On a recent episode of The Pitch, a Solar Builder YouTube interview series, Editor-in-Chief Chris Crowell discusses marketing and selling home solar online — and the value of the online solar marketplace for local solar installation contractors — with Lockie Fleet, CEO of SolarReviews.
SolarReviews is an online marketplace for home solar + storage that’s generated nearly 700,000 leads and appointments in 2023 to date. It has about 800 U.S. solar installers in its database. The site provides customers with solar energy education – like objective analysis and rankings of PV products – as well as detailed information and community reviews of solar installers. The service then connects solar installers with interested customers.
Key to the SolarReviews approach is allowing the solar contractors in its network to compete fairly on quality and service, and not just on a generated list of price estimates.
“We obviously help those consumers get in contact with local contractors, and it sort of ends there,” Fleet tells us. “There’s some platforms out there that sometimes dictate the forms of communication that the contractors can use in terms of contacting and trying to sell a solar system to a consumer. That’s not really anything we do. We put them in contact with each other. That gives each installer the opportunity to present their products and their value proposition to the consumer. I think that’s really important in our industry — not just to look at the cheapest is always the best.”
Be sure to watch the full 13 min conversation above. They discuss:
- 0:22 – Quick overview of SolarReviews’ approach
- 2:23 – What leads to bad solar customer reviews?
- 3:03 – How do you generate more positive reviews?
- 4:51 – Factoring in the “25-year relationship” with customers
- 6:03 – Value vs. price: What makes for a winning bid?
- 7:30 – Top 10 States for Solar takeaways
- 8:09 – Outlook for home solar post-net metering
- 9:14 – Pros and cons for local solar installers post-IRA
In the transcript below, Chris and Lockie discuss what leads to bad solar customer reviews, and how selling on quality instead of price leads to better outcomes long term.
Crowell: You have a pretty rigorous scoring system for solar installers.
Fleet: You know, if [the customer] came through an online service to find contractors, it probably goes without saying that they’re going to revert back to the internet to do their research on those contractors once they’ve got the bids in front of them. So, online reputation is really important in the scheme of things. And that’s what we’re trying to do. We’re trying to help consumers make an educated decision on who they should have install their solar system.
Crowell: What would you say are often the common points of contention for homeowners that lead to lower scores?
Fleet: Pretty much what you would expect. Anyone who has a bad experience is much more likely to leave a bad review than someone that’s had a good experience.
The main ones are obviously poor customer service. Unfortunately not every install always goes off without a hitch. There’s bound to be some issues, and I think consumers do understand this. I think what it comes back to is: how was that problem handled? Consumers often care more about how the problem was handled rather than the problem itself.
Crowell: Is there anything you try to do to encourage more positive reviews? Or just more reviews in general and not just ‘one star, bad customer service’?
Fleet: Yeah, we help out. Like, we help [contractors], when they sign up for our platform, there’s a tool in there that they can send emails out to their past clients and say, ‘Hey, I’m new on SolarReviews. Can you leave a review for me?’
The companies in our database that often have good reviews and good scores are the ones that actually really care and look after their customers. I think a lot of that comes down to communication as well. Again, there’s a lot that goes into the install and the selling of a solar system, and there’s often a lot of things that are outside of the contractor’s control — permitting times, product issues, they can’t get the panels in — that sort of stuff. So, just being open and honest and having an open line of communication I think is really important.
Crowell: Customer service, for sure, but that can be kind of a broad bucket. One person’s view of how they were being treated is maybe different from someone else’s expectations right?
Fleet: I think the best practice is just to have check in points. … People that are spending money on a solar system are spending a large amount of money, you know? Not everyone has that money readily available to them. So, feeling like they’ve paid some money over to a contractor and … if they don’t hear from the contractor for a month because they’re waiting on a permit, it can sometimes send shivers down their spine, you know?
Just a simple check-in to say ‘hey, this is what we’re up to’ consistently along the process I think is really good. A lot of our [contractors] that have really good reputations, they have very good after-install service as well.
Crowell: Do you notice that customers come back onto the platform maybe months later or something with an update to their review? Because this is an ongoing relationship between you and your solar contractor right? So maybe the initial review is ‘everything went great, my system’s up and running,’ but it’s like a year later and there’s an issue.
Fleet: Absolutely. You hit the nail on the head. When a contractor sells a solar system, or a consumer buys a solar system, they’re both entering into a 25-year relationship. That ties back into the conversation earlier, about not just being in a race to the bottom, and maintaining some margin in your jobs to allow for future issues.
Solar experts estimate that up to 50% of the solar installs done today have been orphaned, which means that obviously the company that installed them is no longer around to service them. And that’s really important from a consumer point of view to understand that. Not to mention the fact that a lot of people don’t live in their homes for 25 years. So they are likely to become repeat customers if you look after them.
Crowell: Why are customers choosing one installer over the next then if it’s not price?
Fleet: The companies that take an educational approach … it’s very hard to sell something to someone if they don’t understand what you’re selling. So, the companies that take an educational approach and help the customer understand what solar is, how a solar system is actually going to help …
I mean, most people are looking into solar to try and save a bit of money. So, the companies that help them understand that … for example, a lot of people don’t even really understand how they’re currently billed by their utility let alone how they will be billed once they install a solar system. Getting people to really understand it helps you build value so it’s not just a race to the bottom.
And there’s a lot of other stuff that goes into it too. A more educated salesperson is going to be able to look at a main board and say ‘well, this needs to be upgraded,’ as opposed to when they get out there to do the site survey, and then they have to tack it onto the price and the customer feels like they’ve been a little bit wronged because they didn’t have all the information up front.
Pick up the last 5 mins of the conversation right there, which has some interesting insight into the pros and cons for smaller, local solar installation companies in the current market.
— Solar Builder magazine