Retailers adapt to customers’ fluctuating needs, behaviors

August 7, 2020 By    
Photo: sdecoret/iStock / Getty Images Plus/Getty Images

With COVID-19, the drive toward nonphysical interaction has accelerated. Photo: sdecoret/iStock / Getty Images Plus/Getty Images

For many propane retailers, nothing beats direct contact with customers and colleagues, a firm handshake and the completion of a task or negotiation in person.

But, as time moves forward, today’s youngest generations prefer nonphysical interactions and different social behaviors. And, with the sudden onset of COVID-19 this past winter and the influence it has had on e-commerce volume, the drive toward nonphysical interaction has accelerated.

In response, propane retailers throughout the United States are learning how to conduct business differently. As customers’ needs and behaviors change, retailers must leverage technology or risk losing momentum in this new nonphysical era. From an enhanced social media presence to website improvements, retailers are adapting as they prepare their businesses and customers for life after COVID-19.

Leverage new technology

To properly leverage new technology, retailers must understand all of the capabilities and functions of the technologies they have purchased, thereby enabling them to operate in as much of an automated and digital environment as possible.

“The manual process can bog retailers down,” says Marty Kirshner, director of client services at Gray, Gray & Gray, an accounting and business advisory firm in Massachusetts. “In a time when unexpected challenges are going to arise, retailers need to work on the areas of their companies that add the most value – they must invest in technology.”

After all, according to Richard Goldberg, president of Warm Thoughts Communications, many propane companies are behind the curve with regard to customer communications, as a majority do not have more than half of their customers’ email addresses.

An online presence has taken even greater precedence since the beginning of the pandemic, according to Jason Toney, vice president of finance at ProGas. This presence is vital not only for retailers’ relevance with their customers, but it’s also necessary for payments, as Toney predicts the desire to eliminate checks by mail will continue to gain momentum, leading retailers to accept only online payments.

On job sites, more customers are mentioning a rising interest in learning about new technologies and discussing possible opportunities with their retailers, thereby providing the Propane Education & Research Council (PERC) more time to consider how retailers, along with their customers, operate. In turn, PERC has accelerated online training adoption, as well as Certified Employee Training Program (CETP) resource modularization while also increasing virtual meeting attendance.

“Retailers should embrace the opportunity to participate in meetings online and utilize online resources to stay connected and remain available,” says Bridget Kidd, senior vice president of industry relations at PERC. “COVID-19 has presented a great opportunity – accelerated it more than anything – to look into online resources, along with other technologies, and be better prepared for the propane industry’s next era.”

Embrace social media

Photo: Pinkypills/iStock / Getty Images Plus/Getty Images

A strong online presence is key to connecting with customers and serving them efficiently. Photo: Pinkypills/iStock / Getty Images Plus/Getty Images

Those interviewed for this story stress the significance of social media, websites, emails and even texts – practically any type of digital communication.

“We manage over 125 fuel company websites and have seen double-digit increases in organic searches for propane websites, along with paid searches and leads generated from Google, Bing and the like,” Goldberg says. “Likewise, Facebook ad responses have surged. This is really how people are finding new retailers now, and it’s not going to change.”

He adds, “Even people who were reluctant to use technology are ordering supplies on Amazon and connecting with people on Zoom. Once they get over the hurdle, they find it pretty convenient. So propane retailers who are interested in growth really need to up their social media and online games.”

Goldberg has witnessed some of his clients react to the necessity for improved social media and online presences positively, as they establish virtual showrooms on their websites for grills and outdoor equipment, conduct Facebook and Google ad campaigns about tankless water heaters and offer online, autopay options for their customers. Others are focused on Facebook, as usage of the platform has skyrocketed in recent months, particularly as a means to connect with customers and enhance and reinforce relationships.

“In the past, most propane retailers weren’t active enough for Facebook’s algorithms to show their posts on their customers’ news feeds, and many only posted about their businesses – which can be injected into Facebook conversations, but won’t reach many customers since they’re not engaged enough,” he says. “Retailers have gotten a big lift by posting pictures of themselves delivering meals to hospital employees, along with sharing safety tips, and then boosting them by paying Facebook to share them with broader audiences, which is great for public relations.”

Ensure effective communication

As the coronavirus pandemic continues to influence different aspects of the propane industry in various ways (and as new situations unfold from one town to the next), retailers must increase their lines of communication with customers, especially regarding the ways in which their services may be changing.

Photo: oneillbro/iStock / Getty Images/ Getty Images

Retailers are using FaceTime, Zoom
and Google Duo to conduct virtual sales meetings regarding items like fire pits, grills and water heaters. Photo: oneillbro/iStock / Getty Images/ Getty Images

“Communication is key. Every layer that is further away from face-to-face interaction presents another layer of challenges that people need to be cognizant of,” Toney says. “For instance, when emailing or trying to conduct business through an online intermediary, people need to draft their correspondence and carefully proofread to mitigate any misconstruing of information.”

Toney believes it’s imperative that customers fully understand what retailers are communicating to them. Face-to-face communication is the easiest form, of course, as people can see facial expressions and hear tones. The telephone is effective as well, as people still hear voices and tones.

“But email is further away since people can’t hear tones either and may interpret things incorrectly,” he continues. “So retailers must have diligence to execute effective communication via email.”

Goldberg advises retailers to acquire more email addresses and use Constant Contact software or the Mailchimp marketing platform to further expand their communications and communicate on a more frequent basis.

At the same time, websites – as a form of communication – are more crucial than ever, as customers use them to order more products, ask questions about billing and interact with retailers about general issues.

“I don’t see this reversing course either,” says Peter Teresi, regional manager of Depew Energy. “For us, our website is totally interactive and customers can pay bills, order fuel, sign up for special pricing programs and see pictures of our employees, so they actually know what retailers look like if they call them from their homes. Many embrace it, and I don’t see that changing – only increasing.”

With this in mind, Brad Sullivan, energy director at Valley Farmers Supply, has witnessed his employer revamp its website in recent months to establish more of an online presence. Valley Farmers Supply, like many organizations, has realized a simple truth: If a customer’s current retailer doesn’t have enough of an online presence, they’ll find another one that does.

“Online retailers have a tremendous opportunity to step up to the plate,” he says. “They’re going to – and must – be more focused online from now on.”

Retailers are also embracing Zoom and GoToMeeting as replacements for their former face-to-face and conference room meetings while also video calling their customers.

“Video calling and online meetings are great ways to keep that personal touch, as retailers can solidify their relationships with customers by seeing the people they’re speaking to, regardless of customers’ ages,” stresses Steven Abbate, managing director of Cetane Associates.

Additionally, retailers are using a variety of outlets – including FaceTime, Zoom and Google Duo – to conduct “virtual sales,” as they showcase items like fire pits, grills and water heaters to customers. At the same time, customers will also share the areas in which they intend to place such items so that retailers will know the full physical layouts of the areas they need to service before they ever approach customers in person.

“This is a trend that will stick because it can save time and hassle for both parties, as they continue to respond to the impact of COVID-19,” Goldberg explains.

COVID-19 has led the propane industry to acclimate to the world of nonphysical interaction faster than nearly any retailer could have imagined.

“Simply put, propane retailers are essential and must continue to perform their responsibilities, regardless of future situations,” says Jonathan Malazzi, vice president of Connecticut-based Quality Propane. “Customers rely on retailers for so much, and retailers must adapt to any environment for them.”

Featured image: sdecoret/iStock / Getty Images Plus/Getty Images 

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