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Embracing Technology to Grow Your Propane Business

Brian Kay, business unit leader at iRely, headquartered in Fort Wayne, Ind., knows from experience that it’s an unlikely fuel dealer that embraces technology.

“We see resistance,” Kay said. Typically, a propane company runs office software for “fifteen-plus years,” and they treat the software “like a beater car,” running it until they are forced to buy a new system, he said.

But if a fuel dealer decides to embrace technology, the question becomes: Who to buy it from? Few companies have dedicated IT resources to lead technology projects, said Kay in a session at the Eastern Energy Expo in May 2018 at Foxwoods Resort and Casino in Mashantucket, Conn.

The speakers, including Nick Scata, owner of Tower Energy, a fuel and HVAC company in Connecticut, and Michelle Wilson, vice president at P3 Propane Safety, a consulting and training company, offered pointers on assessing a software and software providers. First order of business: Are the providers investing in current technologies?

A telltale detail: how the application looks in the demonstrations. The speakers provided a simple timeline of the evolution of software, from the 1990s on. In the 2000s bad screens looked like Windows 95; in the 2010s, good screens looked like Microsoft Office; and in the 2020s and the future, full solutions should be Cloud- and App-based, they said.

Even without IT expertise, dealers can ask general questions and get useful information, the speakers said. They suggested asking IT vendors when they last revamped their technology, whether the application is Cloud/Web based and whether they offer mobile apps. Ask whether support is included, they said, and ask what the expected response time is. On the more technical side, they recommended querying vendors on, among other factors, scalability: How many users can the system scale up to?

For those wondering why they should embrace technology, the speakers gave a host of reasons, including the ability to: offer new services to serve the next generation of clients; gain a competitive advantage; automate your business without adding staff; reduce staff inefficiencies; and increase your company’s valuation, which can enable you to sell your business for more.

Typical aspects of a business where technology can be fruitfully applied include safety of operations, forecasting, tank monitors, routing and dispatching, mobile billing, and a customer portal.

Apart from the obvious reasons for being attentive to safety, numerous regulatory agencies and authorities insist on it. Applying technology can enable auditing 100% of your propane safety documentation, a critical task, the presenters said.

Photo documentation of compliance with NFPA 58, for example, is useful, and photos can also help verify correct tank sets, the presenters pointed out.

Remote tank monitoring technology can help minimize costs, the speakers said. By rotating the units to the tanks of new customers, dealers can get accurate burn rates more quickly.

Mobile billing can yield a raft of benefits, the presenters said, including: simplified data entry with synching of orders from back office software; elimination of pre-printed tickets; automated pricing and tax calculations; and improved receivables because invoices are issued at the delivery point, at the time of the delivery.

Tank monitoring and a portal for customers is well-suited to serving the newest generation of homeowners, the speakers said, noting that this customers segment values convenience and prefers to avoid talking to people. A website for customers can give them self-service access to automated processes and minimize calls to your office. Orders, payments, invoices, statements, delivery history and current tank levels can all be accessed by customers and managed on an automated basis, they said.

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