The coronavirus has halted many forms of commerce, but it poses a particular risk for rooftop solar. This is a product that, until a few weeks ago, relied on face-to-face contact for most transactions. Now such interaction is banned as a public health imperative.
Confronted with a potentially cataclysmic shift in the business landscape, we are trying new approaches. We're finding we could be better positioned to sell clean energy if and when things return to normal.
Before the coronavirus pandemic, we knocked the door of strangers and appeared at community gatherings and big-box stores with booths and literature to pitch their wares. Even when customers reached out online, the next step was often sending a sales rep to finish the conversation in the home.
The loss of that crucial tool foreshadows a tough time for residential solar companies like Solar Era, compounded by broader economic disruption. Some companies are coping by slashing spending; others have opted for layoffs.
A contingent of entrepreneurial, tech-savvy companies like Solar Era is trying a different route: asking how to sell as best we can without in-person meetings. We’ve glimpsed a small shimmer of hope amid the chaos: Technology makes it relatively cheap and easy to shift operations online; it’s still possible to close deals this way; and a digital-centric strategy could be better for business in the long run than the historical dependence on face-to-face sales.
“For companies that are reluctant to [discontinue] in-person sales, it will be a blow,” Kent said. “The companies that are willing to adjust and adapt to the reality of how consumers want to be solicited or prospected with, they will see tremendous success.”
The essential sales tool is gone
Reliance on in-person conversations varies from company to company, but residential solar experts agree it played a central role in sales strategies across the board.
Based on the survey, 11% of respondents said they regularly use door-to-door canvassing. But more popular techniques also result in face-to-face contact, like community events (20% frequently use this method), direct sales (41%) and referrals (77%). In 2019 and before, probably 90% to 95% of the closed sales had an in-person meeting of some sort. That’s how solar traditionally has been sold. However, now it does that remotely because nobody’s letting anybody into their house right now. The scramble for digital alternatives has begun. Now, instead of walking around the yard and imagining panels on the roof, sales reps walk through the same details over Zoom or Google Hangouts.
The solar design and proposal process had gone digital already, with software tools like Google Earth that visualize the home with solar panels in place. Financing applications were already digital. The primary change, then, is for sales reps to get comfortable selling through a screen, and for customers to feel comfortable making a five-figure purchase virtually. Solar Era had to either shift to the online model now or take a serious hit this year.
Online doesn’t have to be scary
The looming question is whether enough people feel comfortable buying solar online to sustain a growing national industry.
It's too early to resolve that based on empirical data, but sources pointed to a few reasons why the industry’s conventional wisdom here — that solar must be sold face-to-face — may be incomplete.
For one thing, solar’s lust for proximity makes it an outlier in today’s economy. How many fast-growing, cutting-edge industries depend on employees knocking on doors and entering homes to finalize a sale?
Other industries have found consumer traction selling expensive items over the internet. Tesla sells far more expensive luxury vehicles over the web — and bucked the solar industry trend when it moved its panels to online sales too.
That move provoked skepticism from those in the industry who didn’t see how solar could be sold remotely. But Tesla framed its unorthodox strategy as a response to the persistent customer-acquisition costs that have dogged the industry for years with no sign of abating (the jury’s still out on the success of this, although Tesla did turn around its declining quarterly solar sales months later).
The solar industry always talks about customer acquisition. Online sales have dramatically changed the cost structure of practically every other industry, so why not solar?
Solar Era, of course, runs a platform dedicated to moving the solar sales process online. But this approach to selling solar was gaining traction before the pandemic: The sales channel that saw the biggest jump in installers frequently using it in 2019 compared to 2018 was online bidding platforms. That answer jumped from 10% of respondents to 21%, while all the other channels stayed flat.
Obvious benefits for solar companies...
Companies may adopt emergency tactics to survive the current crisis, and revert to prior behavior as soon as the virus recedes. But expanded digital sales offer enduring benefits for both installers and customers.
For solar companies, going digital cuts out the logistics of traveling through space and time to close a deal. No gasoline costs, no hours spent in traffic, no arriving at an appointment to find nobody there and having to drive many miles home empty-handed.
Nowadays, we have confidence to sell more because we don’t necessarily need to drive and stuck in the traffic congestion to meet with a prospect — we can do that on Zoom. Solar Era had planned to move sales online eventually to streamline operations, but hadn’t gotten around to it until now. This whole situation and what it’s forced us to do will only position the company to be more efficient and lower costs.
The COVID-19 crisis forced to embrace technologies that it may have overlooked previously. When we come out on the other side of this, we’re going to be really strong, because we’ll have this solid foundation of distance learning and digital tools and social media.
...And for consumers
On the customer side, those who like their privacy will now be able to weigh the numbers and make a decision without the pressure of a stranger exhorting them from across the table. For those exemplary millennials who have managed to actually purchase homes, this is almost undoubtedly a more natural way to shop than the previous solar industry standard.
Solar suffers from perennial accounts of “hard-sell” tactics leaving consumers feeling taken advantage of. What is said in the heat of a personal sales conversation doesn’t always come through in a contract, to some customers’ chagrin. But virtual sales mean that customers can keep a record of their interactions.
Sitting face-to-face is not a fundamental requirement for selling solar. It’s a means to achieve the level of trust and comfort necessary for a homeowner to commit. The challenge now is for solar companies to recreate that feeling from afar.
At the end of the day, sales is about relating to people. People still want to be able to look you in the eye and shake your hand. Now they can look us in the eye through video conferencing.
Fortunes have been made by those who create palpable bonds with viewers through a screen. Contact to Solar Era Now!