Whether you’re a solar megawatt developer or a solar kilowatt installer, you may think that the goal is to sell solar panels and megawatts to each prospect. But the truth is that your main goal really should be to inspire trust….which will then lead to closing the sale.
In simplest terms, what I mean by trust is this: You offer a solar product or service that has features and benefits at a reasonable price. I believe in the value and benefits of your product’s features and that it’s worth the offered price. Only then will I trust you and sign the purchase order or contract.
I know some of you are thinking: 'Trust-shmust, price only matters today,' but I think that’s short-sighted. If price were the only consideration for purchases of any product, then the world would be driving Yugos; cheaper PC-based computers and mobile phone companies would have driven Apple out of the laptop and phone businesses. Samsung and any smart phone can make a call and surf the net. Despite similar features, Apple has built so much brand trust that many buyers are willing to pay a premium for Apple.
Similarly, I think that one of the reasons why solar pv manufacturers are in a commoditized price war is because utility developers, EPCs, and installers trust that all solar PV brands will basically perform at the same level. Consequently, price is the only thing that differentiates these brands. If Chinese Tier 1 solar products had not built a commoditized trusted reputation (one apple is just as delicious as another), there would never have been any trade complaint or tariffs imposed. Installers and bankers wouldn’t have trusted making these solar purchases…but they have.
So we have trust in most solar PV modules. So, now what? If all solar PV brands are trusted to work and last, is there any hope to get out of a race to the bottom price war? This question goes to all products and sectors, especially large-scale EPCs. The solution is partly innovation, and it's also to build ever stronger trusted brand relationships that lead to rock solid loyalty and referrals.
Inspiring this type of deep brand trust (i.e., comfort/familiarity/security/low risk) is complex. There’s really no set formula. But let’s at least make a few generalizations.
Inspiring a deep level of solar brand trust depends on:
1. Your solar product or service. Let’s be clear: You can’t inspire any level of trust based on a crappy product, even if it’s the least expensive in the world. I’ll point to the Yugo again. All a prospect has to do is take a little time to test drive and/or compare the cheapest product to a quality product, and the poor quality brand will eventually implode. So, having quality solar products or service is the first goal for building any amount of customer trust.
2. Your solar sales reps. If your sales people care more about sales goals than fulfilling the needs of a customer, then there’s a good chance that the customer is going to sense that. I’ve heard of many examples in the residential market where a couple will say that they chose one solar installer over another because they didn’t trust the losing bid's sales person. Perhaps he or she was pushy, desperate, or evasive about the fine print of contracts. On the B to B side, it's often a longtime sales rep who can convince an installer to try something new. That leap of faith is not only based on the new product specs or reviews, but also on the experience (trust) of the sales person's past recommendations. The lesson here is for sales people to have knowledge, patience, and confidence about the product or service that they represent. Desperation to achieve sales goals diminishes trust--especially when you recommend something based on a goal and not on the customer's need.
3. Peers, family, and colleagues. There is no way to contain opinions today. Friends, families, installers, utilities managers, they all talk, email, tweet, and share information at conferences, even when they’re competitors. That’s why every customer interaction is so important today. One bad experience, from the receptionist to the CEO, can quickly reach your prospect, potentially killing a utility RFP invite or 5KW solar quote. Whether on a website, Facebook, or LinkedIn, testimonials and recommendations break down a prospect's risk and builds familiarity, opening the door to trust. So be sure to use testimonials in print, videos, and especially on your website. Along the same lines, highlight any objective journal article, awards, or testing/standards agency (NABCEP, UL, TVA, etc). These can also enhance brand trust.
4. Appearance. When I say appearance, it’s in the broadest sense of the word. Appearance means not only how you dress, shave, or smell like cigarettes or cotton candy, but also it applies to your solar website, logo, ads, brochures, videos, social networking profiles, and the pleasant (or tired?) sound of your voice on the phone. In a perfect world, we would not judge a book by its cover. Unfortunately, this is not a perfect world, and a part of our human brains are hard wired to be on guard for danger. As a result, we make quick judgments and decisions and search for the most familiar and comforting appearances. So, strive to have the best (yet authentic) appearance. That being said, if you have a Maserati appearance with a Yugo undercarriage, the above trust builders will eventually reveal your inner Yugo, so appearances only goes so far.
5. History. There are so many new solar companies out there, so if you have a long history and survived solar’s ups and downs, your prospects will lower their level of suspicion and give deference to your years of experience. Be sure to promote that. If you don’t have a long history, then you only have the other trust factors mentioned to rely on. In addition, you can make the case that your new solar company’s innovation trumps the experience of veteran competitors, but it must be a compelling case for why it’s time to take a risk and trust a product with a short track record. (Hint: See #3 above).
6. Personality. I’ve brought this up in previous posts, but I think that many solar companies lack a brand voice. Take away their logos and colors and just read the text of their marketing materials, and it’s difficult to tell the difference. A unique, likable, brand voice inspires customers to press that “contact us” button. A boring, confusingly technical or generic voice makes customers feel like they must continue to search for "the right" company. They may finally find very similar information on another website, but that information will be presented in such a way that inspires the person to feel comfortable pressing “contact us,” and surrendering their name, telephone, email address, and the best time to call…
7. Transparency. You can’t fudge it today and hide...anything. You really can’t. There are no more secrets in the age of the Internet and social networking. So, instead of hiding the length of your inverter lifetime, or presenting a higher than average utility rate increase to make the ROI look better, just come clean. In fact, add that you’re revealing information that some competitors may try to hide. If you’re not transparent, it’s going to come back to haunt your company eventually. So be a long-term marketer and be as transparent as possible. That strategy will not only close the sale, but also inspire more referrals.
I bring up this topic of inspiring trust because I truly believe it is important for solar competition and for the entire solar industry. The fossil fuel enemies of solar are constantly trying to cast doubt on solar reliability and its value. Each solar company has to do its level best to fight those insinuations and misconceptions. In other words, we must earn and keep the public trust for solar to succeed.
Solar is up against trusted fossil fuels. That's not say we don't mistrust BP in the Gulf of Mexico. It means that, in general, most Americans trust getting energy when they fill up their tanks with gas and plug their toasters into an AC socket. It may lead to a coal, gas, or nuclear energy source, but it works. To change that fossil fuel/nuclear power trusted relationship, we must all endeavor to protect our solar reputations, maintain strong business ethics, and inspire even more trust with our prospects, politicians, and the media. We must show that plugging your toaster or car into a solar source is not only reliable and cost effective, but also that it's better for children, drought, clean water, and clean air--trust premiums.
So with all of that in mind, please... UnThink Solar.
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