The Last 3 Months Will Create A New Fuel Customer

June 16, 2020 | By: Energy Engine
Categories: Blog Posts

How COVID-19 is causing dramatic changes to consumer behavior

We are living in an unimaginable world. The ongoing coronavirus pandemic feels eerily like a science fiction movie, with scenes of deserted streets, grocery shortages, and frightened people walking around in masks. No one had ever heard the phrase “social distancing” before March, yet now we find ourselves measuring interactions with each other in six-foot increments.

It has been incredibly stressful, but we are all finding new ways to continue to live our lives. Humans have a programmed instinct for learning how to adjust and adapt. A crisis tends to bring out the best in who we are.

We will make it through this but will come out the other side forever changed.

The concept of social distancing has forced a complete rethink of everything we do.  This includes how we purchase goods and services. After all, our global economy is built on consumerism.

Habits we are acquiring now will be permanent. Consumers are finding better and easier ways to do things, rather than revert to the old way. Businesses must prepare for these new customer expectations to stick around. Hoping that things go back to “normal” is a risky proposition.

“Dynamic Reprioritization”. Another new phrase for us to understand.

Think of all the things you are doing to shift your priorities in real-time. The challenges of working from your kitchen table, being a schoolteacher for your kids, finding ways to have fun without leaving the house, perhaps having to deal with a loss of income. These are profound changes to our daily lives, and we have made them in the blink of an eye. Sociologists call this Dynamic Reprioritization. Somewhere locked away in our brain, each of us has that “what if the bottom falls out” emergency plan…what matters, what can I do without, how do I maintain my lifestyle.

Without a doubt, this is reflected most in how we are shopping. We are all totally rethinking the how, when, where, and why of our consumption. Our view of value has been modified. Security and reliability have become as or more important than price.

Then there is the online-everything revolution. Consumers demand “contactless” for nearly all their experiences. Even things that never were bought online before. You know e-commerce has taken over when you are buying pizzas and cars without ever entering a building. Or making a single phone call.

Brand is more important than ever.

In the COVID era, consumer surveys have shown that brand has become extremely important.

This is especially true for businesses that provide essential goods and services. Consumers have a shortlist of things that are literally important to their survival. Heating oil and propane are certainly on that list. But just delivering fuel is not enough. Your customers want you to be a resource of information, want regular communication, and need assurances that you can serve them uninterrupted.

Brand is also about how you do business. In a world where consumers are doing everything online, relying on outdated contact methods like phone and snail mail is not going to satisfy them. Your customers expect what is known as an omnichannel business model. They want to do business with you on their own terms. Some may want to use online self-service, others by email, a handful even the old fashion way. Regardless, they have little patience for a business that cannot keep pace with their lives. 24/7 hours are a requirement and that can only happen online. A recent survey in the US showed that almost one-third of fuel orders were happening after 10 PM!

E-commerce is the new normal.  Universal for everyone and everything.

Online engagement and e-commerce were on the rise long before the COVID crisis. Over the past 5 years, consumers have quickly adopted a “digital-first” mindset across their entire lives. When they want to learn or buy or participate, they reach for their phone or tablet first. With a few obvious exceptions, buying things in a high friction way (think going to the store or making phone calls) is their least appealing choice. If they can do it online themselves, they will. If they don’t have that option, well, they will find it somewhere else.

With stay-at-home restrictions, there has been a blurring acceleration towards e-commerce without limits. If it can’t be done online, consumers have no interest. Even senior citizens, once thought to not be part of the digital revolution, are turning to the internet in record numbers (the mythology was wrong anyway…80% of seniors use the web every day).

And it’s not just about health and safety. Yes, that has been the catalyst for the uptick, but it turns out that convenience is the main driver. As our lives have become more hectic, the need for simplicity and ease when shopping becomes paramount. Make it easy, let me do it myself anytime I want, and don’t make me call you. That is the mantra of today’s consumer.

The fuel customer is no different. Their habits are being shaped by all these same forces.

It used to be common for dealers to believe that customers shopped for their fuel in a different way than they did other things. That somehow, we would be protected from the “digital-first” transformation. We now know this is entirely untrue. The industry has already been on the run from a changing customer for several years. A lack of self-service options and e-commerce have left many customers disillusioned. It just got a lot harder to please them.

Businesses around the world are being challenged to find ways to bring technology to bear in an effort to stay in touch. It really is innovate or perish. But these consumer technology advances are not just for restaurants or Home Depot. They are raising the bar for ALL businesses. The level of customer expectations is rising exponentially. Are you prepared?

Fuel dealers are well-positioned but changes will need to be made.

The pandemic is creating a new breed of consumers which will lead to an entirely new breed of fuel customers. Your customers will expect the best technology tools for engaging you. And they will want to handle most things via self-service. They do not have time for labored processes and 8 to 4 office hours. Time is the most valuable commodity we have, and that lesson is being reinforced every day. Thus, time-saving systems like e-commerce will be demanded.  If you don’t move in that direction quickly, your competitors will.

The good news is that the industry is exceptionally well-positioned to make this shift. We have been in the contactless business for decades. Dealers are community-minded and genuinely care about their customers. They also have a reputation for reliability and security. The one missing piece is e-commerce technology. Customers appreciate what you do and who you are but that will only take you so far. You must get in sync with their needs and lifestyles.  That starts with giving them access to great technology.