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Knowledge is Power

Is Solar "One Size Fits All"?

Recently, I spoke to a homeowner in Pennsylvania about solar for his home. The first thing he wanted me to know is that he has looked into solar before, with different companies, and he "just didn't like the way they talked."

I laughed and told him I get this a lot, and it's why I'm an independent consultant. "Solar isn't one size fits all," I said.

He agreed, and kept coming back to that statement.

He asked if he needed a battery. I asked him a few questions and I determined, "no, it sounds like it would be a waste of your money, unless you have a problem with blackouts in your area."

He said, "Every one of those companies was trying to push a battery on me, and you're the first person who told me I don't need one."

I told him, "Well, you know, most solar companies are focused on volume, and the way to do that is to sell the same thing to every homeowner so you don't have to train everyone from top down on options. But that's what I like about being independent: I can help you figure out what you really need, and I can find it for you, so you have the right system for your home."

"Because it isn't 'one size fits all,'" he said. "I'm glad you said that."

Solar Ain't Like Dusting Crops, Boy!

Traveling through hyperspace ain't like dusting crops, boy! Without precise calculations we could fly right through a star or bounce too close to a supernova and that'd end your trip real quick, wouldn't it?

I guess dusting crops was more common in a galaxy far, far away, but I get Han's point. When you go solar, you're putting a power plant on your property, and that means investing in proper installation, safety standards, grid connection and operation, long term service and support, and the best warranties you can find to protect your investment for the long term. It's not the same as putting a swimming pool in the backyard and the kids stop using it after two years and you simply stop filling it; a power plant provides energy for your home, and it should be so well designed and operate so reliably that you forget it's there.

I started in solar with one of the largest and best reviewed companies in the industry, but quickly became disillusioned with operations. The company was structured for rapid growth, with a constant infusion of outside investors, a quick expansion of administrative support (including an office of people to always answer the phone when you call, even though they had no knowledge of solar, company operations, or access to any homeowner files). On the ground, so to speak, we were low-paid, commission-only reps in an office with high turnover. We were trained how to pitch the company's solar program, but when we asked questions, we were told that information would come later.

I decided to leave when we added a new utility and were sent out in volume to sell to homeowners in new areas without being educated on the utility's net metering program; when I realized the way were designing systems for this utility would cost the homeowners more than staying with the utility, I felt betrayed, and I knew that I had betrayed the homeowners I was meeting.

To be fair, I truly believe most agents involved simply did not know the facts, but neither did they want to know, as information can make a deal more complicated and it becomes more difficult to meet quota. A sales team focused on volume must keep all elements of operations as simple and streamlined as possible, but "one size fits all" does not serve your best interest.

Reputation is Everything

I used to own the highest rated valet parking companies in the Charlotte, NC, area. In the beginning, I sent weekly email memos to the staff explaining the importance of daily vigilance to service to build a solid reputation.

"Reputation is everything," I would tell them each week, "and once you damage it, it takes a lot of effort to repair it."

I guarded our reputation by taking only jobs I knew we could manage, and turning down jobs that would set us up for failure. While some companies will take any and every contract to bring in as much revenue as possible, my approach was to create a niche of excellence, whereby my employees were happy to work, our clients were happy with our service, and our reputation would grow our business.

After about a year and a half of operations, we started a marketing campaign focused on Google review requests, and we received dozens of 5-star reviews. While most companies ignore online reviews and most people who submit online reviews are dissatisfied, I have always felt a company should not shy away from honest feedback. And feedback is a goal, it can affect every aspect of operations in a positive way, because everyone wants the feedback to be positive.

As a result, we had so many 5-star reviews, the one poor review had no effect, and we were rated 4.8 of 5 stars in comparison to 3.6 of 5 stars for the next best rated company in our market. We earned those reviews and those reviews helped us grow the business, at a rate of 50% increase of our annual revenue, year after year.

Bad Companies vs Bad Industry

Look through the comments section of any solar ad on social media, and at least one person (probably a bot, let's be honest) will claim "solar is a scam!"

The truth is, there is a lot of money to be made in the energy industry, and information is guarded like intellectual property. As with any community in any part of the world, there are greedy individuals, there are small-minded individuals who believe they have to cut corners to succeed, there are snake oil charlatans and there are the slight of hand artists who only let you see what they want you to see.

And not all of it is intentional. I spent my first year in solar researching how the system works, researching the different panels, inverters, batteries, and peripheral components to the system, and I still learn something new every now and then. To be a true solar consultant, you have to have a high level of knowledge, the ability to humble yourself to admit when you aren't sure of an answer, and you have to know where to go to get information when it's outside your knowledge base. Being a solar sales rep is a completely different approach. A volume-minded "one size fits all" rep can't know too much. If he or she does, information starts creeping into the pitch and the homeowner starts to ask questions that can't be answered, and trust is undermined. And without trust, a company and all its employees have a poor reputation.

This isn't an issue with solar; this is the world we live in. It's every industry. You have to find the people you trust and work only with them. And if you're putting a power plant on your roof, it's a pretty good idea to work with someone you trust.

Knowledge is Power

Most solar companies are licensed to install and will handle city and county permitting to ensure your system operates properly and safely. It's not out of the ordinary, though, for a homeowner to ask me if I know a company that provides service for their existing system because they chose a DIY option, a small installer that was not warranty-certified by the manufacturers, or their installation company went out of business.

It's important to have as much information as possible to make an informed decision, so you know what to expect. A small company may cut corners or may not know about gaps in coverage, licenses or permits; a large company may have communication issues and focus only on the high level of overseeing tens of thousands of concurrent installations nationwide.

And that is why I love my position as an independent consultant. I only work with companies I have verified are fully licensed and insured, financially stable for a reliable future of operations, and have installation agreements with the products to carry their warranties. What I do is help homeowners wade through all the options to find the best fit, and then I assist with the installation process to ensure they have the best experience possible.

This approach has value. It isn't the most expensive option, but it certainly isn't the cheapest. I do think it's the most valuable, however.

The homeowner I spoke to this week told me, "I just wish they wouldn't tell me it's free. I know it's not free, nothing is free. But they'll tell me it's free to get in the door, and then they try to charge me an arm and a leg."

And when homeowners tell me that, I always say, "I can't tell you what it will cost until I run the numbers, but I'll tell you right away if I think it's a bad deal for you. I don't want to waste your time or mine, and I'll explain to you exactly why the numbers don't work, so you'll know."

This is my reputation, and I am very protective of it.

And this is your home, probably your biggest single investment, and, for many of you, the foundation of your retirement. Even if your home is not a good fit to benefit from solar, you deserve to be well-informed so you know all your options.

Because knowledge is the true power, and you can't own it if you don't have it.

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