If you work for a solar contractor, you might think that your biggest enemy is your local utility monopoly.
They may take forever to hook up your customer’s new rooftop array. And on the national level, utilities have been doing everything they can over the last few years to make things tough on solar, from slapping on solar standby charges, to cutting net metering payments to fighting ballot initiatives that would remove regulatory barriers to solar development.
Utilities are tough, and I’ll get back to them in a minute. But when it comes to selling more solar, utilities are not the real threat.
A much bigger problem is the sleazy PV installer in the video above from Fox 5 TV in Atlanta.
And who’s that guy? Let’s call him the Solar Scammer.
How Bad Apple Installers Hurt the Whole Solar Industry
Unfortunately, I’m sure that by now you’ve heard lots of stories about the Solar Scammer. From California to Arizona to Florida, the Solar Scammer is out there over-promising and under-delivering on residential solar. For example:
- He’s scaring retirees with threats that their electric bill is going to spike unless they get solar.
- He’s signing homeowners up for 20-year leases with hidden costs.
- And, as in the video above, he’s just plain taking money from people and then disappearing without ever installing any solar panels.
The Solar Scammer is the enemy of every reputable home solar installer because he’s polluting the customer pool. Across the country, but especially in the most competitive solar states, homeowners are getting suspicious of solar installers and skeptical about the value of rooftop solar.
Disreputable home solar installers create bad news for the whole industry. From the buyer’s point of view, these bad apples spoil the whole barrel, casting doubt on all solar contractors. Solar Scammers make it hard for even the most highly rated home solar installers to reach new customers.
And consumer advocates are warning consumers to shop around.
“The biggest tip,” advises the reporter in the Atlanta news report, “Don’t just hire the first company that comes to your house…Be careful with the sweet talk you hear from these people.”
So, the next time one of your sales reps knocks on a door, who knows if it will be slammed in his face?
Utilities Are Lovin’ It
Now, let’s return to electric utilities and how they want to slow down the spread of solar power.
Every industry has its bad apples. When you think of aluminum siding, you think of the Tin Men, right? And let’s not even start on the topic of used cars.
Perhaps solar scammers are getting more attention in the news today because solar is booming in many places.
But certainly, the utility industry is doing its part to make a bigger deal out of solar scams.
Indeed, the Solar Scammer is like a downpour of pennies from heaven for the utility lobby.
If the Solar Scammer didn’t already exist, utilities would have to create him. Because the Solar Scammer gives utilities an excuse to call for government action to regulate the solar industry.
And as we all know, that kind of regulation is sure to slow solar down by adding red tape and raising soft costs, which already account for 64% of the average home solar installation according to the US Department of Energy.
Now, utilities are urging the Federal Trade Commission to crack down on the whole home solar industry, using consumer protection as the rationale.
For example, in the spring of 2016 and ahead of an FTC workshop on protection for solar consumers, the Edison Electric Institute — the utility lobby — circulated a letter for members of Congress to sign claiming that rooftop solar deals are a threat to consumers.
The letter, actually signed by at least one hapless Congresswoman, Rep. Yvette Clarke from New York, called on the FTC to impose more oversight on home solar installers: “We believe the FTC should commit resources towards establishing a regulatory framework that will ensure consumers are afforded minimum standards of protections and full contract disclosures.”
The letter singles out third-party-offered leases and power-purchase agreements as risks, drawing a comparison to the 2008 housing crisis. “The consumer takes all of the financial risks inherent in these long-term deals, risks that electricity prices and rate structures may change, that subsidies may go away and the like,” the letter states. “The imposition of risks on the customer enables the developer to package and resell these leases to large financial interest, just as mortgage sellers packaged high-risk mortgages a decade ago.”
The letter also cites aggressive sales tactics and claims there has been a “dramatic increase in consumer complaints about abusive or deceptive acts and practices in solar sales, marketing, and financing.”
While the utility claims here may be exaggerated, with all the stories of solar scams in the media, you have to recognize that the letter contains a certain amount of truth.
A Checklist to Build Trust
The Solar Energy Industries Association is taking the industry’s reputation seriously.
In response to criticisms of the industry’s marketing practices and in an effort to head off more regulation, SEIA has proposed that the industry start to regulate itself more effectively. As a start, the trade group has created an online Consumer Protection Portal with resources for both homeowners and solar contractors. The latter include helpful forms that installers can use with consumers.
Solar installers who use these resources can show that they’re worthy of consumers’ trust. And solar contractors who are are able to cut through the skepticism of consumers will make more sales.
So, to safeguard their reputation in a market where the Solar Scammer is getting too much media attention these days, solar companies can do three things to protect their reputations and help demonstrate that they are trustworthy.
1. Use Clear, Industry-Standard Disclosure Forms and Contracts
SEIA has released standardized disclosure statements covering the most common residential transactions. The SEIA Solar Power Purchase Agreement Disclosure statement and the revised SEIA Solar Lease Disclosure are simple summary documents that make it easier for consumers to compare solar offers from competitors and understand the terms of a proposal before entering an agreement.
“We strive to make the process of going solar as straightforward and transparent for customers as possible, and these new forms help achieve that,” said Tom Kimbis, SEIA’s interim president in a news release. “These disclosure forms are a big step forward toward creating a marketplace of consumers who are fully informed and educated in choosing solar.”
2. Develop a Sales Style that’s Less Pushy and More Like Consulting
Solar installers should examine their sales messages. Are they accurate? Or do they promise too much? Solar sales managers should also rethink pushy sales tactics like door-knocking and telemarketing. This includes buying leads from telemarketers and using telemarketing firms to set appointments with homeowners. All of these tactics are widely hated by consumers, who have less patience than ever for being interrupted with a sales pitch in person or over the phone.
Instead of sleazy sales types, solar reps should present themselves as trusted advisors who want to help a homeowner make his or her own best decision about home solar. And the best way to do that these days is for their companies to create and publish educational content, such as blog posts and e-books, that solar buyers want to read. This is also a great way to generate high quality, exclusive sales leads for your solar company too.
3. Build a Long Term Relationship with Prospects and Customers
The relationship with a homeowner doesn’t begin with the free home solar assessment. Nor does that relationship end when a rooftop array is switched on. Since consumers make more than half of their buying decision before they ever speak to a salesperson, solar companies should be working to become part of a potential buyer’s life months or even years before a purchase.
Likewise, after an installation is done, customer reviews and word-of-mouth in person and on social media can boost — or bust — a solar contractor’s reputation. That’s why installers should check in with customers regularly right after an installation is done to make sure the customer is delighted and see if anything needs to be fixed.
And even if little or no service is required on a rooftop array, the installer should still keep in touch with former customers. You never know if the customer can offer a referral. Or, if the customer has a question or concern, no matter how vague, the company can address it to make sure that the customer remains delighted and continues to spread good news about the company.
— Erik Curren, Curren Media Group