Industry Insight: The New Breed of Bunker Players Will be Agile

by Justin Shardlow, Director of Product Development, Firm Counter
Friday April 22, 2016

The bunker industry has changed. Instability and caution after the collapse of OW, falling oil prices, reduced manufacturing output and the subsequent drop in fuel volumes being purchased make the industry a tough place to compete in, let alone grow profitably.

So what next? Who will emerge as the winners from these troubled times?

In Adrian Tolson's article '20|20 Vision: The Key Components to Success for Fuel Suppliers in the Marine Energy Market' published on Ship & Bunker earlier this year, he states - Put simply, the "seat of the pants", "back of the envelope", "finger in the wind", "happy go lucky" world of independent bunkering is over!

So, it's time to shape up, to get slick, to become lean. It's time to leverage technology and benefit from all of the opportunities and efficiencies it brings with it to propel your business forward.

But this sounds expensive right? It sounds like a whole heap of work. I can hear the sighing now at the thought of how long it will take to implement new IT systems, how painful the process will be and how the project will undoubtedly overrun on both time and cost. Surely then, it's much easier to just carry on as we are, doing the same things we've always done, rather than go through that pain!

But just as the world of bunkering is changing, the way technology is created and used by forward thinking companies has also changed. The image of the traditional software company which creates a product so rich in features you don't know where to start is out of date. Tech companies today are the model of efficiency. At Firm Counter, we go to market with 'Minimum Viable Products' (MVPs) and build out our product over time, with our customers as a central part of the journey. There is no second guessing what features a customer might want or need, we find out through continual innovation, talking with our customers, testing new features with them and learning from their experiences. The ideas for these may come from us, they may come from our customers, either way, we on the same journey with the same end goal. By taking this approach we minimise waste by not spending time working on features no-one wants, maximise the use of our development resources and stay focused on creating a product that fits our customer's business.

More than just technology

But technology is only part of the equation. Having created and grown b2b software products for companies of all shapes and sizes of the past fifteen years, the single biggest key to success is how additional services are wrapped up with the technology. To present an example; at Firm Counter, customers using our software products can expect to benefit from our industry knowledge, our sales and marketing experience, our data analysis skills and how to maximise technology as part of the package. This stuff isn't sold as a bolt on, it is a fundamental to the way we work. Our customers get an individual experience when working with us, tailored to meet their needs and requirements.

This combination of working with our customers to constantly innovate and analyse means they see the opportunities and efficiencies of using technology from day one. No prescriptive set of rules, no complicated new procedures to learn, no rigid software trying to force new ways of working and most importantly no large capital expenditure. Just business as normal underpinned by technology and services that can be shaped to grow with them.

So what. What has all this got to do with businesses in the bunker industry

Probably more than you realise. The concept of reducing waste and staying lean don't just apply to software companies like Firm Counter, they apply to all businesses. In his book 'The lean start-up' Eric Ries puts forward a compelling case to show 'how constant innovation creates radically successful businesses'. Seeking out new, smarter, more efficient ways of working will ensure your company emerges as one of the winners when this period of change within the bunker industry is over.

Streamlining the purchasing process

For buyers this means starting by streamlining the buying process through software such as our Fuel Purchasing & Management Platform. Posting once and broadcasting the request to approved relevant suppliers seems obvious yet many buyers today still manually work enquiries using individual emails or calls to suppliers. Automating this process makes it slick. Buyers save huge amounts of time, both sending the request out to the right suppliers and receiving the offers back in (either via the system or through existing methods such as email or phone). But the real benefit here is the insight gained into the purchasing process through using software. Pinpointing the best suppliers is simply a matter of analysing the data and armed with this knowledge, buyers can explore new ways to work closer and more efficiently with counterparties during the purchasing process.

Becoming a smart supplier

For suppliers, the focus should be on the sales process, or more specifically, on marketing. The rise of digital marketing means that marketing today is a measured, quantifiable discipline. It is no longer about blanket coverage or a scattergun approach to finding new clients. Today it is about content and context. Your marketing strategy should ensure that you put the right information in front of the right person at the right time. Obvious stuff right?

Well yes, it is, so why are we still seeing bunker suppliers cold calling, giving out printed brochures and building unintelligent 'brochure-ware' websites? The information is only half relevant, perhaps it's the right person (perhaps it isn't) and unless that person is about to make a purchase it almost certainly isn't the right time for them to read a brochure or accept a speculative cold-call. This is not to say that the general company information provided through brochures and websites is no longer relevant. It is, only in today's market, these pieces of sales collateral should act purely as an anchor, a reference point to support your business' credentials.

Like the lean development process we use to build our software products, so you should also approach marketing. Understanding your prospect is critical as always, but understanding where they are on the buying cycle is now paramount. Knowing the buyer's journey means you can be part of it, just as we are our part of customer's journey when creating software. If you're on the same journey it's easier to interact, obvious what the most relevant information is at any given time and ultimately easier to close business as both parties are already aligned.

There are plenty of technology solutions out there to help automate this process but you can take the principles and run with them without making a investment in new IT. We created BunkerPulse (which is free to sign up) to build a community specifically for the bunker industry. Based on the familiar social network model, it allows suppliers to market themselves in a professional and timely manner and buyers to consume just what they are interested in. It brings new opportunities for everyone with the bunker industry to connect and do business by reducing the 'noise' of traditional blanket marketing.

Staying Agile

In the tech industry we often refer to 'Agile' development – a process that I would best describe as staying focused on the end goal but getting there by taking and testing incremental steps along an unknown path. At Firm Counter we can help you make your business more agile. We have the technology products to get you started and the experience to guide you strategically along the journey.

To stay agile should be the true goal for any business on its' journey to profitability.