Creating a technology ecosystem that fits your business

November 29, 2018 By    
online retailer shopping cart. Photo:

The right technology can improve efficiency at your propane operation. Photo:

For the past several months, I have explored how technology can help you achieve your propane retail strategy.

This month I pull it all together by describing what we did with our business. What was right for us may not (and probably is not) right for you. However, I do hope it illustrates what you can do with your strategy and the right supporting technology tools.

Our business strategy is to be reliable, transparent and value-priced. We believe that few retailers deliver all three components. Here’s how we did it with technology:

Reliable. Our tank monitors, mobile propane, mobile service and propane CMS, together with route-planning software, enable us to achieve consistent, reliable deliveries. We also use the forecast tools embedded in our propane CMS, combined with tank monitors, to predict near-term usage and schedule deliveries from our wholesalers to the bulk plants where they are needed. Our recently implemented VOIP phone and call-recording system enables our phones to ring at multiple locations, and call recording ensures that we can provide verification of our customer commitments and continuously improve the quality of our calls.

Transparent. Our website and smartphone app enable customers to review all of their legal documents, order and pay for propane and propane services, sign up for price-protection programs, check their account history and usage, and communicate with us. Our website also posts prices for all to see – not just our customers. We also compare over 25 years of our price history against the EIA retail average for Michigan, where our company is based.

Value-priced. We are able to offer competitive prices because of the efficiencies created by our technology ecosystem that reduce both back office and field operating expenses.

Efficiency begins in the back office. Vendors send invoices and statements to our bill processor, who converts the statement or invoice into a digital format or directly to our optical character recognition scanner that creates the general ledger entry and even processes payments (and matching general ledger entries). All of our bank and company credit card transactions feed directly to our general ledger for review, approval and reconciliation.

Employees track time and location on an app that feeds directly to our payroll processor. Our payroll processor, in addition to integrating with the general ledger, serves as an HR hub to provide digital onboarding, retirement and health benefits processing and reporting, and other employee record keeping.

The integration of the propane CMS into the general ledger dramatically improves efficiency and reporting accuracy with daily synchronization of general ledger entries. The propane CMS provides additional efficiencies, such as mass customization of customer communications that enable the creation of customer-specific communications for matters such as budget program letters. It also has a PCI/DSS-compliant vault that permits more efficient handling of credit card and eCheck payments, especially for budget and auto-pay customers.

Field operations benefit from the efficiencies provided by route planning and tank monitors, but both the field and the front office benefit from the digitization of customer records and agreements, including gas checks, leak tests and other field documents that require customer and/or service technician signatures. Front-office filing goes away because the document goes directly from the mobile tablet to the customer record in the propane CMS, where it immediately can be accessed by the customer service representative to improve first-call resolution.

The net effect of our efforts is a significant reduction in operating costs, but the biggest impact is on the customer experience. We have more time to focus on the customer because we require less time to complete clerical work. Best of all, our customers can do business with us just like they do business with Amazon and other “internet of thing” vendors. This has proven to be an important feature that favorably differentiates us from other retailers.

Christopher Caywood is a co-owner of Caywood Propane Gas Inc.

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