Most of us in the propane industry hate paperwork. Ask any service technician, delivery driver, safety representative, sales representative, manager or office staff if their fondest dream is to have a stack of paperwork waiting for them in the office, and more than 75% will say a resounding no! And you really can’t blame them, as most of the amazing people in the propane industry would much rather be doing productive activities that truly serve the customers and industry we hold dear.
The old saying “The job’s not done until the paperwork is completed” — though completely true — is not the most motivating thing to remember when attempting to complete a difficult task. Imagine hearing an employee say, “This job is a really tough one, but at least I can look forward to the paperwork at the end of it.” Those words have probably never been uttered.
On top of that, we all know that customers do not pay us for the documentation and clerical work we do like filing and managing records. Clerical work, paperwork, etc., is not a money generating activity, but rather a cost overhanging our industry. These days with the cost of tanks, gas, trucks, payroll and insurance rising, we simply do not have the bandwidth to endure unnecessary business costs and desperately need to eliminate them as quickly as possible to prepare for the rising inflation.
So, if paperwork and clerical work is oppressive, time-wasting, energy-sucking and an unnecessary expense, then what can we do about it? This is where a comprehensive technology solution for managing a propane business should swoop down (in tights with a cape, preferably) to help free us from the shackles of old-world drudgery. What does that solution look like and how do you find it?
First, as a base layer, it’s necessary to have a forecasting, routing, ticket printing and billing system in place. Yes, the old-world software solutions that have been around forever (often called the “back-office software” or “ERP”) are necessary, and there are dozens to choose from. Regardless, pick one and get on with it.
They have all been around for at least 20 years and have matured to a point that they all have great functionality. Choosing based on ease of use and pricing will save you many headaches and save your wallet as well. In my studies, more than 95% of the propane companies in North America are already using one, so most likely you already have this; if you don’t, then get it.
Next on the list is choosing a tank monitoring company for the 5% to 10% of your customers who have sporadic fuel usage. There are more than 20 tank monitoring companies, and because this is a newer technology, it may take more homework. Some friends and people in your network may have chosen based on a sales pitch or made their decision years ago, and because the technology is changing frequently, you may need to do some homework on this. But here are a couple quick tips:
- Make sure the technology interfaces with your enterprise resource planning back-office software and that it works in your geographics. Some tech works better depending on geographic topology and some only work on certain networks that may or may not be in your area, so test them before you buy them.
- Try to purchase from one vendor so you don’t have multiple different monitors with multiple software solutions. Remember, complexity is your enemy.
Next, think outside the box and benchmark against the most successful delivery companies. Amazon (2 million deliveries per day) and Uber (17+ million deliveries per day) both do it without offices of customer service representatives and no phone calls. They have an app for customers to use for orders and an app for their employees to do all their work.
The businesses are run on smartphones and apps. The future of propane delivery is an app-based world, where your customers are able to order a delivery, see past orders, order service, chat with someone in the back office and receive coupons and messages from you. If you don’t have it yet, you need it, so get an app for your company.
Because this is customer-facing, you need an app that has your name and branding on it in the app store. Some people call this type of app the “poor man’s tank monitor” because it allows you to get tank readings from all your customers without needing to purchase a tank monitor, as the consumer can enter their reading into the app when they go to order.
These are the tools that will help you get more sales per customer and help you grow a fantastic lead list as non-customers download your app to take advantage of your coupons. If it helped Uber go from zero customers to 17 million rides per day in 13 years, that speaks volumes. You should make it easier for propane users to order from you than it is to order from your competitors.
The second half of the equation is to have an “everything” app for your employees. Yes, that is what Amazon, Uber, Tesla and most companies are doing. It eliminates tons of headaches like paperwork, forms, documents, filing and over one hour of wasted time a day per employee. I recently spoke with an industrious propane company that had created some fillable PDFs that the team used as forms for the business. It allowed the team to eliminate paperwork and once saved could be sent to the office as a completed PDF document with signatures, too.
It could also be filed more quickly, as it was digitally clicked and dragged into the appropriate customer file on an iCloud account. To the business owner’s delight, he could finally read everything “written” in each document for a change, too!
Another propane company had purchased three to four programs, each designed to do different portions of the field employee work. One was great for sales estimates and invoices, another was fantastic for service work orders, another was programmed to do their gas checks and another helped them document and manage their tanks.
All programs were app-based, so they could download those apps onto each field employee’s smartphone or tablet and off they went — paperless warriors. All work was done faster, clearer and easier than before. The employees were happy, as their paperwork chore was now much easier, and the company was happy as they were saving money and better handling the business with now legible inspections and work orders.
In speaking with propane attorneys, propane safety consultants and propane insurance companies, they are all singing a similar tune. They see many legal cases where if the propane company had used a digital solution to document the gas check, service work order, installation, liability releases, etc., they would have won their cases. But because they used paper — which is easy to lose, hard to read and easy to defeat in a court room — they lost. The safety experts recommend digital documentation in the field.
If you have not digitized your safety, service tech, sales, training, inspections, and all the work your field personnel do onto a digital tool, there is great news! You now have more options that cost considerably less and do much more than the old technology our industry has used over the last 10 years.
The best technology should be available on an app that can be downloaded right onto the smartphones you already have, so there is no longer any need to purchase tablets or any other old school devices. No need to pay for another cellular line for each tablet; the cellular line you already pay for in the smartphones your team uses can serve as the digital record keeping associated with the paper that is no longer necessary to your outside employee field personnel.
It took spending millions of dollars for trillion-dollar companies to realize that doing everything on a smartphone saves time and capital expenses. Follow the leaders and don’t reinvent the wheel. It is finally time to free up your team from paperwork, clerical work and filing, as well as hand-entering the information your field personnel gather on clipboards and paper. You can be freed from hours of unprofitable payroll and expensive gadgets. Welcome to the age of propane apps on smartphones that make your entire team’s lives easier and more enjoyable.
Check out the options and try out some of the propane apps designed specifically for your technicians, drivers, sales representatives and managers to see how easy it is to save time, aggravation and money. Go to the Apple and Android app stores and do a search for propane apps, try them out, get yourself a couple demos or go to their websites and watch the videos. Take off the chains of outdated paper shuffling and get with the times!
The Propane Education & Research Council, in cooperation with the World Liquified Petroleum Gas Association, held a global technology competition just before the pandemic. Check out the results of that competition for several apps that can help you move toward a faster, more efficient, lower labor and lower operating cost solution.
Enjoy the freedom of having a comprehensive solution for your company so you can have all the forms, documents, inspections, work orders, tank readings and critical company metrics at your fingertips on your smartphone. Start saving time and money while improving every critical company metric. Here’s to a better and brighter future!