Just do it: Adopt a technology strategy in your propane business

May 30, 2024 By    

I’ve been writing this column for a while now. It all started innocently enough with “Making use of a variety of propane technology” in 2017.

The gist of the column was that routing software and monitors were getting all the attention at the expense of other important technology tools, including websites, customer management systems, phone systems, document storage systems, training tools, human resource and payroll tools, and financial reporting and management tools, to name quite a few.

Since that inauspicious start, I’ve dispensed a lot of advice, including the importance of developing a technology strategy to fit your business and its capabilities (“How to implement technology into your propane business” and “Creating a technology ecosystem that fits your business”).

Someone once said that “advice is like castor oil – easy enough to give, dreadfully uneasy to take.” That fairly describes our experience, because we’ve taken the advice offered in this column in the operation of our own business.

But similar to the hope that one emerges healthier and better after suffering the effects of the castor oil, we believe we have a better business today than we had yesterday, built on a foundation of good people, good technology tools, sound strategy and good, old-fashioned execution.

Since 2017, we have:

  • Implemented new customer-facing tools, including:
    • Smartphone app
    • Website portal
    • Tank monitors
  • Implemented new field operations tools, including:
    • Digital bobtail meters
    • Mobile delivery tablets and mobile service tablets
  • Implemented new back-office software, including:
    • Propane customer management software
    • Cloud-based document management
    • VOIP phone system
    • Timesheet and training applications
    • Machine-learning AP management
    • Tax return software
  • Integrated most of our customer-facing, field operations and back-office systems through our propane software and general ledger.

That’s a lot of castor oil, especially for a small business like ours. Did it work? So far, so good. We think.

Since 2017, our process changes and technology tools have enabled us to improve some important performance indicators:

  • Our auto-fill runout rates, once measured on percent, now are measured in thousandths of a percent.
  • Our auto-fill business has increased from 51 percent of deliveries to almost 74 percent of deliveries.
  • Our digital delivery business (monitor-based auto-fills and website/app will-call orders) has increased to almost 85 percent of our business.
  • We generally answer over 80 percent of our calls in less than 20 seconds with an approximate 3 percent abandon rate (enabled in large part by our digital delivery business).
  • We have improved our margins and EBITDA (perhaps the most important performance indicator?).

Our progress since 2017 certainly is not a declaration of victory. As we move into the summer, we are focusing hard on team development and training, combined with AI and machine-learning-assisted tools, to improve our customer retention and growth rates. In other words, we are starting the arduous process of testing and implementing the goals outlined in “Improve business performance with the right resolutions.

We are excited by the opportunities to be better as we head into summer and prepare for the next delivery season, even if it involves a lot of thought and hard work.

Who knows, maybe castor oil is an acquired taste?

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

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