Excellent customer service is extremely important during all stages of solar PV sales and installation. This is particularly true for commercial solar installations, given the often considerable size of the project and the impact it can have on the client’s operations and bottom line.Having literally “written the book” on commercial solar, Jim Jenal, founder and CEO of Pasadena, California-based solar installation company Run on Sun, has a wealth of information on what contributes to a positive customer experience in commercial solar projects. Jenal has blogged about the solar industry since 2009 and has been interviewed by the Los Angeles Times and the Wall Street Journal. His book Commercial Solar: Step-by-Step is an in-depth look at what commercial solar customers should think about when considering solar.
For solar contractors considering how to excel in customer service for their commercial solar customers, this article compiles some of Jenal’s insights on this topic from Commercial Solar: Step-by-Step (page numbers noted in parentheses), as well as blog posts and interviews.
Know Your Buyer
One of the first considerations for delivering excellent customer service is to fully understand where your prospective commercial client is coming from, according to Jenal. Knowing the concerns, wishes, and assumptions of the facilities manager or building owner allows you to anticipate their needs so you can offer them the best experience and clearest understanding of how solar can improve their bottom line.
Facilities managers and other commercial prospects may be under considerable pressure to lower operational costs and be very interested in finding creative alternatives to save money, as Jenal explains in his book. He recommends finding out what cost-saving approaches they may have tried in the past, such as lighting and HVAC system upgrades or smart devices to reduce peak power demand. Perhaps they have considered solar in the past but found that lack of financing made it a challenge.
It’s also important to understand the extent of your prospect’s knowledge about solar so you can speak to their interests and level of technical awareness. Your client may be highly trained in engineering or technology and want comprehensive, technical details about all aspects of solar. Others may educate themselves extensively about solar before soliciting bids. Conversely, Jenal describes clients who are social workers who “don’t need that level of technical detail but are really big on finding that sense of trust.” (11:23) He explains that his company strives to speak to what each group is looking for because “that is where the connection gets made.” (9:44)
Understanding your commercial solar customer can help you better address their needs. That includes understanding their past efforts to save on energy, as well as their knowledge of solar.
A Consultative Sales Process
The proposal process is a key element, according to Jenal, because it sets the standard for the quality of the relationship. Make it clear that you are doing your utmost to offer a bid that accurately reflects the cost of the project to avoid “inconvenience, delays and costly change orders once the project is underway.” (29)
Demonstrating honesty and expertise during this stage is vital to building trust. Jenal describes how the prospect will have a lot of questions, perhaps they don’t know a lot about solar or because they have done the research and want to assess your level of proficiency. Offer fact-based answers and be ready to answer questions that are outside of what is typically asked. Be candid when you don’t know something and be willing to educate yourself about it.
Additionally, while it should go without saying, Jenal also emphasizes that "Honest communication...starts with the fact that not every potential client is a good fit for solar and you need to be able to tell them that.” (1:02)
Jenal recommends managing customer expectations by making sure they understand system performance projections and the ins and outs of their bill. For example, make sure your client understands the impact net metering and how being a net seller or net purchaser of energy will affect their bills, and avoid offering overly simplistic savings explanations.
Finally, Jenal notes that going the extra mile can make a big difference. He describes an example when Run on Sun secured a bid partly because of the level of support they offered around a time-sensitive rebate application process. Jenal writes how the Director of Facilities appreciated that they offered “to take care of all the paperwork, filing within the deadline period and eliminating the extra bureaucratic steps the school would otherwise have to take.” (121)
A great commercial solar sales process educates the customer and answers all questions they may have, manages customer expectations, and goes the extra mile on things like rebate applications.
The Right Proposal
In addition to answering all of your commercial customer’s questions, a comprehensive and accurate proposal is essential. Your proposal should have all the information the client will need, including an overview of their bills and detailed estimates of how much a solar system will save them—with any relevant information about net metering, rebates, and incentives, and a comprehensive shading analysis. The proposal process should also include a thorough review of the electrical system to identify any interconnection issues.
A key factor in your ability to deliver accurate solar savings estimates is having the right savings assessment tools. Jenal emphasizes the importance of an approach that accounts for complexities like time of use rates. He suggests being conservative with your estimates so that the customer will be pleasantly surprised.
Jenal also highlights that providing complete and accurate financing information is particularly important for a decision as significant as whether or not to install a commercial solar system. Materials on financing options should be thorough, including information tailored to your prospect’s region. Jenal also points out that, the solar contractor can play a valuable role in helping customers to understand their financing options.
A strong commercial solar proposal will include all the information customers need, particularly accurate shading analysis, performance estimates, and solar savings estimates.
Clarity and Excellence During—and After—the Installation
Once you’ve secured the sale, walk your customer through the solar installation and permitting process so they know what to expect. Be up front with the client about the length of time it may take for a utility to process the paperwork and issue a Permission to Operate letter, discussing the best and worst case scenarios. (63)
When it comes to system permitting and applications for financial incentives, Jenal recommends offering a seamless process by handling the process for your client candidly and with attention to detail. In his book, he offers examples such as bringing the required utility paperwork to the first meeting after the contract is signed, and carefully filling out rebate applications to avoid having to reapply. With the inspector, Jenal recommends striving for a collaborative and communicative approach, as well as detailed plans from which you rarely deviate. (64)
Of course, it is paramount that the installation itself surpasses expectations—sticking to the projected timeline and budget and having strong processes to avoid change orders as much as possible. Upon completion of the installation, walk the client through the system so they can see for themselves how much power it is producing.
After the solar installation is complete, walk your customer through the system so you can be sure they understand it and know it's working correctly.
Finally, your relationship with the client shouldn’t end when the installation is complete. Jenal recommends monitoring system performance to detect maintenance or connection issues when they arise, and staying in communication with the client—especially if you’d like to secure referrals. Providing operations and maintenance services is also something you can consider.
Excellent customer service comes from establishing and keeping a client’s trust with honesty, expertise, and clear communication. This kind of approach can help you secure those all-important commercial clients and advance your company’s growth and reputation. It will also ensure that your customers are satisfied and come away knowing they have “delivered to [their] commercial operation a long-term benefit that will not only enrich the company’s bottom line, but will improve the world at the same time.” (129)