leads. However, notification of new consumer leads is sent only to the e-mail address indicated in the company profile.

Once your listing looks impeccable and your staff has access to the program, you can sit back and wait for the leads to come in. A simple click on the “View Leads Inbox” button will lead you to all the customers who’ve inquired about your business. The consumer’s contact information as well as their propane needs or questions will appear.

While the online tool is user friendly, PERC still recommends learning everything about the technical aspects of the program, while also understanding how to make the most of your leads by organizing an internal system for consumer follow-up. To accomplish this, PERC has a complete tutorial, available online, that shows how to establish a Find a Propane Retailer manager, set up a timeline for response, and how to react, reach, reply and re-contact all your consumer leads.

How effective has it actually been?

This year PERC set several goals for the program, one of which was to increase retailer participation by 10 percent, or about 200 unique retailers. There are almost 2,300 unique retailers on the program, meaning only one listing will appear for any given retailer– no matter how many branches they have in the area. Through May, 130 new retailers registered for the program, putting PERC on track to meeting its goal.

Another goal was to double the consumer referral rate. Starks says they’re set to meet this goal by year’s end with the increased traffic they’re seeing on the Web site. WHAT IS THE RATE?

Almost 700 requests for informational brochures have been generated from site activity this year alone from more than 65,000 site searches. The number of searches tripled from January 2004 to January 2005, and doubled for both February and March compared to 2004.

“The FPR program is great for marketers because it’s a low-cost way to promote their company, and it enables retailers to be proactive with consumers,” says Starks. “Consumers seek out the retailers, and they are able to help them in a timely and efficient manner.”

What do retailers think of the program?

According to research done by Wirthlin Worldwide, now Harris Interactive, who PERC hired to assess the program, most marketers say it is easy to register and use the system. Forty percent of marketers who enrolled their company in the database say they have received leads from the system. Among those, most got between one and six leads. Forty percent have not secured any new customers, but 25 percent did.

Two of those retailers, Blossman Gas and Blue Star Gas, have been vocal supporters of the program.

Blossman Gas is a multi-state retailer serving parts of Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, and Tennessee. They have gained plenty of leads and several new customers since they joined the program.

Carmen Mee, who oversees the company’s leads program, took the initiative to review the company’s existing FPR listing, adding the company’s logo to the FPR along with additional information that would direct customers to their website.

“We’re very pleased with how the program is working,” says Mee. “It’s nice, because the customers don’t just want general information, they seem to want propane in their homes.”

Blue Star Gas, a full-service retailer in the Pacific Northwest, with locations scattered in Oregon and Northern California, have received several leads since joining. Darren Engle, who handles all incoming leads, feels the program’s advantage is that it allows his company to have a presence in all regions that they service.

“I made sure to input every zip code we serve into the program, that way we’ll get as many new customers as possible,” says Engle.

“I’m always on my computer, so I usually have the leads within the hour. I’ll immediately pass them on to my individual retailers, and they in turn contact the customer within one day of their initial interest. Customers love the fast response. It’s why they’re buying propane from us.”

Engle estimates that 80 percent of the incoming leads turned into new customers. Blue Star also takes advantage of the electronic convenience of the program.

“My leads come in by Microsoft Outlook, which means I can enter them into my calendar to stay on top of them,” he says.

“It’s a great system, a free way to generate new customers. If you’re not involved, you’re losing out on new business.”

It seems like a no-brainer for retailers, but still a vast amount of retailers are not a part of the program. A number of reasons could factor into this – weariness of technology, remote locations, skepticism – which is why PERC is going all out in promoting the program. HOW?

“We’re going to keep doing all we can to get the word out,” says Starks. “Everyone needs to know about this, regardless of company size or location. Once retailers hear about it, they’re usually all for it.”

PERC also commissioned Wirthlin Worldwide to conduct a user analysis of the program. They found:

  • One-third of consumers said they came to the UsePropane.com|~UsePropane.com/
    website specifically to find a propane retailer.
  • Half were looking for information on propane and propane products.
  • Two-thirds of consumers who completed the survey requested contact from a retailer.
  • Fifty-three percent asked to be contacted and 12 percent said they initiated contact themselves.
  • Three-quarters of those who said they would initiate contact did call a retailer.
  • Three-quarters of consumers who wanted to be contacted by a retailer were. This is 40 percent of all respondents.
  • One-third of respondents who wanted to be contacted said that all of the retailers listed in their inquiry contacted them.
  • Two-thirds of consumers said the retailer with whom they spoke was helpful answering questions and watching out for their best interests.
  • One-quarter of respondents said they have initiated new propane service since they visited the UsePropane.com|~UsePropane.com/
    Web site.
  • More than half of new customers initially installed a furnace.

“Since doing the consumer and retailer surveys, we’ve made changes to improve and enhance the program,” says Starks. “It’s definitely a work in progress, but so far it has been a success.”

A success for retailers and consumers alike.

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