By Jason Polka, CEO of Modernize
In the home improvement industry, solar installation is still considered the new trade in town after decades of existence. It hasn’t been that long since the boom years, when the industry benefited from being the shiny new environmentally friendly upgrade, and early adopters clamored to be the first on their block to “go solar.” But that wave crested a few years ago in many major U.S. markets. Now, solar installers have to sell to a mass audience that doesn’t necessarily “need” solar. This new world puts the onus on product brands and installers to connect with qualified buyers in fresh, evolving and exciting ways.
It’s difficult to predict whether selling will be harder or easier in 2019. The industry has the headwind of rising financing costs due to interest rates inching up and the threat of tariff-based price increases. On the other hand, this could be big year for solar because homeowners will want to capitalize on the 30% federal solar tax credit that’s in place for projects that begin construction in 2019. That credit will decline to 26% for 2020, 22% for 2021 and disappear after that for residential customers.
So that means installers in 2019 have to be good at selling. Even with the nudge from favorable tax credits expiring, the honeymoon period of the early adopter growth is over. If contractors rely on their grandfather’s method of sales, they will struggle to meet their acquisition targets. In a recent meeting with Bob Brunson, president of consulting company Rogue Enterprises and former SVP of ZOI Solar, he quipped “residential solar is sold, not bought.” I found that intriguing and asked what advice he could share so that others could succeed in solar sales. From our conversation, we identified five tips and techniques for creating a sales-oriented, high performing culture.
Think innovatively about hiring
Brunson has been working in solar sales for the past several years after a career in other homeowner-driven industries including home mortgages, real estate and technology. He found that the biggest difference within solar is that there aren’t a lot of experienced salespeople. Brunson has worked around this by actively seeking hires from related fields like roofing, security or electrical. He also recommends recruiting military vets returning to the workforce.
“You can find and hire diamonds-in-the-rough through Indeed or career fairs,” he said. “As long as you’re convinced they’re a good door-knocker, you can train them on products and how to conduct a consultative sale.”
Create a talent-friendly culture
This is something we strive for at Modernize, so I wasn’t surprised to hear Brunson say this applies in solar sales, as well. In a tight labor market, it’s much more productive to keep the sales staff you’ve already recruited and trained than to find new people. Retaining the newest generation of workers is different, particularly because they want to be where there’s a sense of mission. Fortunately, solar companies can play this card as being part of a movement that’s bringing clean energy to our communities.
“People in sales can go anywhere to make money,” Brunson said. “In solar, salespeople can make good commissions while contributing to the community. It also helps to make the company a fun environment.”
Train, train and train some more
Since residential solar is still a relatively new space compared to others in the home improvement industry, salespeople can have a steep learning curve. They need to learn the technology and when to bring engineers into the sales play. They need to be familiar with economics, and when to bring the financing people into the mix. Salespeople also need to grasp the buyer’s psychology and the fine dance of getting them from “maybe” to “yes.” Finally, they also need to fully understand the selling process and when to ask for the order.
Brunson created his own “Solar University” covering all that material. “We’d have sales training twice per week, and it could take up to six months before a new rep is truly ready to go out on their own,” he said. “It’s not just knowing about inverters, DC to AC, kilowatts and panels. They also need to know human behavior.”
Fortunately, there are many great resources like Sandler Training that can really turbocharge performance.
Provide a growth path
In addition to culture, the path to better retention of productive salespeople is through ensuring they have a growth path. In a smaller company this can, of course, be a challenge. An essential management technique is to uncover what growth means for each salesperson, personally. Is it a fancier title? Additional training? Managing an intern or junior employee? Participating on the company’s marketing committee?
Solar companies should make career growth conversations part of their interaction with each seller each year. It’s crucial to effective management. “People don’t quit companies,” Brunson said. “They quit bosses.”
The final and most critical tip of all that Brunson mentioned was the importance of constantly measuring performance. Some of those metrics should be aimed at the marketing frontend, such as the number of leads, the cost per lead and the quality of leads. But those marketing metrics should extend into and through the full sales funnel, so there is an established average cost to acquire a customer. That combines the cost per lead acquisition and the true quality of leads. When measured properly, bad leads will become obvious — and that’s something everyone wants to know quickly before sales tail off.
“I found through CRM-based metrics that having a diverse set of lead sources is essential,” said Brunson. “When I was with ZOI Solar, we canvassed, bought ads directly from Google and got leads from Modernize. This diversity always helped us keep a constant flow of lead types so we could continuously tune and optimize our business.”
Jason Polka is the CEO of Modernize, a company that uses business intelligence software to connect homeowners with contractors. Jason has led numerous initiatives to identify and execute new services and differentiated product opportunities within the contractor referral market. Modernize’s business model is designed to simplify and remove any friction from the process of hiring a contractor.