Small propane retailers in rural communities seldom make their website or Web marketing a top priority, but one in southeastern Pennsylvania benefitted by promoting its business online.
Affordable Propane, based in Quarryville, Pa., started with about two-dozen customers when Tim Jackson, general manager, began leading the business in 2007. The first five years as manager, Jackson says he acquired hundreds of customers steadily in its community by attending fairs and meeting individuals face-to-face.
Jackson explains that most people in the region he serves are Amish or Mennonite. To reach those customers, it made more sense for Jackson to spend one-on-one time with them. Jackson says he spends extra hours every week, getting to know the customers in the community.
“I tell people that in order to be successful in rural areas, you have to go to every little event,” Jackson says. “I attend just about any trade show in the area to talk to people. And when I talk to people there, it helps retain them as customers.”
Affordable Propane attained a couple of thousand customers by 2012 simply by getting its name out better in the community at local events. At the time, Affordable Propane did not have a website and was confined to a small, geographic region, Jackson says. Although local customers tend to be more loyal, he believes that a small business won’t grow much without having any kind of online presence – especially if it’s based in a rural community like Quarryville.
“You can survive in the industry as a small propane retailer without a website,” Jackson says. “But grow? Probably not.”
Sycamore Cos. bought Affordable Propane in 2012, and at that time launched the propane retailer’s website. Jackson admits it is a basic website and needs improvement, but simply being online helped the company double its customer base. He adds that Affordable Propane now serves people within a 50-mile radius of Quarryville. The company most recently expanded business in November to Stroudsburg, Pa., more than two hours from headquarters.
Jackson attributes 60 percent of the company’s growth to attending fairs and trade shows and the other 40 percent to online traffic in 2014. He says online traffic increased every month last year, as well.
Although Jackson still believes personal time spent with customers is more valuable than online communication, he says there’s some value to communicating with customers online. He says he spends time at the end of each day, responding to customers’ questions that were submitted via email, which gains their trust. Jackson recommends all propane retailers respond to customers’ email daily and with consistency.
“A lot of our newer customers are impressed when I respond to their emails almost immediately,” Jackson says. “It catches their eye. I believe that you get out of your business what you put into it. That’s true of the website; that’s true of customer service.”
COMPANY: Affordable Propane
LOCATION: Quarryville, Pa.
GENERAL MANAGER: Tim Jackson
PROPANE SALES: 1.5 million annual gallons