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What the solar industry can learn from the automobile industry

The process of buying a car has evolved considerably with the proliferation of the internet, as nicely explained in a recent article by The Economist “Death of a car salesman“. Where once upon a time, customers visited 5 dealers on average before buying a car, they now visit 1.6 dealers. What has changed? Customers now do most of their research online beforehand, choosing the car they are interested in, comparing prices, and selecting the features they want before setting foot in a dealership. By the time they are face to face with a salesperson, all that is left is the test drive and haggling about the price.

So what can be learned from the automobile industry?

There are a number of obvious parallels between a solar purchase and a car purchase, such as the similar price point and the complexity of the purchasing decision, but there are also some differences. Homeowners are not nearly as solar savvy as car savvy on average, meaning that the initial time and effort spent on researching solar energy is even more important. A Google Think infographic of the car buyer’s experience shows that more time is spent in the “Thinking” and “Researching” phases than in the “Buying” phase. In the solar business, where most homeowners are first-time buyers, (unlike the car industry where most people are not shopping around for the first time), this time spent thinking and researching, and the quality of these experiences, can make the difference between a sale or no sale.

Homeowners may not be going online to choose one brand of panel over another, or choosing the features to include in their solar installation, but they are trying to figure out if solar energy makes sense for them. What does it cost? Will they save money? Is their roof suitable? Will trees and shade be a problem? What size system do they need? Should they buy or lease? And will the solar panels cover all of their normal electricity use?

These are the same questions that solar installers have to answer, explaining in detail, time and time again to prospective customers, all while the homeowner wonders if the installer is just saying the right things to make a quick sale or if they are getting the honest goods (as the expression goes, never ask a barber if you need a haircut!). One of the reasons people prefer doing more of their car research online is because they find the experience at a dealership to be stressful and not enjoyable. Customers are finding what they want online so they can minimize this time. The solar industry can learn from this, making it easier for homeowners to find the information they need online, while making the sales process simpler and less expensive for the installers.

Addressing soft costs

We know that more than half of solar system costs are actually soft costs, to do with installation, permits, and customer acquisition to name a few. That last soft cost – customer acquisition – is an important one, making up about 9% of the total system cost. Bringing down this cost, along with other soft costs, is a major goal of the industry and the U.S. Department of Energy, with many millions in government funding being spent supporting new ideas to lower them, thereby making solar more affordable for homeowners.

One way to help lower the customer acquisition cost is to recognize that innovative software tools have a big role to play, making the experience of researching solar energy a more enjoyable and rewarding experience for homeowners, so that when they are finally ready to go solar, they approach solar installers fully armed with the knowledge that solar energy makes sense for them. This in turn makes the sales experience easier and shorter for the installers, and ups the chances that the installer site visit with the homeowner will convert into an actual sale.

Yes, there are quite a few websites out there, but most are either highly technical government or university sites that are not easy for homeowners to navigate or they are lead generation machines, giving a bare minimum of information and hoping to off load the potential customer to installers as quickly as possible. What the homeowners really need in this rapidly evolving market are truly innovative tools that are user-friendly and take their best interests to heart, guiding them through the early stages of the process without aggressive sales tactics.

Digital touch points

Studies have shown that brands with more digital touch points are more likely to be selected by consumers, where touch points are means by which an individual is reached, whether online or at the point of sale. According to the Google Think infographic, the top online sources for car buyers are manufacturer sites, dealer sites, review sites, auto-related sites and video sites. In the case of the solar purchasing experience, homeowners may not be focused on specific equipment brands, but still a parallel can be drawn: homeowners will need a number of touch points before they feel ready to go solar, and a good deal of those will be online. Eventually, the homeowner, after doing his/her homework online, will approach installers for quotes. When they do so, with the right online experience under their belt, those calls to installers will not be preliminary fishing expeditions with little chance of resulting in a sale – they will be a reasonable opportunity for a good solar quote to result in a satisfied customer.

There’s lots to be learned from other industries. A solar industry that is open to new ways of doing business and ready to adapt to the latest realities will be stronger for it!

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Simone Garneau is the co-founder of Sunmetrix, an online consumer education and customer acquisition platform for residential solar energy. Her focus is on the consumer experience and business development. Sunmetrix offers two free products to help with consumer education: Discover and GO.With Sunmetrix GO homeowners can test drive solar energy and see what solar can do for them in near real-time and in real dollar terms. With Sunmetrix Discover homeowners can explore solar energy, use the solar panel calculator, as well as the buy or lease calculator, find installers and get quotes. (http://sunmetrix.com) Follow us on Twitter @Sunmetrix

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