Apps Boost Customer Convenience, Propane Marketer Efficiency

When Proulx Oil & Propane (Newmarket, N.H.) saw that half their customers were doing business them over mobile phones, the company decided to make that contact even easier. The provider of propane, fuel oils, and equipment contacted the provider of its e-commerce system and invested in an app.
 
proulx oil and propane rolls out mobile app for propane customers convenience operating efficiencies reports BPN 081420
In mid-June, the Proulx Oil & Propane Mobile App was officially launched. Now, with just a tap on their phone or tablet, customers can make payments, view their transaction history, order fuel, view delivery history, manage tank locations, see their current price plans, and request service.

“We realized that our customers were increasingly looking to do business with us over their mobile phones and this application gave us an all-new way to get closer to them,” Maribeth Girard, marketing assistant at Proulx Oil & Propane, told BPN.

The app was developed by Destwin Energy Systems (Sandy Hook, Conn.), which had already provided the e-commerce system that integrates Proulx’s back-office data with its customer web portal. The Destwin Connect Mobile App is a seamless extension of the Destwin Customer Portal. The app is customized and branded for Proulx; it includes Proulx’s app icon, splash screen, Google Play feature image, and a Google Play promo video. It is available for both IOS and Android devices.

“The app puts our products and services directly in the palms of our customers,” Girard noted. “We feel this is an important tool in today’s competitive market to grow sales, acquire new customers, and help with customer retention. We want to meet and exceed customer expectations and feel that this is the best way to help bring digital best practices to our marketing, customer service, and sales approaches.”
 
Proulx Mobile App from Destwin 4 pic
Trend Toward Mobile

Proulx decided to invest in the app after monitoring and seeing that between 45% and 50% of its customers were using mobile phones to do business with the company. “When I do e-blasts through Constant Contact, on average 53% of our customers are opening the email on their phone,” Girard reported. She then sent Destwin logos, a video link, and some branding info, and Destwin took it from there.

“The app is a separate item that we sell,” said Robert Kulawiec, chief operating officer of Destwin Energy Systems. “The dealer provides their logo and other proprietary assets that we use to build the app so it is branded as their app in the App and Play stores.”

Destwin has been selling portals for 13 years and apps for two years. Today, many fuel dealers that are new customers choose to implement both a portal and an app. Kulawiec said an app installation typically takes four to eight weeks.

Kulawiec added that there is no one thing that triggers a fuel dealer to add an app, but there has been a definite trend toward app use by both dealers and consumers. As with any new technology, there are early adopters, then general adopters, and then laggards who begin using it. “Everybody has been a little different, but app usage is continuing to grow. Today’s younger generation uses their phone to access the web and internet even more than a computer. As they get older and become the customers of fuel dealers, the demand for the app will continue to grow.”

If a fuel dealer already has a customer portal and then adds an app, customers who are using the portal are the ones most likely to begin using the app. If a company introduces a portal and an app at the same time, customers who sign up are just as likely to use the app as the portal. Customers who are less technically inclined are likely to continue to interact with the fuel dealer through phone calls.
proulx oil and propane rolls out new Mobile App for LPG customers reports BPN the propane industry's leading voice since 1939
The coronavirus may have an effect too. “People are more likely to do business remotely,” Kulawiec noted. “By implementing an app, a fuel dealer can make it more convenient to do business with them.”

Convenience Wherever, Whenever
“The fuel dealer doesn’t particularly care which the customer uses—the portal or the app—but the app is more convenient for the customer,” he added. “Their phone travels with them wherever they go, so they can do business from anywhere at any time. They don’t need a computer or internet access to use the app. They can use either one, whenever it’s most convenient.”

Once fuel dealers have an app, they tend to use every opportunity to let customers know that it’s available. They promote the app on their website, in printed documents that are sent to customers, in direct mailings, in recorded messages on the phone, and when CSRs are talking with customers.

“It is absolutely worth it to take every opportunity to say the app exists,” Kulawiec said. “The app travels with you wherever you go, it sits on your home screen like Uber or your bank’s app, and it lets you contact your fuel dealer with one touch.”

When asked who she expects will be the first customers to begin using the new Proulx App, Girard answered, “I think it will be those customers already using the portal. We still do have a good amount of an older demographic that pay by check or call in credit card payment.”

“The app makes it even easier for customers to do business with us and surpasses expectations for customer service and convenience,” she concluded. “It also unburdens our staff from routine matters and customer requests to boost operational efficiency.” — Steve Relyea

Time To Get Even More Engaged Before Elections

(August 12, 2020) — By Chad Kroening…We all have stories about how COVID-19 has changed our lives. And if you’ve turned on your local or national news over the past few months, you’ll see that government has changed, too.
Now is time to get more engaged in Propane industry advocacy schedule meetings with representatives use Propane PAC NPGA materials

Before mid-March, the gold standard of advocacy was personal contact between a voter and an elected official, with anything else being easy for legislative offices to ignore. But with the U.S. Capitol and most state capitols either closed or limiting the number of people allowed to enter, in-person conversations have shifted to the virtual. Now, it’s not unusual for your member of Congress to hold a Zoom town hall and some are even hosting fundraisers where they ship you a bottle of wine to pop open during an online event at a later date. In June, NPGA hosted four legislative briefings via GoToWebinar, including one where Congressman Bob Latta gave us a peek at his home office with a webcam presentation.

And while the news of the day is still focused more on pandemic relief and recovery than anything else, it’s important we don’t lose our focus on the issues that will impact our industry for decades to come. In June, a bipartisan group of 37 U.S. House members passed an amendment to the INVEST in America Act, which makes propane autogas eligible for grant funding under the Clean Corridors Program. This victory was made possible in part due to the support of PropanePAC and the National Propane Gas Association’s (NPGA) aggressive grassroots advocacy efforts.

But we can’t stop with just one win. It’s time for us to get even more engaged and active, especially leading up to the elections in November. There are a few things you and your company can do to ensure legislators are educated on the issues vital to the future of our industry.

First, we need you to invite your federal, state, and local legislators to visit your company in August, or schedule a meeting to visit their local office. NPGA has developed a collection of materials to assist you in these meetings, and NPGA staff will even do the heavy lifting to help with scheduling and preparing you on the issues. For more information on this effort, contact NPGA’s Tyler Lawrence at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Next, get involved with NPGA’s PropanePAC, which provides financial support to Congressional candidates to complement the association’s advocacy. While PropanePAC has already endorsed a substantial number of campaigns on both sides of the aisle this election cycle, much work remains to ensure propane has a seat at the table in future policy discussions. For information on PropanePAC, visit www.npga.org/propane-pac.

Finally, and this is the easiest thing of all, make sure you are registered to vote and you go vote on Tuesday, Nov. 3. If you’re not registered to vote, visit https://www.usa.gov/register-to-vote.

If you’re concerned about the “electrification of everything,” or the efforts of state and local governments to eliminate propane as an energy choice for consumers, it’s time to get involved because November’s election could accelerate these challenges. Educate the people who are your elected officials and help ensure propane-friendly legislators are elected. Don’t take this time for granted.

Chad Kroening is vice president of safety and commercial operations at Boehlke Bottled Gas Corp. (Cedarburg, Wis.), and chair of the PropanePAC Steering Committee.

PERC Seeks Public Comment on Proposed 2021 Budget

(August 11, 2020) — The Propane Education & Research Council (PERC) is required by law to publish its proposed budget for the next calendar year before August 1 for industry and public comment.
New PERC propane Logo

The Council’s Budget and Finance Committee has approved the budget recommendation, and the Council’s Executive Committee has approved the 2021 budget to be released for public comment.


The 2021 budget proposed is now published for public comment at propane.com

Please provide your comments by 5:00 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time on Aug. 31, 2020.  Thank you in advance for your input.

Women In Propane: Early Life Lessons Lead To Successful Career

Glenda Christian, senior vice president and chief operating officer for Blue Ridge Energy LLC, admits she has never been accused of being an underachiever.
Women In Propane profiles Glenda Christian Senior vice president and chief operating officer at Blue Ridge Energy 06-2020

“My father told me, ‘if someone thinks enough of you to hire you for a job, make sure you never give them a reason to regret it.’ That’s always stuck with me,” Christian said. “He taught me the value of working hard and being committed to whatever you do. My father lost his battle with cancer in 1998, but his influences are always with me. A goal of mine has always been to work hard and treat others in a manner that would make my father proud…I hope he is.”

A compass of hard work and compassion has led to Christian’s successful career in the propane industry, which began in the oil industry in 1986 with a customer service role at Lee-Moore Oil Co. in Sanford, N.C. In 1994, she moved to Lenoir, N.C., as fleet fueling director for Beall Oil Co. and, in 1997, she transitioned to its propane operations.

“The plan was for me to stay around my hometown, but other opportunities opened up for me,” she said. Accepting the position in Lenoir meant moving three hours away from home. A single mother of one, she quickly made friends and established herself as a leader within the company. When Blue Ridge Energy acquired Beall in 1998, she had to re-establish herself and is grateful for the opportunities provided.

“In any position, when you go above and beyond, it’s going to be noticed,” Christian said. “I continued to take classes and attend seminars that kept me growing in both knowledge and skills. I also benefited from having great mentors.”

As COO since 2005, she provides primary leadership and oversight of Blue Ridge Energy’s operations and serves as part of the senior leadership team for its parent company. Blue Ridge Energy provides propane, heating fuels, and gas products and appliances from showrooms and offices primarily in northwest North Carolina. Its parent company, also doing business as Blue Ridge Energy, is a member-owned electric cooperative serving approximately 76,000 members.

“I am also very involved in business development and marketing as we strive to blend those efforts with the ever changing and beneficial uses of technology that ultimately help us better serve our customers and operate more efficiently.”

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, she regularly visited Blue Ridge Energy’s offices. “I think it’s very important I’m not just in the corporate office. Employees need to know they are heard and they matter, and the best way to do that is face-to-face,” she added.

“If someone needs me after-hours or on weekends, they know they can call me anytime, and I will be glad to help. That’s true for an employee or a customer,” she said. “I have always had a passion for people and helping others which influences me greatly both professionally and personally.”

Christian has been involved in several organizations, including serving on the boards of a local Home Builder’s Association and Little League Association. At Blue Ridge Energy, she has been instrumental in implementing the Pink Truck program, which has donated more than $85,000 to local breast cancer-related organizations since 2013 and recently, the “RED—Remember Everyone Deployed” program, an initiative near and dear to her heart since her son, Gavin, served in the Marine Corps.

Putting family first and managing her time effectively make it possible for her to be a great mother and have a great career, she said. “It is also important to take vacation time to disconnect from work (if possible). Until several years ago, I never took more than a few days off at a time. However, once I started taking at least one week of vacation at a time, I realized the importance of giving yourself time away to refocus and relax.”

When she is not working, Christian can be found on nearby scenic trails and in the mountains—her vacation is usually to the beach. She also enjoys time with family (son, siblings, and mother), friends, and two dogs.

“In general, my goal is to keep improving…as a person and a leader. Do all I can to help other employees achieve their goals and be successful in life. Never stop working toward reaching new heights, no matter how long it could take or how challenging it might be. Be flexible when times and circumstances change. Be an encourager and supporter, always.” — Karen Massman VanAsdale

Gas Fireplace Inserts: Quick Install, New Propane Usage

Wood fireplaces are cozy, inviting, warm, captivating, and nostalgic. They’re also drafty, inefficient, inconvenient, and dirty to operate and maintain.
Ray Murray Propane Equip Dist Rpt Spike In Gas Fireplace Insert Sales due to Covid Lifestyle

Casey Harvey points this out and notes that it creates an opportunity for propane marketers to sell direct vent gas fireplace inserts. These offer the benefits of a wood fireplace without the drawbacks.

As director of sales at Ray Murray Inc. (RMI; Lee, Mass.), Harvey has found that propane marketers who are already doing HVAC work are in an excellent position to add a gas fireplace insert to a job they’ve sold and will soon be doing. They can start the conversation with customers by asking what they like and don’t like about their existing wood fireplace. Then, explain the advantages of an insert.

A wood fireplace is between 5% and 10% efficient, as far as providing heat. Not only does 90% to 95% of the heat generated by the fire go up the chimney, but warm air from the house is drawn into the fire for combustion. “It has been likened to leaving a window open in your house,” Harvey says. Plus, the homeowner has to cut and store wood, tend the fire, and clean up afterwards.

Contrast that with a direct-vent gas fireplace insert. This is a completely sealed system that is 60% to 80% efficient; pulls its combustion air from outside; burns with no sparks, smoke, or odors; and starts with the push of a button.

Propane marketers who do HVAC work already handle gas appliances and venting and are ready to install this solution. Installation of a direct-vent gas fireplace insert takes a crew of two people four hours. “It’s not new fireplace construction, involving masonry, paint, and tile; this is a retrofit opportunity,” Harvey notes. “With no construction involved, it’s no muss, no fuss, for the consumer.”

He suggests marketers start this conversation when they are already in the customer’s home on another job. Close the main sale first, then ask, “I see you have a wood fireplace; do you use it often?” Whether the answer is yes or no, explain how a clean, efficient, easy-to-use gas fireplace insert can increase their enjoyment of their home. If you’re there to install a high-efficiency furnace, explain that much of the heat it generates will be lost up the chimney of that old fireplace. Note that a fireplace insert can be completed the same day.

“Fireplace inserts are uniquely suited for in-home sales as most consumers have no idea that this solutions exists,” Harvey says. “The time to sell is when marketers are in the house for something else like a furnace, boiler, or A/C repair or replacement call. There is no construction involved, so this is something that most LP marketers can and should do. The homeowner can have a brand-new gas fireplace in half a day.”

Having a script ready is important. Talk with your supplier and fine-tune your in-home sales process. Ray Murray Inc. offers an app that includes tools to help make the sale and also offers full-size insert panels that make it easy to show the consumer what a newly retrofitted fireplace would look like.

“You are already there to service the home, you are a trusted home comfort advisor, and you have a solution,” Harvey says. “Explain how you can help them enjoy their fireplace.”

This is an opportunity to sell both the appliance and the propane that fuels it. Consider the numbers: Half of all single-family homes have a fireplace. Half of the fireplaces are gas and half are wood. That means a quarter of all Americans have a wood fireplace and are candidates for a gas insert retrofit.

On average, each direct vent gas fireplace insert will use 300 gallons a year. A customer’s propane consumption may range from 50 gallons a year at the low end to 500 gallons a year at the high end, depending on the climate, how often it’s used, and whether it’s used for ambience or as a space heater. If it’s used to heat the space, it can be tied to a thermostat and can run many hours. “An advantage of a fireplace is that it heats the space you’re in,” Harvey notes.

“We believe there are about 25 million homes in the U.S. that are candidates for fireplace upgrades,” he concludes. “If we upgraded 10% of them to LPG, that’s 2.5 million consumers loving propane at an average usage of 300 gallons a year. That’s 750 million gallons of new propane usage annually!” — Steve Relyea