By Charlie Seltzer
I want to preface this article that there are no positives with COVID-19 and our first priorities should be the health and safety of our family and communities. However, during this crisis and coming out of it there’s a great opportunity for solar contractors and the industry to improve important areas that will help the solar sector move forward and mitigate COVID-19’s effects. Unsurprisingly, software is the key to many of these solutions.
Customer acquisition and sales
The high customer acquisition costs and difficult sales cycles are well-documented in the solar industry. For the foreseeable future, remote selling could become the norm. Having proposal software will be necessary and can help lower customer acquisition and sales costs. Proposal software helps make the sales process more efficient thanks to detailed production analysis and the ability to compare financing options, calculate and show solar savings. The existing programs are easy to use and just require basic PV design knowledge, solar economics and computer skills. Leading proposal software companies include Aurora Solar, Folsom Labs, Energy Toolbase and Sighten.
Lead flow will inevitably slow during this pandemic but improving your company’s online presence can generate more demand in the meantime and shorten the sales cycle later on. Simple steps contractors can take are:
- Ask for positive Google, Facebook, Yelp, and Angie’s List reviews from customers (with tact)
- Create a Facebook page and run Facebook ads. Also, during this period running Twitter ads is effective as well
- Build a YouTube channel to post informative solar videos and also run YouTube ads
- Build out your company’s website:
- Set up a referral link and referral program
- Create an FAQ page; I recommend creating a concise one of no more than 10 questions. This can improve SEO and send more leads to your site and show your crew is knowledgeable
- Include downloadable intake form for customers to share information about their project and provide contact details. Even better, include an online solar savings calculator.
Start selling PACE loans (if available) and leases. All signs are pointing to the country heading into a recession and a credit crunch. Even though interest rates on loans will be lower, credit standards will be tighter and homeowners will have less disposable cash.
The advantage with PACE is the lending criteria is based on being current with property taxes and mortgage payments. PACE lending criteria should not dramatically change in a recession, and because the loan duration is longer the homeowner’s monthly PACE payments should be less than their electricity bill. PACE providers include Ygrene, HERO, and Renew Financial. Third-party leases are also zero-down options that offer Day 1 savings for customers (perhaps their rates will come down because interest rates are lower). Sunnova has a lease product available for independent contractors. Both these financing products will let contractors sell solar as a “Day 1 savings” product.
Permitting and interconnection
SEIA and other solar lobby groups should prioritize and push online permitting and interconnection. Not only is this necessary in the social distancing phase, but it can also lower installation costs and save time. It’s also well-documented that the U.S. has exorbitant permitting and interconnection costs and permitting standards are not consistent across the country.
AHJs can save resources if they embrace new technologies and software to complete inspections remotely or online. Fortunately, the industry and AHJs across the country are addressing these challenges and the industry has the framework and head start with SolarAPP.
SEIA, SEIA chapters, manufacturers and other service providers should host more webinars and publish more information online. Most likely this will naturally happen, and I’ve already seen more webinars (and timely ones) from CALSSA and Aurora. Manufacturers will not be able to visit customers for training and meetings, so training will move online.
Generally, manufacturers only visit their largest customers (rightfully so), but with more online training, smaller contractors can access more quality information. More online education and information will help contractors stay informed about policy, business opportunities and technology. The industry needs to make sure that it is easy to access this information.
A final way contractors can mitigate a recession, and grow their business, is by offering additional products such as energy storage, EV installation and weatherization. Offering adjacent services will generate more demand and opportunities to sell solar.
There’s no way to sugarcoat the reality. COVID-19 will dramatically slow solar sales and leave many solar professionals unemployed. However, there will still be demand for solar and the next 12 to 18 months offer a unique opportunity to sincerely address some of the industry’s biggest challenges. Resilient and proactive people make up the solar industry and the industry will continue to grow and improve despite this massive challenge.
Charlie Seltzer has 5+ years of solar equipment sales experience. Most recently, he was the West Coast sales manager at CivicSolar. Before working in solar, he was a Peace Corps volunteer in the Dominican Republic where he worked with coffee cooperatives and led youth programs. He’s currently living in San Francisco and in addition to following the solar industry, he loves the outdoors, podcasts and cooking.