Making a Lasting Impression

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By: Richard Rutigliano, PriMedia, Inc.

Good communication is the key to productive customer relationships

How do you quantify the value of a 30-year relationship with a homeowner? What is the cost of a bad review?

Your company’s most important assets are intangible. Your reputation, your relationships, your community involvement. Accountants may put a value to them under the heading of “good will” for tax or resale purposes, but as a business owner or manager you are well aware of just how priceless they are.

Like all treasures, customer relationships need to be protected. Managing these relationships requires data and technology, but, as importantly, a personal, humanizing touch.

You get one chance to make a good first impression.

For fuel dealers, that first personal impression is often made over the phone. Whether a customer service representative (CSR) or salesperson takes the call, he or she needs to be friendly, professional, caring and well informed. Every phone call needs to be handled as a ‘new business’ call and every question as a sales opportunity. Your staff needs to be able to explain the benefits of your fuel, how your company differs from the competition, your price protection plans, service agreements and current promotions at a moment’s notice. They also need to know the caller’s name, the property’s account history and unique details, so even a new customer feels like an old friend. And it has to seem natural and seamless.

This alchemy is produced by combining data and training.

Customized training programs and on-boarding webinars help new hires and long-term staff formulate the answers for most customer questions. The right training can help your sales team become more effective and your staff better prepared to manage difficult interactions.

Getting the data in place is a matter of integrating your account management system with an easily accessed CSR dashboard. For existing customers, with a few clicks while the caller is describing the current issue, your CSRs can have a full view of all situations past and present: service calls, tech notes, previous complaints, payment history, delivery status, service plan status and more.

Data integration is as important when working with new customers or leads. Rather than accessing your standard enterprise software, the CSR and sales teams should be able to access centralized lead tracking and project management platforms. While theoretically no longer a “first” impression, every interaction after the first touch builds the relationship and can mean the difference between a closed sale and a dead lead.

Integrated lead and project management systems ensure that follow-up calls are made quickly; that documents are stored and accessible; that “next steps” are completed as needed; and that everyone in the office is able to answer any questions the customer may have – or quickly connect with the right person to do so.

From a consumer’s point of view – new or longstanding – this responsiveness makes your company stand apart. They feel “seen,” not as an impersonal account number but as an individual. From a business owner’s point of view, the investment in these systems pays off time after time. Several recent studies, including one in Forbes magazine, found that approximately 60 percent of customers are willing to pay more for good service, even those who price-shop multiple vendors. There is a generational difference, as well – and it might surprise you: Millennials and Gen-Z consumers are willing to pay a premium for personal service at 62 and 60 percent, respectively; while only 46 percent of Baby Boomers would make the same choice. Not making the investment in your teams could be costly: nearly 20 percent of customers will stop doing business with a company after a poor call experience, and 11 percent will leave a company if the customer service or sales reps show a lack of product knowledge.

You can always make a good impression

You may get only one chance to make a first impression, but you can make a good impression over and over again. Integrated CSR dashboards, lead tracking and project management platforms create person-to-person relationships. Digital communications help you expand that personal touch.

Digital communications can humanize your company. Think for a moment – when was the last time you sent an email blast to your customer base? If it announced that their monthly invoices and statements were available, it doesn’t count.

On the other hand, you can build relationships one e-letter at a time. Are you sponsoring a youth football, baseball or softball team? Did your employees participate in a walk-a-thon, pack school supplies in backpacks, host or donate at a blood drive, or fill care packages for troops overseas? Did your company receive an honor or award? Did you bring someone new onboard, or celebrate employee milestones recently? Did your company provide fuel, equipment or other services to a homeowner or community in need? Shine a light on these “human” activities, with e-letters and social media posts, and don’t forget to include pictures. Let your customers know that you care for them and their community.

Not all digital communications need to show your altruistic side. Segment your account base: with/without automatic delivery, service or budget plan; age of equipment; average days-to-payment; delivery sectors. This will make it easier to target your marketing emails and text messages to the appropriate customer and make it more convenient for the customer to make a payment, place an order or enroll in one of your value-added services.

There is no need to waste resources sending new equipment promotions to homes that upgraded their heating system within the past few years or urging budget plan enrollments to customers already in the program. But send those same messages to the appropriate accountholders, and you are more likely to get a sale. Consumers appreciate segmentation and personalization: 66 percent expect companies to understand their needs and expectations, and 70 percent say that their loyalty to a company is based on how much it understands them. Even with digital communications, it boils down to the consumer being “seen.”

Customer loyalty is based on your “knowing” them as individuals. When you send a promotion to someone who does not fit the target (promoting service agreements to an accountholder who has had a contract with you for years, for example), you are showing them that their history with you is unimportant. Simple segmentation, using data in your enterprise software, prevents this type of perceived insult.

Make a good impression automatic

Just as bulk emails, done right, can create a personal touch, automated communications can enhance the personal relationship between your company and customers by offering even more opportunities for the customer to be seen and heard.

In a long-ago time, many companies followed each service call with a phone call. “Mrs. Jones, our technician was there yesterday,” the script went. “Were you happy with the service? Did we leave your home clean? Was the technician respectful? Do you have any questions about the service?”

This was labor intensive and time consuming, and, for expediency’s sake, dropped from many businesses’ standard operating procedures. That may have saved the companies some cash but cost them in customer relationships. Automated communications offer a way to bring back that final touch.

Automated “How’d we do” messages can be processed through the email and text messaging communications platforms already integrated with your company’s account management software. Positive responses can be shared to social media and tallied by technician to reward exceptional service.

These communications may be even more important when service was not up to par. Given the opportunity to communicate directly with your company, the consumer is less likely to immediately run to Google, Yelp or social media to complain about a poor experience. Management can be immediately alerted to resolve the situation. An error, quickly rectified, is one of the best ways to cement a relationship and increase the likelihood of future referrals.

The best impression is still personal.

“Customer management” is cold and distant. “Customer relationship management” is warm and lasting. It is the “relationship” that supports the customer and the company, and it requires a personal touch. A friendly voice answering the phone; a polite, professional technician at the door; a thoughtful sales rep who understands the customer’s concerns; and management that takes the time to introduce themselves to new account holders.

Many liquid fuel retailers are proud of their multi-generational histories and promise to continue the “old-fashioned values” of their founders. Those values were based on courtesy to and respect for every customer. In other words, customer relationship management. Today, we are simply adding the conveniences of the computerized age to those age-old values.

Richard Rutigliano is President of PriMedia, Inc., an integrated marketing and communications firm specializing in the home energy sector. He can be reached at 516-222-2041 or