By BOB MIODONSKI
Of CONTRACTOR’s staff
HERSHEY, PA. — The similarity between oil heat and massage therapy may not be immediately apparent to many homeowners or even fuel oil dealers. Nancy Allen, sales manager of fuel oil dealer E.T. Lawson in Hampton, Va., made the connection May 21 during her presentation, “Successfully Selling Oil Heat Against Other Fuels,” at the annual meeting of the National Association of Oil Heating Services Managers here.
“With massage therapy, you have a relaxed feeling, not a care in the world. It’s so comfortable, you’re not aware of what the massage therapist is doing,” she said. “That’s the point of oil heat. You don’t have to worry about oil heat. You have instant comfort in your room. You know that you’re in the hands of a qualified professional.”
To sell oil heat successfully against other fuels, the question that Allen put to NAOHSM members was, “Are you selling heating oil by the gallon, or are you selling oil heat — comfort and reliability?”
Selling heating oil by the gallon has a built-in disadvantage vs. other fuels because customers can picture a gallon of fuel oil (“like a gallon of milk except that it’s red instead of white”), Allen said. Units of natural gas and electricity are more difficult to imagine.
“What does a kilowatt look like and what does it cost? No one knows and that’s intentional because the electric company doesn’t want you to know what it costs,” Allen said. “It’s the same with natural gas. What does 100 cu. ft. look like? Most people don’t have a clue.”
A big reason that many gas and electric customers don’t care about the selling price of a fuel unit is because they’re on a budget to pay their heating costs. Allen urged NAOHSM members to encourage their customers to get on a budget payment program to give themselves the protection of stable pricing.
She distributed copies of E.T. Lawson’s Payment Protection Plan brochure, which promises customers: “Even if oil prices skyrocket over $2 a gallon, your price goes no higher than the cap. But, if prices drop, you’ll pay the lower price.”
Allen told NAOHSM members, “The main thing in the customer’s mind is that the price is capped, not the amount of the cap.”
Price protection is only part of the peace of mind that oil heat dealers must sell to their customers, she said. Other components include tank protection, service protection and customer service protection, Allen said.
While some customers will be concerned that their heating oil tank might be a pollution liability, E.T. Lawson gives them a flier that explains the tank is insured by the Virginia Storage Tank Fund that provides up to $1 million in coverage. E.T. Lawson pays the deductible and provides cleaning, repairing, painting or replacement at no charge.
“We don’t sweep the tank issue under the rug,” Allen said. “We’re proactive about it.”
The company is proud of its service by guaranteeing service work for one year on parts and labor. E.T. Lawson provides 24/7/365 emergency service with gold and silver certified technicians, she said, with no extra charge for overtime for flat-rate customers.
E.T. Lawson’s customer service protection assures customers that its employees will be friendly, accurate and grateful, she said.
“We’re all part of the customer service program,” Allen said.
Training is essential to make sure that the customer service message is delivered to all employees, she said. The company brings in customer service trainers and technical trainers to ensure the quality of employees’ work and to teach them to “under-promise and over-deliver.”
“We all need to be on the same page,” Allen said. “We all must believe in oil heat products and services.”
E.T. Lawson’s incentive program recognizes that all employees are involved in selling. Eligible for commissions by providing sales leads are service techs, oil drivers, night duty supervisors, customer service personnel, assistant service coordinators and oil heat sales reps.
Outside the company, E.T. Lawson works with associations of realtors and home inspectors to provide training and educational materials.
“Oil heat does not have the best connotations for real estate agents. We have a program to deflect those concerns,” Allen said. “Home inspectors’ needs are more technical than realtors’ needs. They receive training credits to attend our program.”
To reach existing and prospective customers, E.T. Lawson utilizes direct mail for equipment promotions and specials. The company also believes strongly in postage-paid reply cards that ask customers to evaluate their service. The response rate for the cards is about 5%, and they’re all distributed to every employee of the company.
“We need to hear the bad news along with the good,” Allen said. “We’d rather have them tell us instead of 10 of their friends.”