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APP-Propriate

Our industry workforce has long been what many deem as “traditional.” Relationships between employees and employers have been (and remain in some cases) decades long, built on one-on-one associations grounded in trust, respect, family ties and the like.  I know dozens of people that have not only been in the fuel business for 40+ years, but half of them have been with the same company the entire time.  That’s impressive.

It was but a few years ago that the sales of smartphones outstripped the sales of personal computers.  It was a big deal at the time; however, it is clear that most of us did not realize the significance of that milestone.  Things were really going to change.  For instance, what can and will be done with all that computing power in the hands of end-users?

Consistent with the axiom that nature abhors a vacuum, a growing number of ambitious and creative types are turning the historical and traditional employment relationship on its head, using smartphones and the Web to match freelance workers with employers at a moment’s notice.  After all, it’s always been about the relationship, or simply having certain knowledge, that has linked companies with employees.

Consider my hypothetical company called “FuelDude,” a San Francisco-based startup that matches independent contractors with skill sets of use to retail fuel marketers with retail fuel marketers needing said services.

FuelDude, using a mix of systems, taps into a very large and growing database of independent, autonomous and eager workers with skill sets including HVAC installation and repair, HAZMAT operational and regulatory compliance, customer service, HVAC sales, fuel sales, industry-specific legal, industry-specific accounting, CDL-ready delivery contractors, etc., etc.

Sound “Uber-esque?”  Right.  the entire concept for companies like Fuel Dude have been borne of Uber, the car service founded in San Francisco in 2009, that today operates in 53 countries and has revenues exceeding $1 billion.  Yes, a billion.

Uber was not the first, it turns out.  The concept dates back to 2001, when a tech company started matching on-demand programmers with companies that were in need.

Today, the numbers are staggering:  MILLIONS of companies now with ability to match their needs with contract service providers numbering in the equally impressive TENS of MILLIONs, and, according to reports, at a cost a fraction that of the global consultancies.

Have I mentioned that we cannot ignore this?

Need someone for a few days or a week to inventory your c-store for its end-of-month reconciliation?  Your propane company customer service guru is out with the flu for a week and you need someone that knows the difference between a regulator and a radiator?  Need someone with practical HAZMAT compliance experience to get your driver files in order so you can stop losing sleep about it?

Yes, yes and yes to the above.  But only for a few days, or a week, until my circumstance return to normal or the crisis subsides.

Of course, the wrinkle for us is many of these similarly designed services are today offering a broad mix of on-demand services direct to consumers.  For those of you that have modeled your company’s success on your one-on-one service relationships, left untapped, tech of this type has the potential to disrupt that model.

So, it’s 5 a.m. and minus 20°F.  Joe Homeowner has a problem.  The heat is off.  Perhaps this is Joe’s first service call because he just bought the house and has not even talked to his energy provider yet.  He fires up his smartphone, goes to the FuelDude app (available for Iphone or Android, of course), which has thousands of HVAC contractors registered, posts his dilemma and within minutes has a commitment from someone that will be there within 2 hours to get the heat back on.

Sounds like a stretch?  “No way, our business is way too complicated for such a thing to happen,” right?  Don’t “bet the farm on it.” 

In a small number of cities here in the United States, people are already ordering doctor’s services via a phone app.  The app confirms the location of the patient (using GPS on the phone), the Doc is briefed on the symptoms and the user is guaranteed the Doc will arrive within 2 hours. 

Imagine that:  a house call.

Shane Sweet is an energy and management consultant with clients in the heating oil, propane and motor fuel sectors, a Partner with the firm of Lake Rudd & Company. As of Nov. 1, 2014, he is the new executive director and technical director for the New York Propane Gas Association.  He served the industry as President & CEO of the New England Fuel Institute “NEFI” from 2007 to 2011, and as Executive VP/Director and Lobbyist for the Vermont Fuel Dealers Association “VFDA” from 1993 to 2007.

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