One solar telemarketing company in Phoenix, AZ, used to call senior citizens and tell them that their electric bills were going to increase from $200 a month to $1,500 a month unless they bought a solar PV system.
The problem was that the consumers were already on the National Do Not Call Registry. The other problem was that the claims turned out to be untrue.
Both of those turned out to be a very big problem for the solar telemarketing company making the calls. And an even bigger problem for the solar installer who was buying the solar leads.
Shady solar telemarketing like this has become so widespread that it’s earning the whole solar industry a bad rap. If residential photovoltaic installers continue to rely so heavily on solar telemarketers for leads, there’s a real risk that solar installers will start to come off as today’s version of the aluminum siding scammers of the 1950s, as researcher William P. Hirshman writes.
Hirshman thinks that aggressive telemarketing could cause a public backlash against solar power. As he puts it, door-to-door salesmen employed by residential solar installers need someone to get a homeowner ready to sign a contract.
And that is the job of telemarketers – to make “cold calls” in cooling markets to generate hot leads forselling to lukewarm businesses at high prices. While a common sales approach for all kinds of products and services, telemarketing has now latched onto solar as a way of making money. But constant calling can also create a distaste for the technology, a sentiment struggling solar can do without, especially among those who might otherwise be supporters.
And that kind of backlash could slow down clean energy just when America needs to get off fossil fuels to cut carbon emissions and develop renewables to create good jobs.
Going green gone wrong
Back to Arizona. After angry consumers made numerous complaints to law enforcement, the Arizona Attorney General’s office filed a suit against the telemarketer, Going Green Solar, for consumer fraud. In 2015, the company settled with the state, and agreed to pay $111,000 to customers and another $120,000 in fines along with $17,000 in attorney’s fees.
In this case, the solar telemarketer fraudulently presented themselves as a clean energy company or even an electricity supplier, according to a story in the Arizona Republic:
Sales representatives claimed to be calling from the “utility savings program” without mentioning they were calling from Going Green. They used “misleading and deceptive graphs, worksheets and pictures” to make false promises, according to the settlement.
According to the settlement, some seniors not only didn’t get the savings promised, their energy costs went up after purchasing the Going Green systems.
Solar more expensive than grid power? Ouch.
Unfortunately, this is hardly a special case.
Going Green was the second solar telemarketing company during February of 2015 alone to settle claims with the attorney general in Arizona for fraud.
In a “remarkably similar” case, “Stealth Solar owners Fred and Sandra Richie acknowledged the company illegally advertised services through deceptive telemarketing, bogus mailers, and untrue promises of savings and government subsidies.”
Several other companies were also targeted by the state for deceptive telemarketing. Indeed, solar telemarketing has gotten so bad in Arizona that later in 2015, the state legislature passed a consumer protection bill targeting marketers of residential solar PV.
When solar telemarketing reflects badly on solar installers
Though Going Green Solar represented itself as a solar equipment provider and installer, part of the fraud was that the company was merely a telemarketer.
But more troubling for the industry, and for solar installers who buy solar leads instead of generating their own, is that the misdeeds of the telemarketer can be traced back to the client who buys the telemarketing leads.
It’s not hard for the public to locate the companies who buy leads from solar telemarketers.
For example, Glendale, AZ resident Ben Richardson responded to an invitation from a local TV station to consumers who had received calls from Go Green Solar. Richardson worked with the station’s consumer advocate on a plan to trace telemarketing calls from Go Green by taking the telemarketer’s bait:
Richardson set an appointment. The next day he says a man showed up at his home from Discover Energy Solutions. The company is based at 2400 Central Avenue in Phoenix. Richardson says the rep told him the “Go Green” campaign telemarketers work for Discover Energy Solutions.
“I think inside I was doing a little happy dance because I finally had a business card and he admitted it was his company that was doing this,” Richardson said.
Not surprisingly, when confronted with the telemarketer’s misdeeds, the solar installer distanced itself from the solar telemarketing firm:
Discover Energy Solutions (DES) said they are not responsible for the calls to Richardson. DES says their telemarketers don’t use the words “Go Green campaign” in their sales pitch as many other Phoenix-area telemarketers do. However, according to Richardson, the rep for DES confirmed for him that the “Go Green” verbiage is used by DES.
Great way to take responsibility, huh?
This kind of buck-passing doesn’t reassure the consumers who were annoyed by the telemarketers.
Because consumers rightly blame the solar company more than they blame the telemarketer, the story is serious bad news for the brand of the solar installer. And it reflects poorly on the solar industry as a whole.
A few bad apples make the whole barrel look rotten.
If you buy solar leads, you’re responsible for how the leads were generated
Both legally and ethically, a solar installer that buys leads from a telemarketer can’t distance itself from fraudulent phone sales tactics by saying that “we didn’t make the calls.”
If you paid for the calls, or bought leads from the calls, then you’re responsible for how the calls were made.
Your lawyers will tell you that. But more importantly, your marketers will tell you that too. The blowback from bad telemarketing can be worse for marketing than for legal.
Once you settle with state authorities and pay a fine, legally you may be able to move on with your business.
But you may never be able to clear your name with consumers once your solar company is associated with shady telemarketing. And it doesn’t matter to the public whether the phones were located in your office or in your lead vendor’s office. Either way, the buck stops with you.
Play it safe when buying solar leads
If you’re going to buy lists of solar leads from third-party vendors, especially telemarketers, make sure to know how those leads were generated.
Ask basic questions to make sure the vendor is doing things legally and ethically.
But in the long term, no matter how fastidious your solar telemarketing vendor, leads you buy from someone else are never as good as solar leads you generate yourself:
- Consumers hate telemarketing. Did you need me to tell you that? Even if a potential buyer loves solar and wants to get some for himself, he doesn’t want to hear from your salesperson during dinner about it. Instead, the buyer wants to talk to you on his own time and only when he’s ready. And if you got his number via shady telemarketing, the consumer may not really want to hear from you at all.
- Consumers don’t need your salespeople until they’re ready to buy. Before the Internet came along, consumers had few sources of information about products and services. Aside from ads, consumers got most of their information about what to buy from company salespeople. Today, a consumer will surf the Web to compare product features and prices and see which company appears more trustworthy. By the time a buyer talks to a salesperson, that buyer may have made up 70% of her decision already.
- Shared leads yield lower sales. Sales leads you buy from a vendor may be shared with other solar companies. It’s hard enough to close a lead that comes in directly to your company. Why reduce your odds by sharing a lead with two or three other solar installers?
Better to generate your own leads
It takes longer to generate your own solar leads. But leads you generate yourself, preferably on your own website, are better in every way than leads you buy.
Your own leads are fresher, they’re yours alone, and, most importantly, you know they’re really interested. That they haven’t been tricked into getting your solar pitch by vacation offers or other deceptive marketing.
As solar telemarketing scams become more widely known, solar companies that generate their own leads will develop a competitive advantage.
They’ll earn the trust of the public and get more business.
And, in the future, if the solar telemarketing industry should start to collapse under the weight of its own bad reputation and attacks from government regulators, solar companies who’ve weaned themselves off of telemarketing vendors will be better prepared to continue to make sales in a post-telemarketing world.
— Erik Curren, Curren Media Group