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AI, machine learning can help your propane operation today

November 22, 2023 By    

My July column nominally was about whether propane marketers could create a hip image. But it really was about artificial intelligence (AI). I used ChatGPT to create the lion’s share of the content.

At my Benchmarking group’s recent meeting in Kansas City, Missouri, we tested and played with some of the free tools and talked about how we might use AI in the future. I walked away with a lot of ideas.

Here’s a sampling of affordable AI and machine learning tools that propane marketers might use to improve customer growth and retention:

  • Customer communication. Among the more interesting options is a cloud-based customer-intelligence platform that includes calling, messaging, video meetings and a contact center with real-time transcription. The contact center feature gives your customer service representatives (CSR) live tips during the call, including real-time pop-ups with answers to questions. This tool may enable CSRs to focus on the conversation, be engaged listeners and consistently provide the right answer. Pricing begins at $15 per user per month, and it includes unlimited calling. It integrates with Google Workspace and Microsoft 365.
  • Marketing and content creation. AI-based marketing and content creation tools are a must for propane marketers with limited budgets and limited time. These tools continue to improve and progress. One of the tools has the ability to learn your brand and your “voice.” Using your style guides, website and any other collateral you might have, this tool can write new content or rewrite existing content for specific formats such as social media and to create and maintain brand consistency. Pricing starts at $39 per user per month.
  • Social media tools. A lot of social media tools enable you to plan, deploy and manage multiple social media platforms, but only a few are AI-powered. These tools can guide you on the optimum time to post, test and refine content based on results, create and manage hashtags and more. Pricing starts as low as $15 per user per month.
  • Customer chat. Conversational AI bears about the same resemblance to chatbots as the car you drive bears to your parents’ Oldsmobile. Conversational AI uses large data sets, understands natural language and can learn from previous conversations to gradually improve its responses. Conversational AI can mimic human conversational style and produce unique content. My guess is that most of you, like me, have more user experience with the traditional chatbot, which has rules-based, canned responses that generally are a lot more annoying than they are helpful. Prices range from free to $50 per user per month with a lot of price points in between. A more robust version that may be deployed over multiple platforms runs about $140 per user per month.

Chris Caywood

AI and machine learning tools can do more than just sales and marketing. They can help in the back office and field too. Here are two examples:

  • Accounts payable. We currently use an accounts payable software that eliminates manual invoice data entry. It extracts data from the invoice and generates a general ledger entry that includes the invoice or statement as an attachment. Our team submits receipts and invoices using an app on their phones or a desktop version. No more lost receipts from field or office operations. Our cost is about $43 per month with multiple users, and we estimate that it saves over 400 hours per year in internal accounting and bookkeeping time.
  • Service and delivery optimization. If there’s a widely used routing tool that propane retailers are happy with, then it’s one of the best kept industry secrets. And I’m still waiting to meet a propane marketer who’s happy with the route planning software built into propane management software.

We are at the early stages of evaluating AI-powered routing tools. The first few tools we have found have a couple of features that make them stand out from the tools all of us are used to. The three biggest are adaptability and learning, iterative improvement, and real-time updates for traffic, weather and other changes. We’ll dive into this one in greater detail in a future column.

We plan to implement marketing and content creation, social media tools and customer chat in our operations during the next several months. Delivery and route optimization and other back-office and operating improvements will take more time and cost more.


Christopher Caywood is a co-owner of Caywood Propane Gas Inc. Contact him at chris@caywoodpropane.com.

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