Talking to Customers about Price Spikes

Originally published by Oil & Energy Online in 2022.


The DOs and DON’Ts of energy crisis communications

Over the past few months, crude oil prices have spiked to record levels and then dropped to something approaching high normal. Shifting prices are built into the heating fuel delivery business, and you have safeguards in place to manage normal seasonal fluctuations. Your customers, on the other hand, typically only think about fuel costs when they pay their bills or fill up at the local gas station … or see headlines about “record-high prices.”

In times like this, you need a strong communications strategy with an honest yet reassuring message to assuage customer fears.

Communications – During a Crisis and All Year Long

We’ve said it before: a strong communications strategy is the bedrock of your company’s retention strategy. Keeping the conversation going during the best of times gives customers a sense of kinship with you and your staff. When the going gets tougher, a communications strategy gives you the opportunity to provide a transparent assessment of the situation and offer customer-centric solutions. This is true for weather emergencies and delivery issues as well as price volatility.

We recommend a 12-month communications strategy with regular outreach, but short-term crisis communications can also be effective. Right now, you should be talking to your customers via every outlet available, including but not limited to email campaigns, social media updates, phone rep talking points, newsletters and e-letters, personalized letters, web updates and blogs, website pop-ups, and messages-on-hold.

What to Say in Times Like These

When developing your customer outreach campaign, you need to remember that a) your customers realize something is going on, b) your invoices make up a considerable portion of their inflation-strained budget, and c) they can smell a con a mile away.

Your message to customers should:

  • Explain the current situation in clear and sympathetic terms, while educating them on the current causes of price volatility. Emphasize that this is a global issue affecting all forms of energy, not limited to your fuels or your company’s pricing policies.
  • Acknowledge their pain.  No matter their income level or standard of living, nor the scope of the price increase, almost every customer is affected by rising costs.
  • Offer easier payment programs, including budget and price protection plans with online enrollment.
  • Suggest low-cost conservation tips to further reduce their fuel consumption.
  • Reinforce your company’s longstanding reputation and record of quality service. If your company has been serving its customers through wars, price spikes and other crises, now is the to time reiterate that message. Tell customers you’ve been with them through past crises and you’ll help them get through this one as well.

Additionally, you should keep in mind that many customers are facing a multitude of challenges, and offer to work with them on a personal basis if the options provided are not sufficient. Any additional courtesies would, of course, be at your discretion and factor in a number of considerations, such as, for example, the customer’s history with your company.

What NOT to Say

Conversely, there are responses that should not be in your customer messaging or interactions:

  • Don’t get political. This is never a good idea, whether discussing price, competing fuels, or other topics.
  • Don’t make predictions or forecasts about fuel prices or other issues beyond your control.
  • Similarly, don’t make promises that you might not be able to keep.
  • Don’t gloat over customers who haven’t enrolled in a budget or price protection plan, upgraded old equipment, or followed through on any other savings recommendations you’ve offered in the past.
  • Don’t recommend big, expensive overhauls. Recommending a “solution” costing several thousand dollars to someone who can’t pay a monthly heating bill is tone-deaf and self-defeating – and could very well lose you the customer. Of course, some customers will still want or need to upgrade their equipment, and there is nothing wrong with having rebates, promotional offers and financing available to them.
  • Don’t lose your cool. Of course, you shouldn’t allow customers to abuse you or your staff, but you should remain professional and polite in all situations. As soon as you get angry, the customer will run to social media or review sites to slam you – even, or especially, if the individual’s actions had provoked your outburst.

Following these parameters, you should be able to help customers get through this period of volatility and go beyond “saving” their accounts to solidifying their loyalty. Customers respond to honesty and goodwill, just as you do. Communicating with care and sincerity can mean the difference, especially when customers are concerned about their household (or business) expenses.