Drive the competition crazy by getting to know customers, adding value to the company’s offerings, effectively branding its enhanced products, and becoming known.
Full of degree days and turbulence, what a winter this has been here in our world—oilheat nation. Every day across the supply chain, fuel dealers arrive at work to create and capture customer satisfaction. They are quickly realizing, however, that today they must sell more than just the physical commodity to achieve that goal. Failing to do so jettisons a company into the “what’s-the-price” abyss, where price pressure and margin compression become the norm as their competitors find ways to match the low deal of the day. A more sustainable approach for companies to create true differentiation starts with knowing their customers, understanding their clientele’s ultimate objectives, and determining how to generate additional profit for the business by creating solutions and adding new value that aligns with customer expectations.
Instead of leading with price, progressive fuel dealers invest time creating solutions that deliver quantifiable, economic impacts for their customers’ bottom lines— as well their own. These companies avoid the commodity trap by creating better methods to deliver enhanced customer value. In our world, this means bundling an improved distillate fuel with a series of extras that, in the end, help differentiate forward-thinking fuel dealers from ordinary commodity-driven operations.
It would be challenging to find an industry more mature than heating oil. This field has been around for nearly a century as heavier, distilled fractions of liquid crude oil replaced coal, and soon Bioheat® fuel will replace oil. From then to today, all the key players offered standardized products that basically define fungibility best said as “a commodity.” As in many other industries, however, market leaders have been increasingly successful in distancing themselves from the competition by recognizing and capitalizing on the fact that they offer far more than just heating oil and diesel fuel when the market settles late in the day.
This growing group of high-value wholesalers and fuel dealers choose to sell extensive solutions that deliver additional value to their customers—value beyond a low strike price. These solutions come in many forms and are often a combination of services, technology, enhanced fuels, analytics, and support, altogether which encompass a quality product that delivers value for customers and ratable sales for fuel marketers.
For wholesalers and dealers, these practical and complimentary services can contribute real, quantifiable value to their core product offering. It also allows them to provide flexibility by mixing and matching various service offerings to meet the needs of each individual customer, market by market.
Creating value alone, however, is not enough if the customer will not pay for it. To succeed in differentiating a company and its superior products, time must be invested in order to both understand the value of these enhanced programs and become accustomed to sharing this story with customers.
Branding is a part of this process, but it doesn’t work for everyone. Simply selling a “commodity,” which has been the longstanding traditional way for many heating oil companies, requires nothing more than being the lowest price available on the street at any given time. One can win as quickly as one can lose by that choice when leading with price and price alone when no additional value is provided. Service contracts, budget plans, early-pay discounts, and a few free gallons of oil were common offerings that dealers felt would set them apart. Then, as predictable as death and taxes, the company next door offered the same. Time out. Now what? Does the price need to be lowered still?
Much has been written about fuel quality, renewable fuels, real-time pricing, supply, demand, and the life expectancy of our beloved industry. But very little has been penned on how to wrap additional services around an upgraded diesel fuel and heating oil to enable more market share to be captured while improving company bottom lines and customer satisfaction with enhanced products and services.
A great place to begin that transition to increased market share is product branding. By doing this, companies can distinguish their products from the rest and make those branded products their own. This also facilitates the customer’s ability to differentiate the superior from the inferior and, more importantly, connect the former with you and the latter with your competitors.
Some might argue that branding doesn’t work anymore. Tell that to Nike, Apple, Microsoft, Charmin, Kleenex, BMW, and countless other nationally acclaimed and international brands. No sound debate can be made against a company’s smart business decision to distinguish itself and its products from a congested pack of competitors.
The role brands can and should play in accomplishing these goals is changing quickly as technology, media, political winds and other influences affect how customers perceive their needs and how best to satisfy them. This change will become more pronounced as time goes on.
When you began reading this article, perhaps you were looking to turn your carbon into proverbial diamonds for a profit. Or maybe you were hoping to determine whether you were a fuel dealer who simply buys and sells or one that adds value. Everyone wants to know where they fit. The purpose of short editorials like this is to provoke thought and create future conversations. Having finished this piece, perhaps you now agree with me that it is time to rethink normal.
After reading this, I hope you’ll never look at all the branding hype that surrounds us the same way again. If you’d like to talk more, and help keep the conversation of creating value downstream going, we welcome the opportunity to share with you our story, which is one that started with an objective to deliver maximum value to our customers.
Paul Nazzaro Sr., President
Advanced Fuel Solutions, Inc.
TEL: (978) 258-8360 x303