“Don’t give up on old leads,” is just one piece of advice from the authors of a new study on how solar installers can acquire more customers.
Just because they didn’t go solar doesn’t mean they’re not interested. It’s more likely that the time is not right (for instance, they can’t afford it this year), or they wanted to shop around some more. With the cost of solar going down every year, prices will eventually reach many considerers’ comfort level.
The study, sponsored by the US Department of Energy and others, surveyed more than 3,500 homeowners in California, Arizona, New York and New Jersey. Among the findings that authors James Tong and Alison Mickey share are nine ways to convert solar “considerers” into solar “adopters.”
Tong and Mickey say that, because the solar market is becoming more competitive, homeowners are taking more time to make a decision on rooftop solar. More competition may make it harder to convert leads into sales. But “solar companies are far more likely to lose considerers to uncertainty and doubt than to other competitors.”
I’d add another factor that makes solar sales more challenging today — the rise of the Internet. Now that the average American consumer receives 5,000 or more ads and marketing messages a day, he or she suffers from information overload. Homeowners now have even less patience than they did in the past for sales tactics from solar companies such as door knocking or cold calling that try to interrupt their lives.
Fortunately, the Internet also offers a solution. Here I’m going to show how solar installers can apply Tong and Mickey’s advice about solar outreach affordably and effectively by taking some of their marketing online.
1. Avoid Common Sales and Marketing Mistakes
These include confusing customers with too many options, bashing the competition too early in the discussion, and my pet peeve, not responding to inquiries quickly enough. The Internet makes it easy to deal with the last issue, for example. If you get more of your initial inquiries online, you can set up an email autoresponder to reply immediately with a message that says “thanks!” and promises that a salesperson will email or call within a certain timeframe, say, 24 hours. Then, use software (see #3 below) to score leads and shoot the highest priority ones over to the next available sales rep.
2. Keep Nurturing Old Leads
I led the article with this advice, because it may be the lowest-hanging fruit for most solar installers today, but most solar installers don’t do it. It’s hard for sales people to stay in touch with old leads. Given a choice between calling someone who may be ready to buy solar right now and maintaining a relationship with someone who expressed some interest in the past, a salesperson is always going to want to make the quickest sale. Understandably, most solar sales reps leave the old leads to go cold.
Fortunately, email automation may offer a solution. An automated email system allows you to easily keep in touch with people who’ve expressed an interest in solar and in your company. Setting up a workflow or “drip” campaign of several emails set to go out automatically every week or two over a period of 3-6 months allows you to nurture warm leads into hot leads that you can contact again by email or phone when they’re ready. Here’s an example of a campaign with nine emails for a residential solar installer.
3. Track Old Leads with Software
A customer relationship management system (CRM) or other database can help you keep track of early-stage solar buyers who’ve expressed an interest in the past. A CRM can even score leads so your sales reps can focus on the ones with the most promise. But most solar companies that Tong and Mickey interviewed didn’t use a CRM. That’s understandable also. CRMs can be complicated. They can be expensive to set up and train everybody to use. And it can be hard to get salespeople to use a CRM consistently.
An alternative is a very simple lead-tracking system such as the one we install on websites of many of our clients, LeadIn. A very light-weight version of a CRM, LeadIn, a free offering from HubSpot, comes as a plugin for WordPress or other common website building systems, so it’s easy to install and get started. With LeadIn, there’s no need for salespeople to input any data. Instead, the system just tracks any web visitor who fills out a form on your website and then sends you an email about what that person does on your site in the future.
For example, if somebody fills out a form to download your ebook with advice on buying rooftop solar (you do offer an ebook like this, right?), then afterwards, LeadIn will show you what other pages that visitor looks at on your site. So, you can see if the same person returns to your site a few months later and starts looking at your Pricing or Financing pages. Then, you can give the prospect a call.
LeadIn won’t replace a CRM, and if you want to transfer lead data from LeadIn to your CRM you have to do it manually. But for solar installers that want to track leads that come in through their websites, LeadIn is an easy way to get started.
4. Understand Your Customer’s Needs
You should know whether a potential solar buyer is likely to want to lease or buy early on in your conversation with them. Otherwise, you may confuse them with too many details about financing they’re not interested in. If they want no-money down solar, don’t waste time on interest rates for equipment-purchase loans. Instead, go straight into PPAs and leases.
The Internet can help you know in advance which kind of customer is most likely to prefer which kind of financing. You can combine experience with past customers with simple online research to develop a Solar Buyer Persona Profile. Such a profile will guide your sales discussions with potential customers. But even better, a good buyer profile will also help you reach more of your ideal customer and help you waste less time on people who aren’t a good fit for solar or for your company.
5. Get Independent Verification
In Internet marketing, we call this “social proof.” It’s where you display badges and logos to show that you can be trusted. Tong and Mickey suggest you get accredited and then you show that off. “These can include: NABCEP certification; online reviews on sites like Google, Yelp and Facebook; references from past customers (see No. 9); or adoption of solar business codes like that of the national Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA).”
Of course, the easiest place to display proof of your accreditations, your compliance with SEIA codes or your good reviews is your website. You should prominently show logos for certifications and review sites, with links to each so that your web visitors can easily check you out.
6. Evolve Your Sales Tactics
Since I’ve been preaching for years against pushy, annoying sales tactics straight out of the movie Glengarry Glen Ross, this may be my favorite piece of advice. And Tong and Mickey’s words will be music to the ears of the many solar sales reps I’ve talked to across the country who are tired of having to sell solar in ways that make them feel sleazy, from cold calling to knocking on doors. “Quick or hard sells may have worked on adopters in the past, but future considerers will likely need more time to think or require more validation that what you are promising is legitimate.”
Instead of trying to push harder than the competition, solar installers should try to market smarter than the competition. As Jonathan Lister says, “As marketers, we should be changing the mantra from always be closing to always be helping.”
What this means is that solar installers should give themselves an image upgrade, from sales “closer” to trusted advisor. And again, perhaps the best and easiest place to do this is online, where you can offer helpful content for homeowners who want solar in blog posts, ebooks, and social media postings.
7. Find More Points of Differentiation from Your Competition
Are you just another me-too solar company? In a more crowded market, unless you want to compete on price alone — a race to the bottom that may wind up putting you out of business — you’ll need to offer something different. As Tong and Mickey advise,
For instance, you might: build your reputation in specialized markets (e.g., installations in certain locales or for certain types of customers or homes or roofs); obtain independent validation (see No. 5); grow a base of satisfied customers (see No. 9); or provide value-added services or additional technologies (e.g. storage, HVAC, smart thermostats, etc).
And you’ll need to show how you’re different in your marketing, through a unique selling proposition (or USP). And the best place to do that? You guessed it — online. It’s hard to stand out in a positive way on a cul-de-sac while knocking on doors. And the only way to stand out well on the phone is to not make cold calls altogether.
But it’s easy to stand out on your website, in your email and in your social media accounts. Especially if you’re a local installer, when SolarCity comes to town, you better have a good story of why you’re different and better than they are.
8. Grow Your Business for the Long-Term
Don’t grow too fast or else you might find yourself in debt for a bigger warehouse than you can afford. And don’t sell too fast either or you might scare off potential customers. “Later solar adopters will be more likely to shop around and more resistant to high-pressure sales tactics,” say Tong and Mickey. “A rushed sale will likely lead to higher dissatisfaction, fewer referrals, and perhaps more negative reviews — all of which can materially impact your business.”
It’s hard to sell at a more human pace while knocking on doors or cold calling. But on the Internet, you can let the buyer take all the time he needs to get comfortable with solar and with your company before you call him up.
It takes time to build your website traffic, your email list or your social media followers. So if you still want to be in the solar business in five years, then you should start making long-term connections with potential buyers online now. The best way to do that is to start publishing a regular blog. And don’t fill your blog with a bunch of ads for your new stuff. Instead, offer helpful advice for solar buyers. That will set you up as a likable authority who solar-curious homeowners will think of first when they’re ready to buy.
9. Make Sure Your Existing Customers Are Happy
You’ll get two benefits from cultivating homeowners you’ve already worked with, and making sure they’re happy. First, former customers will refer you to their friends and family, doing for free the kind of marketing that’s most valuable for a solar installer, word-of-mouth marketing. Second, former customers may buy from you again. For example, if you’ve put an array on their home roof, they may also want one on a vacation house or, when they move, on their new house.
Sure, you can give former customers a call once in a while, or invite them to your Fourth of July BBQ. But if you put customers on an email list for your solar alumni, then you can offer them more value on an ongoing basis by giving them helpful advice and information.
For example, someone who already has solar wants to know how better to measure their results in terms of money savings and environmental benefits. A solar homeowner may also value advice on troubleshooting common problems before calling your service number. And anybody who already has solar probably wants to keep up on the latest technology, at least a little bit, so they can sound like solar experts at the next cocktail party. There’s no more effective place to stay in touch with customers than online.
Bye Bye Quick Sales. Hello Good Sales.
The day of the quick solar sale is coming to an end. Sales bullies be warned!
A new day of solar is dawning, when solar sales and marketing will be less about shoving solar down a homeowner’s throat before your competitor does it first, and more about advising buyers on what’s best for them.
My new book, The Solar Sales Leap is all about this transition. Solar installers who want to survive and thrive in a more competitive market need to approach their marketing as a marathon, not a sprint.
— Erik Curren, Curren Media Group