Whether an integrator is just trying to make it day to day or looking for ways to expand, the key is customer satisfaction. This starts with sales. There is a two-way relationship between sales and operations, which is essential to creating satisfied customers.
What Can a Solar Integrator do to Maintain and Grow Business
Len Calderone for | AltEnergyMag
Why isn’t solar growing at a faster rate? The main reason is that the solar industry needs better power storage, grid infrastructure and government support to meet optimistic growth predictions. The grid infrastructure was built to carry fairly consistent levels of electrical generation and it is struggling to cope with the variability of solar.
Solar production is extremely seasonal, especially at higher latitudes. Because solar replies on the weather, it is restrained by its capacity factor or how often it produces electricity. A coal power station runs at 70-80% capacity, whereas solar panel capacity is just 15%.
Therefore, the exponential growth everyone expects from solar, is not continuing. Instead, we are seeing just moderate growth, which will flatten out, turning into an S curve. Solar may need another 15 years or more to compete against established fossil fuels technologies, such as coal and gas. An additional challenge to solar is the low price of fossil fuels.
So, what are solar integrators doing to maintain and grow their business? Whether an integrator is just trying to make it day to day or looking for ways to expand, the key is customer satisfaction. This starts with sales. There is a two-way relationship between sales and operations, which is essential to creating satisfied customers.
The operations side of the business needs to serve the customer well enough, that the sales people can get referrals. At the same time, the operations people need to receive sufficient information from sales that allows them to meet customers’ expectations. There needs to be a customer care specialist, who acts as a bridge between sales and operations. This person has to be a people person as well as a task-oriented person. The relationship between sales and operations depends on the customer care specialist.
The process of handing off a job from sales to operations needs to be computerized with companywide file sharing that requires minimum face-to-face communication. If the system works seamlessly, the salespeople can be out selling while operations can do their job.
Referrals should be a substantial part of an integrator’s sales. Referrals are usually easier to close; plus, they save marketing dollars. Operations can help by meeting and exceeding customer expectations.
Most solar companies are still in the business of selling, forgetting that consumers need information before buying. An integrator’s web site should place emphasis on education and not sales. This is a huge opportunity for an integrator to create and publish content that educates people in their local communities.
Use the company’s website to educate with copy, illustrations and web links, that are customized for the local area, with timely, in-depth information on solar options. This gives the potential customer a feeling that this knowledge is a service not a sales pitch.
Sure, the web site belongs to a solar installer and has their contact information on it, but there’s nothing that says “sales” about it. In depth solar information can be published without the cost of mailings, or paid ads, and it works. A customer would prefer to work with such a company, rather than one that was just selling.
Another way to reach customers at a low cost is farmers’ markets. Solar companies should set up a booth at local farmers’ market. This would position their brand of solar as another kind of green product. This places a face on the company, and a personality that matters when choosing what solar system to buy.
Solar United Neighbors
Along the way, management must always concentrate on efficiency, cost control and quality. The people closest to the action generally have ideas that could help the company either increase sales or keep costs down. Listen to your employees.
There are other avenues that a solar integrator can investigate to grow their business. Solar energy is confusing to many people. An integrator could add to their revenue by also becoming a solar consultant. Many people would like to know if it would benefit them to install solar on their home or business. Since the integrator knows the ins and outs of solar systems, they could help by providing a professional opinion that looks at the various options and guides potential customers through the entire process without the pressure of selling. Should the home/business owner later decide to add solar, that person will turn to the consultant. Since the integrator is being paid as a consultant, there should not be a sales pitch.
Lynn Frank (right), consultant for a solar highway project (Oregon Department of Transportation)
Clean solar panels produce more electricity than dirty panels. Since the integrator installed the panels, why not offer a service to clean them on a regular basis? Many customers would choose to hire a professional to keep their solar panels clean rather than climb onto the roof to clean them themselves.
In real estate, appraisers evaluate the value of a home. Why shouldn’t an integrator appraise the value of a solar system on a home or property that is for sale, or the future financial benefits of adding a solar system?
Although solar panels last a long time, they occasionally need maintenance from time to time, especially on older systems that might need to be upgraded with new inverters, wiring replaced, storm damage repairs, etc. Integrators should follow-up with the owners of systems that they installed. They can also take note of other systems in the neighborhoods that they travel and mail or drop off a maintenance brochure.
A smart integrator would start a school and charge to teach the aspects of solar panels and installation. At first, this sounds crazy. Why train potential competition? While learning, the integrator can teach the students with on the job training, giving the integrator free labor. After the students learn the trade, the integrator can hire them to fill existing openings or expand the business with additional crews. Even if a student goes off on their own, competition is good as the more people see solar installations, the more opportunities will exist to sell.
There are many other significant ways for solar integrators to stand out. There’s a tremendous opportunity for smaller companies, who want to think about different ways to market, if management takes the time to think outside of the panel itself.
The content & opinions in this article are the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of AltEnergyMag
Len Calderone - Contributing Author
Len contributes to this publication on a regular basis. Past articles can be found with an Article Search and are listed below. He also writes short stories that always have a surprise ending. He has also written a book on wedding photography on a budget. These can be found at http://www.smashwords.com/profile/view/Megalen
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