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In the Know: Why you need a company-wide communication plan

November 4, 2014 By and    

In the Know is a monthly partnership between LP Gas magazine and Propane Resources. Our focus this month is on communication, addressed by supply and risk management expert Pat Thornton.

Q. With the heating season under way, how can propane retailers communicate effectively with their customers, especially if supply challenges happen to develop?

A. January and February 2014 presented a real test for propane marketers across the country. In many cases, retailers strengthened relationships with customers. In other cases, customers made the decision to switch suppliers. In most instances, it was the quality of communication between the marketer and customer that made the difference. Obviously, marketers who didn’t answer the phone lost customers.

The quality of communication between the marketer and customer is not evaluated based only on communication during a major crisis. If customers feel communication and rapport is good throughout the year, they will be more likely to forgive problems that occur during a supply shortage, especially if the marketer goes above and beyond to communicate problems. Nonetheless, if there is limited communication throughout the year, the retailer can still earn points with proper communication when propane supply issues are front and center.

The propane marketer should impress on their employees the importance of good communication. While “effective communication” is a term often bantered around, few companies actually devote effort to real training on communicating effectively. In the end, a good company-wide communication plan can be the difference between “OK” and “great” customer experiences.

Your staff should focus on communication strategies at all times, especially when propane supply issues cause limited product availability or price spikes. If you’ve done a great job communicating year-round, your customers should be aware of your price-protection programs. With these programs, it is likely spikes in wholesale prices will not affect the customer.

At all times, employees should recognize the importance of listening. Hearing what the customer is saying is important in resolving specific problems. If the customer is emotional, do not respond with emotion (except to show empathy). Apologize if it is appropriate to do so. Watch the tone and volume of your voice. Each customer wants to be treated as if he or she is your best customer.

Customers will ultimately evaluate you on how quickly you resolve their issue. Be proactive. Keep them up-to-date on the progress of the resolution process. Always say, “Thank you for your business.” No doubt there will be a few customers along the way you need to “fire,” but do so professionally, and try not to lose the good ones along the way.

When market conditions beyond your control cut supply or force wholesale supply prices through the roof, educate your customers about the factors in the marketplace that are causing the changes. Send a letter giving an overview of the issues affecting supply. Let them know what is being done to resolve the problem and what you are doing for them.

Be prepared. Proactive steps include ensuring all drivers, customer service representatives and other staff members are on the same page. Role-play complaints and questions customers will ask. After listening to the customer, staff members should have consistent responses for resolving the customers’ issues.

Research consistently shows customers don’t like surprises. If you have not convinced customers to take advantage of supply and price security programs, a tough winter may help you move them in that direction. Listen to the customers regarding their specific needs. Quickly resolve those needs. If you do so, you will be well on your way to keeping a happy customer and enjoying a long, profitable relationship.

Pat Thornton is a supply and risk management expert for Propane Resources. He can be reached at pat@propaneresources.com or 913-262-0628.

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