Meatloaf Every Thursday? Are You Joking??!! 

Were you raised that every Thursday night for dinner was meatloaf and every Friday night was fish, and so on…? I was! My mother was a homemaker, but not a great cook, so she repeated what she was comfortable with doing. Meals during the week were an extremely consistent routine. I looked forward to the weekend to break up the routine with cooking out, going fishing, and trips to the bigger town that had a McDonald’s! 

While consistent routines are positive, they can also be dangerous. Statistics on vehicle accidents indicate that most accidents happen within a few miles of our home. Why is that? Because we are in our routine, we are comfortable, and probably not paying as much attention as we should. 

How is this important to your business? When you get comfortable with your consistent routines, you may be ignoring the competition and your customer. Think about it: If the world around us is changing but we are not, we will become irrelevant. Becoming irrelevant means the loss of customers, and more importantly, great employees. Employees do not want to work for a company that is outdated and behind the times. 

People demonstrate constantly that they want to create and adopt change. Just look at the rapid expansion of iPhone, Facebook, and Twitter users, just to name a few. On the simple side, you try a new restaurant, a new haircut, new nail color, and buy new clothes. This is all change that you manage in your life and control. You make those decisions all the time. 

However, at work, change may not always within your control, which might make you—and those around you—uncomfortable. The first emotion that can result is fear, which is the worst emotion, but very common. Managing fear is the key to your success. Your ability to cope with fear requires patience, asking fact-finding questions and engaging with leadership openly. Sharing concerns with teammates is unproductive. In fact, it is counter-productive and may chip away at the core of your company’s culture, creating even more fear. 

Think about the change you manage every day in our lives and the changes that occur at your place of business. See what you can do to feel more in control of business change and capture that feeling of excitement and anticipation, just the same as in your personal life. Remember, you are in control; it’s just not always visible to you!


My Smartphone Intervention

For more than six years, my only portable technological device was a prepaid cell phone.  It only made outgoing calls, unless someone needed to reach me in an emergency.  No texting, no apps, not even voicemail (I never set it up!).  I purchased it at the urgent request of my mother, who once got stranded on the side of the highway for several hours, until someone was kind enough to stop and loan her a phone to call for help.  That easily convinced me to get one, too.

This past fall, we purchased an electronic tablet, which rocked my world with all of its cool games, apps, cameras (both digital AND video) and access to social media.  My husband and I found ourselves sharing it often, sometimes racing to get our hands on it first.  Even my toddler appreciated all of the fun learning games that we loaded onto it and negotiated daily for her own screen time!  When I got a smart phone for Christmas—a big upgrade from that cheap little prepaid device—we were both able to plug in whenever we want.

The problem is, we started to slowly shut out the outside world—becoming those same people that, a year ago, we used to scoff at.  I remember sitting in a restaurant with my family, deeply engaged in conversation and comparing us to a family of four sitting across the room.  Both parents were playing on their phones, the teenage son was listening to music on his headphones and the young daughter was playing a video game on a portable device.  No one was interacting, sharing news about their day, being a family.  It was like watching a bunch of strangers who had no interest in getting to know one another.  I’ve also observed parents at the park or doctor’s office so engaged with their mobile devices that their children ran around unattended, getting into trouble with other kids—or the reverse, were ignoring their child who was eagerly trying to interact with them. 

Our world is plugged in and more technology-focused than ever before.  It’s a fact that we have to accept, but we need to appreciate the old-fashioned concept of “face time”, being present in the moment—with our family, our friends, our customers, the world.  So before you answer that phone or get ready to post something on a social media site, ask yourself this:  Is the world going to fall apart if I don’t do this?  Does my doing so short-change someone else’s time with me?  I encourage you to limit your usage and practice focusing on those around you first; you’ll be amazed to find that your relationships with others will improve, you’ll feel less stressed and the world will indeed keep on spinning! 

Since this realization, I am working very hard to stop morphing into one of “those people” I scoffed at a year ago, so I can be an even better wife and mother.  I am limiting my smartphone usage to times when I am alone, when my children are engaged in their own play or when they’re asleep.  I even help my daughter’s screen time be more effective by playing educational games with her on the tablet, talking together about the lessons being taught—and connecting in a more meaningful way. Sometimes I fail in my efforts, but all I can do is make a conscious effort to do better next time. 

I hope you’ll try to do the same thing, to help us all stay connected to the things—and the people— that really, truly matter.


Are Your Customers Like Family?

As a customer experience coordinator, I have the privilege of working directly with our C-Store operators on a daily basis.  While on the phone with them, I often hear what is going on in the background in their stores.  I have to say that I am impressed by the things that I hear.  Our C-Store operators are doing a great job of making their customers feel welcome in their stores.  It is not uncommon for our conversation to pause while a customer is being checked out at the register. During that time, I hear all kinds of welcoming language such as, “Hey Jerry!  How are you today?” or, “So are the kids doing alright?” or, “So, Peggy I see you got that new car you’ve been wanting. Congrats!” or “It was wonderful to see you this morning; see you tomorrow.”  All of this language is so inviting and warm that it makes your customers feel like family. It also makes them want to come back again and again because they know you care about them as a person, not just because they’re buying gas. 

Some of the other ways our C-Store operators make their Customer Family feel welcome is by providing products and services that they know “their” customers want to see in the store.  Let’s face it folks, you can’t be “all things to all people,” so you have to figure out what your niche is.  I know you have heard this before, but think about it from the perspective of your customer.  Pay attention to who your Customer Family is and focus on the needs they might have.  Survey your customers and ask them what they want to see in the store, or start asking them if they found everything they needed when they check out.

Just like when you have an out-of-town guest come to visit, you can make your customers feel welcome through customer appreciation events and programs.  There are all sorts of ideas out there of how to show appreciation to your customers, from frequent buyer programs and fuel reward cards, to a customer appreciation event (Family re-union).  Again, you have to review your audience and determine what program would be most appreciated by YOUR Customer Family.  

If you take great care in paying attention to your customers and providing them solutions to meet their needs—AND show them you appreciate them—you are well on your way  to building customer loyalty or as I like to think about our C-store operators, your Customer Family.


My Day on Capitol Hill

On Wednesday, July 17th, I had the opportunity to represent CarterEnergy and World Fuels, via SIGMA, at their annual Lobby Day in Washington DC. Our President, Kerry Oliver, sits on the SIGMA Board of Directors and has served this role annually in the past. However, she was unable to attend this year, so I was chosen to be her pinch hitter.  What a thrill!

While I have spent many a day in Topeka over the years lobbying our local Representatives as a member of the PMCA (Petroleum Marketers and Convenience Store Association of KS), I have to admit, this was certainly like being promoted to the Big Leagues (albeit for just one day). That being said, the process and issues were very similar and, without fail, everyone I met with truly appreciated us traveling to Washington to meet with them. I was able to meet with the following Legislators, or their key people, and discuss our concerns:  Senator Jerry Moran (KS), Senator Pat Roberts (KS), Representative Mike Pompeo (KS), Representative Kevin Yoder (KS), Representative Ann Wagner (MO), Senator Clair McCaskill (MO), and Representative Frank Lucas (OK).

We spent the day talking about three main issues that are having, and will continue to have, a HUGE impact on the Convenience Store Industry:

SNAP (Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program)

The Farm Bill that passed the Senate in June contained a provision that could severely inhibit the Convenience Store Industry’s ability to provide this service. The provision would give USDA the authority to prevent stores from participating in the SNAP Program – even if the stores meet all of the prerequisites for participating – based on sales of non-SNAP items such as food, alcohol and tobacco. It contained a draconian provision that would have prohibited any food retailer from participating in the SNAP program if 45% or more of the retailer’s revenue was derived from the combined sales of hot food, tobacco or alcohol. This is a real challenge and one that is not resolved. There are certain Legislators that do not want convenience stores to be able to participate in SNAP. This is a real concern and one that could prohibit our customers from participating in the program. I encourage retailers to keep a very close eye on this one and engage their Legislators!

Credit Card Swipe Fees

There is not one elected official that wants to tackle this subject as the banking lobbying efforts are so powerful. We had no particular ask at this point, only reminding them that swipe fees and interchange rates remain basically unregulated and are some of the highest in the world. A good exercise when talking to your Legislator is to provide actual data on what your CPG is in terms of credit card fees. Since at least 2011, the banking industry has been making more on YOUR fuel sales than you have!

There was a very bright spot that just recently came to light and is a victory for all of us. Below is a snippet from SIGMA’s newsflash:

“Today, the US District Court for the District of Columbia ruled in favor of the National Association of Convenience Stores, National Retail Federation, Food Marketing Institute, Miller Oil Co., Boscov’s Department Store, and the National Restaurant Association in their challenge to the Federal Reserve’s rule on debit swipe fees. In its opinion, the court concluded: “Upon consideration of the pleadings, oral argument, and the entire record therein, the Court concludes that the Board has clearly disregarded Congress’s statutory intent by inappropriately inflating all debit card transaction feel by billions of dollars and failing to provide merchants with multiple unaffiliated networks for each debit transaction. Accordingly, the plaintiffs’ motion is GRANTED and the defendant’s motion is DENIED.” 

This is great news and validation of The Durbin Amendment!  Now, hopefully, we can go back to the negotiated fees that were mandated with this bill.

Renewable Fuel Standards

SIGMA supports RFS rationalization, but not the repeal of the RFS program. As motor fuel marketers, members support diverse options in the fuel market. Momentum to reform and even repeal the RFS continues to grow on Capitol Hill. The House Energy and Commerce Committee are in the process of examining the RFS through a series of white papers. The papers solicit viewpoints from the stakeholders engaged with the program. When the bill was passed in 2007, the economy was robust and gallons were steadily increasing. Since then, gallons are eroding and will continue to annually…so we are rapidly approaching the blend wall and will certainly by 2014.

And there’s been more good news since my trip…again here is SIGMA’s newsflash:

“Today, EPA announced its final 2013 Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) volume requirements and indicated that it will reevaluate and likely revise downward the volume requirements for 2014 to better reflect market realities – something that SIGMA has been advocating to lawmakers in Congress and EPA officials. For 2013, the total renewable fuel volume obligation is 16.55 billion gallons. This is the number required by the Clean Air Act.  That amount includes 1.28 billion gallons of biomass-based diesel, 2.75 million gallons of advanced biofuels, and 6 million gallons of cellulosic biofuels, a decrease from the originally proposed 14 million gallons of cellulosic ethanol. 

Significantly, however, EPA stated in non-binding guidance that accompanied the final rule, that while it believes that the statutory volume obligations may be absorbed by the market in 2013, in 2014 compliance will be more difficult due to the approaching “blendwall.”  Specifically, EPA stated:

 “Given the history of the market and relevant constraints, EPA does not currently foresee a scenario in which the market could consume enough ethanol sold in blends greater than E10, and/or produce sufficient volumes of non-ethanol biofuels (biodiesel, renewable diesel, biogas, etc.), to meet the volumes of total renewable fuel and advanced biofuel stated in the statute.”

 EPA anticipates, therefore, that it will adjust downward its 2014 volume requirements— including both the advanced biofuel and total renewable fuel categories. EPA stated that it will estimate the available supply of cellulosic and advanced biofuel, assess the E10 blendwall and current infrastructure and market-based limitations to the consumption of gasoline-ethanol blends above E10, and then propose volume requirements that are reasonably attainable in light of these considerations and others as appropriate.”

The three points we addressed have, or could have, a significant impact on your business. While there is a lot of gridlock in Congress, I am happy to report that there are a lot of good elected officials that do work hard and take our issues very seriously. It was a very interesting and educational trip and a wonderful learning experience for me personally. I and my CarterEnergy teammates are all active in local and state lobbying efforts on our customers’ behalf, and Kerry Oliver does a wonderful job representing us on a national level. I encourage everyone to get involved with your State Associations, like myself, with the PMCA. They work extremely hard on your behalf. And while we have a long way to go on these and many issues, the two wins above would not have occurred without the hard work of the good people associated with SIGMA. 


Your Employees Play The Leading Role in Your Company’s Success

William Shakespeare wrote that “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players”.  This couldn’t be truer than for the men and women who work for YOU, no matter your type of business.  Why?  Because those “players” reflect your brand to your customers, whether in a positive, or negative, light. 

You may have seen some of the recent hoopla regarding controversial photos posted online by some fast food restaurant employees.  One photo depicted a Taco Bell worker licking a stack of hard shell tacos; the other was of a Wendy’s employee pouring soft serve ice cream (a “Frosty”) right into his mouth from the dispenser.  Both photos had customers in an uproar, questioning whether these items were sold to customers, whether machinery was hygienic, and so on.  Both created a negative brand perception for the chains in question, and it was up to employers to determine how to best handle the fallout—and how to deal with the irresponsible employees. 

At CarterEnergy, we’ve spent years educating our Associates about the importance of their roles, from a brand standpoint.  Our brand is reflected throughout every customer transaction, whether it’s with a driver, an account rep, someone in billing or a member of our Customer Experience team.  We know that a negative experience can speak volumes because customers are more likely to tell others about those bad experiences—and news can travel fast, as you saw from the stories mentioned above.  On the other hand, highly positive experiences can have the same effect, and those, of course, are the ones we prefer! 

We already know how important it is that you hire employees who share your company’s culture and support your mission.  However, it’s also critical that they understand the power of their actions from day one.  Therefore, I encourage you to make Branding a recurring topic during your training process.  Rather than just providing a list of dos and don’ts, provide trainees with a list of WHYs…why different types of behaviors are important to customer perception, which influences brand loyalty—and your company’s sales.  Better yet, illustrate how customer loyalty ultimately affects THEIR jobs, whether in the form of bonuses, promotions, profit sharing, additional benefits, etc. 

So whether your employees love or hate their jobs (and that’s another topic altogether), remind them that they play the leading role on your “stage” (the business), and that their actions speak louder than words—whether they’re dealing directly with a customer or not.  In fact, they’re selling the business more than the business is selling itself.  

And up goes the curtain….it’s SHOWTIME!