How to Reach and Acquire Residential Solar Customers

How SEIA’s I Like Solar campaign works

In residential solar, one thing is clear: we need to understand and listen to the customer.

That may seem like obvious advice in any industry, but it’s not as simple as it sounds. Solar customers come in many flavors. And based on what we heard from a panel on the subject at Solar Power International last week, most solar companies are not paying close enough attention to them.

Reaching customers — education is key

Nowhere was this better illustrated than with some highlights from extensive research by panel moderator Paula Mints of SPV Market Research. She shared some startling results that showed a major need for consumer education — and for better service from solar providers. A few of note:

  • A surprising number of people with solar on their roof don’t know the size of their system.
  • We can’t abandon the customer after they sign a lease agreement.
  • Customers need clear — and honest — information about what they’ll be paying each month with a lease or PPA.
  • When shopping for solar and getting bids from different providers, customers need a way to compare apples to apples.

How do we get these customers in the first place? Mints’s research found different results for leases, PPAs, and purchases — but not surprisingly, recommendations ranked high for all, with door-to-door sales also high on the list. A newer sales channel that installers should pay attention to is the Internet, which got high rankings in all three categories.

Social media — a powerful tool

The Solar Energy Industries Association is testing the Internet waters with a social media campaign, which Susanna Murley of SEIA discussed. We know that social influence is important in making solar sales, she said. Solar is not something you can try out before you buy, so there’s more reliance on other customers’ experience. The average decision time to go solar is 8.9 months. But when a potential customer sees PV on their neighbor’s roof and talks to them about it, they tend to go solar three times faster.

What’s a good tool to spread the good solar word at scale? Facebook, naturally. Murley pointed out how quickly Facebook users adopted the equals sign on their profiles in support of marriage equality. Facebook can scale fast.

SEIA’s I Like Solar campaign lets users “solarize” their Facebook profile, showing they have solar and writing about their experience. The campaign is so far seeing an impressive 60% response rate — showing it can help increase solar adoption.

Focusing on friends, Murley said, can help demystify solar. And the power of connections on Facebook is such that even if only 10% of users are solar customers, 70% of the audience can be reached.

To get more data on how well the Facebook campaign works, SEIA is running research on it with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL). They’re also looking for more partners on the campaign.

Targeting women — the customer is queen

Who spends a lot of time on the Internet, and on social media in particular? Women. Glenna Wiseman of Identity3 made a case for marketing solar to women.

Women are the Chief Purchasing Officers of the home, she noted, controlling 80% of the money in American households. Women pay the bills.

Like all solar customers, women don’t all fit into one big group. That’s where close listening comes in.

In general, though, a study conducted by Identity3 found that women go solar for these primary reasons: 1) money savings, 2) environmental impact, 3) community leadership, and 4) modeling good behaviors to their kids.

How do we sell to women? Apart from the Internet, kitchen-table selling is important. When talking to women, Wiseman advised, remember that they may be more cyclical than linear. Do not take silence or head nodding as a sign that you’re going to get the deal, she said. And ask about their lifestyle and how solar will fit with that. It can help to use female salespeople. Current female customers will tell you how to get more like them, so ask them.

Wiseman reminded us that what we’re selling is energy — not necessarily a particular type of equipment. That’s important to keep in mind when talking to customers. Like Mints’s research, the Identity3 survey pointed to the need for education. Just a few results: 74% of the women surveyed think solar is too expensive, 14% said the financial benefits are not clear to them, 10% said it’s too hard to understand, and said 9% they don’t know how it’s installed.

Lead generation — faster is better

Of course, there’s always lead generation. The lead generator on the panel, Eren Omer Atesmen of Clean Energy Experts, got into the nitty-gritty of reeling in customers — something he said has gotten tougher now that we’re past the early adopters stage.

How do you turn a lead into an opportunity? Faster is better, he said. He had numbers to back this up.

Calling a lead within one minute is 400 times better than waiting — and even calling within 24 hours is better than waiting longer.

As in most solar endeavors, persistence is key — but don’t annoy, Atesmen cautioned. At the same time, don’t give up after one call — that would be akin to leaving 52% of your leads on table. Eventually you’ll run into diminishing returns. After 5-6 calls, he advised, move on to a drip campaign, always focusing on the good leads.

In the ongoing effort to reduce acquisition costs, Atesmen said, we need to 1) understand customer acquisition metrics, 2) measure customer acquisition costs, and 3) understand marketing channels.

Channels, he added, get saturated over time. For example, canvassing may come with a lower cost at the moment, but as more people do it, that channel will get bid up.