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Propane Heating Up

‘The propane industry is continuing to grow in customers and gallons,” said Joe Rose, president and chief executive officer of the Propane Gas Association of New England, organizer of the show, which ran Aug. 6-7 in Boxborough, Mass. ‘Also there are new entrants as more and more fuel oil companies diversify into propane.”


In its third year, the show featured more than 140 exhibitors, and the 1,135 registered attendees represented a 3% increase compared to the 2013 show, Rose said. The event was held at a Holiday Inn: attendees walked the show floor and attended seminars inside, while trucks, including propane-powered pickup trucks and trucks for delivering the fuel were displayed under a big tent pitched in the hotel parking lot.
Rose’s sentiment is echoed by one of those exhibitors. Doering Equipment Co. in Franklin, Mass., is busy. ‘It’s been a great couple of years,” Peter Doering said. ‘Propane’s going strong.” Doering and his father Donald were at the Northeast Propane Show with a truck they built for Bursaw Gas & Oil of Stow, Mass. The truck, for delivering propane tanks, features a 16-foot bed and a lift gate. It was scheduled to go into service after the show.


The seminars covered a variety of subjects, including how to ensure appropriate water quality in hydronic systems; train customer service representatives to recognize personality types (including their own) for better results; and how to use e-commerce Web tools. Additional sessions focused on how mobile and in-cab technology can improve profits; and the ins and outs of Autogas dispensing, including the components needed to do it.


With the advent of high-efficiency wall-hung condensing boilers comes the need to ensure water quality, said Bruce Marshall in the seminar on hydronic systems. Marshall is training coordinator for Emerson Swann, Rocky Hill, Conn., a manufacturer’s representative for Fernox USA, Altoona, Penn. He said many new models of the wall-hung condensing boilers have smaller internal waterways than their predecessors. Chemical reactions caused by various metals, plus glycol, result in galvanic corrosion that eventually restricts water flow over a number of years and can cause a boiler to burn out. Marshall likened it to arteriosclerosis’hardening and thickening of the walls of the arteries in humans.


Marshall advised treating hydronic systems with a cleaner such as Fernox F3, designed to clean distribution piping and emitters; and adding an inhibitor to curb corrosion and scale build-up. Systems with ECM circulators raise another maintenance issue, Marshall noted, since such pumps incorporate magnets in their motors. Installing filters with their own magnets to draw magnetite (iron oxide) from the system, combined with the use of an inhibitor to help prevent further corrosion, can address the issue.


Learning the social styles of prospects and customers can help a dealer build its business, said Barry Harris, a veteran of more than thirty years in heating oil, HVAC and propane and now vice president of Pro Image Communications, Wilbraham, Mass. Harris addressed attendees of his seminar, ‘Selling to Different Social Styles.”


The social styles, based in part on a model borrowed from The Social Styles Handbook by Larry Wilson, are: analytical, driving, amiable and expressive.


Analytical personalities focus on facts and logic; are careful not to commit too quickly; and act when a payoff is clear. Driving personalities”drivers”‘focus on results, and are take-charge types; they make quick decisions and they like challenges. Amiable personalities cooperate to gain agreement; they provide support and communicate trust and confidence. Expressive personalities create excitement and involvement; they share ideas, dreams and enthusiasm; they motivate, inspire and persuade.


Customer service reps need to know their own social style, Harris said, so they can adapt to that of their prospects, connect with them, understand their needs and gain their trust.


‘We’re all raised and taught to treat others as we would like to be treated, but that’s not really [effective in customer service]. You don’t treat [all] others the way you want to be treated” because they might be a different social style, Harris pointed out.


For example, if a customer service representative knows that he or she is a ‘driver,” and a call comes from a customer who is analytical, the service rep can take his or her phone manner ‘down a notch” and concentrate on answering the analytical customer’s questions, Harris said. The goal is to have the customer know, like and trust the customer service rep and, by extension, the company.


The ‘What’s Your Price Call” is an opportunity to use this approach to determine whether it’s value or price that is actually important to a prospect, Harris said. Making that determination has long been a challenge, he noted, since ‘most buyers, whether they are value or price shoppers, will ask for the price.”


A customer service rep who could make one or two sales or find one or two sales leads a week throughout the year would have a major impact on a fuel dealer’s customer base and profits, Harris noted. But some customer service reps fear the phone, he said.


‘The phone can be a hot potato to some customer service representatives,” Harris said. ‘They want to get off the phone and do other things. But really, the phone is the most important part of the job.”


A seminar on Autogas dispensing dealt with the differences between supplying propane for heating, domestic water, cooking’and what it means to supply it for vehicle fueling. Attendees of that seminar could follow up by visiting the Bergquist Inc., space on the show floor, where the Toledo, Ohio, equipment distributor displayed a Propane Autogas Dispenser.


Propane Autogas is the most widely used alternative transportation fuel in the world, according to Bergquist, offering benefits that include lower greenhouse gas emissions than traditional fuels. It is consistently priced less than both gasoline and diesel, and provides a driving range close to 50% higher than natural gas, the company said on its website. Bergquist is a national distributor of propane and anhydrous ammonia equipment.


Gary Sippin of Sippin Energy Products, Monroe, Conn., talked about using e-commerce Web tools to optimize an energy business. Along with Bill West, Sippin created an electronic data interface, Destwin Energy Systems, designed to enable energy businesses to interact online with customers and manage their accounts and the business more efficiently, in part through automated processes. The system allowed Sippin Energy, with 9,000 customers, to reduce the number of customer service representatives it needed to three, from eight, Sippin said.


Part of the challenge of conducting business online is changing the behavior of customers whose habit is to call the company rather than go to the website. Sippin customer service representatives are trained to ask callers whether they are sitting in front of a computer. Often they are, Sippin said. The customer service representative can then guide them through the website, in effect providing an impromptu tutorial. The goal is to convert those customers to website users, so that ‘the calls that remain are about real problems,” Sippin said.


Propane dealers should build the individual customer profiles to include what the customers use their propane for, Sippin advised, whether it is heating a swimming pool, heating domestic water, cooking, air conditioning, for a fireplace or some combination of those.


Knowing exactly what equipment each customer has enables a propane dealer to target those customers for service opportunities, Sippin pointed out. In turn, those same customers can be more deeply engaged if the company integrates their appliances into loyalty reward programs, which can bolster customer retention.


Mobile and in-cab technologies are making real-time intelligence and a long-awaited goal’the paperless office’come true, Bill Stomp told attendees listening to his presentation. Smart phones, laptops and tablets combined with software enable GPS-based tracking, route optimization and transmission of real-time intelligence. These in turn support a bevy of advantages that profit an enterprise, including time-stamped reports and automated completion of invoices, forms and reports. And all that, said Stomp, vice president of sales and marketing for Digital Dispatcher in Jenkintown, Penn., makes the paperless office possible.


Mobility and real-time intelligence constituted a theme of sorts within the show, as a number of exhibiting vendors touted their ability to deliver those benefits. For instance, OSG Billing Services, a company in Englewood, N.J., provides electronic billing and invoice/statement services.


Another vendor, A.R.M. Solutions, Camarillo, Calif., talked up its ‘Flat Fee Collection Program,” designed to help fuel suppliers retain and ‘retrain” clients, while speeding cash flow and enhancing overall profitability. The company said its automated interface is compatible with propane industry software systems. A click of a button places an account into collections, after which all payment and transaction updates are recorded online in real time, the vendor.

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