Apparently, a few bad apples among solar installers are making the whole barrel smell rotten for homeowners interested in home solar, according to new research.
That’s giving electric utilities an excuse to attack the rooftop solar industry with calls for more regulation in the name of “consumer protection.”
Complaints from utilities about solar installers’ deceptive marketing have already gotten the attention of government authorities in key states for solar, from the attorney general on down.
But wait it gets worse. Now even people who support clean energy are criticizing solar installers for shady sales tactics.
Fortunately, solar installers can protect themselves charges of misleading marketing while reaching homeowners more effectively. I offer three ideas below.
The #1 Obstacle to Closing Solar Sales
Most solar installers are good apples. They do high quality work at a fair price. And they make their customers happy, as shown by big collections of five-star reviews on Angie’s List, Yelp and SolarReviews.
But even good solar companies may have bad marketing. Too many solar installers still rely on pushy sales tactics like door-to-door canvassing and cold calling that annoy and confuse homeowners.
As a result, even the good solar companies are getting lumped in with the bad apples in the mind of consumers, according to research by EnergySage and pv magazine. Their recent survey of 360 experienced solar installation companies revealed that the number one barrier to closing sales was “confusion created by their competitors and its impact on consumer confidence overall.”
EnergySage’s founder and CEO Vikram Aggarwal explained that a few bad apples were making all the other solar companies look bad and thus, making it harder for all installers to close deals:
Despite all [solar’s] momentum, many homeowners still struggle to distinguish a good deal from just a good sales pitch and, as with other big-ticket purchases, an uninformed buyer is at greater risk to pay more for less. Many of the industry’s largest solar companies and lead generation services know this, and actively try to exploit unaware homeowners by relying on false advertising and deceptive sales tactics to fuel their growth.
Utilities Take Aim at Solar Sales Tactics
Seeing the explosive rise of solar over the last few years as a threat to their business model of selling electricity to homeowners, electric utilities across the country have been keen to find ways to slow down solar’s growth.
With the issue of consumer protection, the utility lobby has now found a winning angle to attack solar installers. In recent years, front groups funded by utility companies along with the oil and gas industry have been active in purporting to expose shady marketing practices of solar installers.
Utility and fossil fuel companies attempt to portray the solar industry in the worst light and may sometimes exaggerate the threat to consumers from shady solar sales tactics.
At the same time, at least some of the blame deserves to fall on solar installers. Unfortunately, the solar industry has so far failed to clean up its act.
Armies of door knockers still walk the cul-de-sacs of suburban America. Lead generation vendors continue to cold call homeowners in the middle of dinner. And too many solar installers continue to try to pressure homeowners into “signing on the line that is dotted” to use the words of the high-pressure sales trainer played by Alec Baldwin in the film Glengarry Glen Ross.
Now Even Environmentalists Are Attacking the Industry
The industry’s own continuing bad marketing has now started to draw fire from beyond utilities and other traditional enemies of solar.
Now, a group called Campaign for Accountability has started to complain about solar sales tactics. This is especially disturbing for the industry, because CfA is not a tool of utilities and fossil fuel interests.
Instead, the group is a consumer watchdog with a history of pro-environmental advocacy. As their website says, they work to expose the work of fossil fuel companies “to roll back environmental regulations aimed at keeping our air and water clean” and spread climate change denial. “CfA aggressively targets the legislatures, organizations, and individuals associated with these efforts.”
This is exactly the kind of group that the solar industry would want as an ally.
Instead, now the CfA is coming after solar installers for unethical sales tactics in the state of Oregon.
Just yesterday, they asked Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum to open an investigation into solar installers in the state who engaged in “false and misleading acts in the marketing and sale or lease of solar panels, in apparent violation of Oregon law.”
According to the group’s news release:
CfA Executive Director Daniel Stevens said, “Solar companies are using misleading sales practices to trick Oregon homeowners into buying or leasing solar panels. While the Attorney General’s office has assisted individual consumers, this problem appears widespread enough to merit a more systemic inquiry.”
This is not good news for solar installers. Even the good ones will get lumped in with the bad ones in the minds of homeowners.
If you think it’s limited to the state or Oregon, then think again. This kind of news spreads quickly around the internet on its own. When homeowners search Google for solar installers in their area, they may also run into news on this case and others around the country.
And of course you can count on the utility lobbyists at the Edison Electric Institute along with fossil fuel interests and political front groups like ALEC to make sure that this kind of news gets the widest possible play. All in the name of consumer protection, of course.
3 Ways to Protect Yourself Now
Enemies of solar will use any excuse to embarrass solar installers. Let’s not give them any more ammunition than they already have.
If you run a solar installation company, make sure you’re doing right by your customers. Be sure your quality and service are as good as they can be and always improving.
But remember to deal with your marketing and sales too:
- Start now to phase out door-to-door canvassing, the tactic that gets some of the biggest attention from consumer protection advocates and state authorities. Door knocking doesn’t deliver good results these days anyway.
- Only buy leads from reputable lead generation vendors that don’t make cold calls. See our list of recommended vendors.
- Be sure your marketing and sales communications follow the SEIA Business Code from the Solar Energy Industries Association. Also, consider using their Residential Disclosure Forms in your business.
By making your marketing and sales as good as your installations, you’ll not only avoid getting a cease-and-desist letter from your state’s attorney general. You’ll also close more deals by showing that you are a solar installation company that consumers can trust.
— Erik Curren, Curren Media Group