A gentleman approached me during the Propane Expo in Nashville with an interesting question about retail companies.
Talking at our trade show booth, he asked: With propane delivery functions being equal, what really sets one retail propane operation apart from another?
You hear companies tout their service, but that’s a very general description – and so many say it. I told him about progressive companies operating in a variety of newer, nontraditional markets like autogas and utilizing technology to gain efficiencies.
But I felt he wanted more.
So, with that experience in mind, I reached out to about 10 retail propane companies and posed the same question to them. I received a number of interesting responses from these sources operating on the front lines of the industry.
Here are some differentiators for retail operations and, in some cases, dynamics that influence a company’s ability to separate from the competition.
Communication with customers and potential customers
“The person answering the phone needs to be polite, friendly and helpful,” says Joe Buschur of McMahan’s Bottle Gas. “Go out of your way to answer any questions the caller may have and offer any suggestions that you can. Then, after you get the person as a customer, make sure your drivers are polite and friendly because they are the face of your business. As long as you are reasonably competitive [on price] and friendly, you should be able to keep that customer.”
A diversification of business offerings and programs
Management’s vision to uncover the right opportunities in the right markets leads to diversification, says Mike Gioffre of Paraco South.
“A marketer’s ability to create multiple gallon streams that reduce the dependency on winter weather/heating gallons will help grow non-winter gallons, even out ratios and boost business.”
Reliable Propane in Clarence Center, N.Y., has gotten creative with its “Honor Tank” program.
“We leave several grill cylinders outside our building with 5 pounds of gas for after-hours use,” explains Ken Albrecht, the company’s owner. “A customer can use the tank overnight and return it the next business day. We then fill their tank the next day but don’t charge for the gas used overnight. This program gets people talking and has reduced the amount we spend on advertising.”
Technology and social media
Today’s propane consumer has a set of different demands and expectations than the typical customer from 10 years ago, explains Mark Zimora of Energy Distribution Partners, and keeping pace with those expectations will pay dividends to the savvy propane marketer.
“Interactive websites and the ability for customers to communicate via social media are just a couple of examples,” he says. “Our industry has traditionally been slow to adapt to change, and in today’s marketplace that sluggishness can be more costly than ever.”
A retailer’s community service initiatives and events can make a big difference in the market, says Joe Stariha of Propane Strategies, who shared several suggestions. These include sponsoring youth sports, participating in parades (while tossing a lot of candy to the crowd) and designing a bobtail for a charitable organization (and then becoming a full partner with it).
“Pick a theme and also pick a local organization that benefits from these donations,” he says. “National organizations are good, but you need to embrace your local organizations.”
Employees and relationships
“The most important relationship we need to nurture and develop is the one we have with our own employees,” he says. “These are the people that you’ve entrusted to help grow the business. If you’re not inspiring them, mentoring and challenging them, you’re in neutral and won’t be going anywhere fast.”
Along the same lines, George Koloroutis of ThompsonGas says a company’s employees make the difference.
“The marketer that focuses on having the right people in the right places and provides a culture in which those people can thrive will run circles around his competition.”