Managing Through the Pandemic in 2021

Caution continues to be the rule for fuel dealers and their employees during the continuing pandemic.

“If you and your people are not exceptionally vigilant, your ability to run your company could be upended overnight, at the very worst possible time,” says Richard Goldberg, president of Warm Thoughts Communications, a marketing firm in Clifton, N.J., that serves propane, heating oil and HVAC-related businesses.

Goldberg bolsters his point with a couple of cautionary tales, including one about a fuel dealer in Vermont whose service manager tested positive. Because the service manager had been in contact with his techs the week before, the techs were forced to go into quarantine.

“And just like that [the service department] couldn’t run a single service call for ten to fourteen days,” Goldberg says, speaking during a webinar called “Managing Through a Covid-19 Winter.”

A customer service representative for another fuel dealer came down with the sniffles, then a cough, then went home, but five people including service and dispatch managers tested positive, and the office had to shut down for two weeks, Goldberg relates.

“Those stories are only going to grow,” he says. “It is the reality we are living in now.”

Citing a Wall Street Journal article on possible liability that employers are exposed to by both employees and customers who fail to follow safety protocols, he adds, “This is not political. This is about it being five degrees outside with snow coming down and potentially having half of your team out.”

Based on a survey of its fuel dealer customers, Goldberg’s company identified guidelines that many are using, such as:

Establishing staggered start times for drivers so they don’t come in contact with each other.

Assigning the same vehicle to the same driver when possible; sanitizing vehicles regularly.

Putting paper delivery tickets in a box, and placing the box outside for the drivers.

Suspending group meetings.

Wearing masks in the office and anywhere on company property.

Closing offices to the public.

Restricting vendors from entering common work areas when they are making deliveries.

Dealing with customers—insisting that they observe protocols such as wearing masks and keeping distanced—can be a major challenge. Customers who schedule in-home service should be informed about the protocols at the time they make an appointment, with an additional email reminder.

The fuel dealer culture is “based on toughness,” Goldberg says. Drivers and technicians “take pride in not being wimpy, making deliveries when no one else sane would be out on the roads,” he observes. Expecting them to contact the office if they feel “a little bit off” might be unrealistic, he notes. To counter the culture, continue communicating the important safety and health messages, err on the side of caution—and “liberalize your sick pay,” Goldberg advises. “At least on an ad hoc basis, because otherwise people… who’ve used up all their sick time are going to be incented to hide” symptoms, he says.

Empower technicians to leave a home if the customer is not distancing or wearing a mask, he adds. “They need to know that they can leave and, at the very least, have someone from the office call the customer before they go back in. They need to know that these protocols are not suggestions, but requirements.”

Noting the possibility of losing a number of drivers at once, he asks, “What will you do in those circumstances?” He says, “One solution that’s emerged is to contact friendly competitors or friends who are somewhat distant from you [to] create arrangements” to assist each other, if possible. “It makes sense to have those conversations ahead of time and to have agreements drawn up so you can quickly execute if you need to.”

Likewise, he says, “Now is the time to start building a greater cash cushion. If you do not have a delivery fee, it’s just time to institute it.” Although such fees are not permitted in Connecticut, fuel dealers elsewhere have instituted delivery fees of $4.95 and $8.95, Goldberg says. “They all expected huge pushback” but, he reports, “it never came. They made tens, and in some cases, hundreds of thousands of dollars…a really important cushion at this time.”

Collecting customers’ email addresses and cell phone numbers is critical, he adds. “Some companies have twenty-five percent of customers’ emails, other companies have eighty-five percent. It is really just about asking. You may find yourself in a situation where you have to contact a group of customers quickly about some issue that is affecting the business, and if you don’t have email addresses you can’t do that.”

Having such contact information on hand “will not only help you this winter, it will help you in the future,” Goldberg says, “because eventually you’ll have other reasons to communicate and promote.”— Stephen Bennett

Note: This article is based on the webinar “Managing Through a Covid-19 Winter.” Stephen Bennett is the editor of Fuel Oil News.

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