Too many residential solar installation companies do sales straight out of 1978. They send armies of sales reps out into neighborhoods to knock on doors. Then they cross their fingers that the persistence of those sales reps will break through homeowner resistance enough to bring in signed contracts.
Maybe in the days of bell bottom pants and disco dancing, door knocking still worked well to sell solar to homeowners. But today, the results of knocking on doors are terrible. And as the solar market gets more competitive every year, door knocking gets worse and worse.
Solar sales reps call me every week with their war stories of days wasted pounding the pavement. The latest tale of woe from a door-knocking sales rep was particularly sad but so instructive that I’d like to share it as a cautionary tale here.
Nearly 500 Doors and No Sales
The call came in from a solar sales rep for a regional residential installer operating in three Eastern and Southern states. I’ll call him Chuck.
Chuck was based in a large city in the South. He knew that his town, with lots of low-income folks who lacked the upfront cash to buy solar, was a good market for the solar leasing program his company offers. He knew he could save the average homeowner $100 or $200 on his electric bill each month with solar at no money down. He was confident that he had a good pitch.
So, he went out into the neighborhoods, in the daytime and in the evening, and knocked on doors. He was no slouch.
Last week, for example, he knocked on 492 doors.
And the result? About half a dozen homeowners actually opened the door and agreed to schedule a free home assessment.
But when Chuck returned at the appointment time, nobody was home.
Nobody. Not one, not two, not three.
But zero. Nobody was home.
And of course, Chuck made no sales. All after knocking on 492 doors.
Wasted Sales Talent
Talking to Chuck, I could tell that it wasn’t his fault.
He was obviously a skilled salesman. His manner was high energy but not pushy, he was well informed about solar and able to explain things clearly, and, most of all, Chuck seemed to genuinely care about the customer’s benefit. His earnest and helpful approach was sure to build trust.
And since he’s been in sales of various products for 30 years, during which time he earned an MBA, Chuck was confident in his ability to close a deal, if only he could make it to the kitchen table. That is, if he could schedule an in-person meeting with the potential customer.
But he just couldn’t make it to that point. And so he was feeling bottled up, never getting the chance to give his full pitch to a prospect in person.
How were other sales reps doing in his company, I asked?
It really depended on how they got their leads, Chuck explained.
- Those like him who had to make cold house calls closed at a very low rate.
- But a few sales reps who the company considered to be high producers did very well, closing 50% or more.
Was it because the second group were much better salesmen?
No, Chuck surmised. It was because the select group of top producers received inbound leads from the company itself.
At that point, a light went on in my head. It’s all about permission marketing.
It’s all about the difference between inbound leads and outbound leads. In terms of quality, the two really can’t be compared.
- Inbound leads, or inquiries that come into a company because customers have expressed an interest in both a) getting solar and b) a particular solar company, are the highest quality leads you can get. That’s because the customer has given a specific company permission to market to them. Marketing guru Seth Godin has explained why “Permission Marketing” is so much more powerful than old-timey aggressive sales tactics: a customer who has expressed an interest in hearing from you is so much more open to your sales pitch than a customer who has not expressed any interest at all.
- Outbound leads, which are generated by reaching out to people who may or may not be interested in solar but have expressed no special interest in your solar company, can range from promising to total garbage. Some lead generators who get leads by telemarketing are pretty good at weeding out the people who might want to buy from those who definitely don’t. An outbound “lead” that a sales rep makes himself by cold knocking on a door is almost worthless.
So, back to Chuck’s situation.
If the inbound leads closed at such a higher rate than the outbound leads at Chuck’s company, then why didn’t the company just give inbound leads to all the sales reps?
Chuck explained that there weren’t enough inbound leads for everybody. So, the company rationed the best leads, reserving them for the top producing sales people.
The catch-22 is obvious here. How can you become a top salesperson without getting good sales leads first?
When he asked for help with leads, Chuck’s company gave him some poor quality leads — for homes without a south-facing roof, for example. But these leads didn’t close any better than cold door knocking.
And when Chuck came back to the company after failing to make more sales, his sales manager told him to just keep going out and knocking on doors. It worked before and it would work again, Chuck was told.
We all know the popular business saying (often misattributed to Einstein): “Insanity is doing something over and over and expecting a different result.”
Just knocking on more cold doors wasn’t likely to succeed after it had failed so long already.
Leaving Inbound Leads on the Table
The sad fact is that Chuck didn’t have to suffer from lack of good leads. If only the company did a bit better marketing, it could probably generate enough inbound leads for Chuck and all the other sales reps too. And that would lead to more sales for everybody.
The company’s website was evidence enough that they weren’t doing enough to get leads for their sales reps.
The top panel of the website contained a big form for visitors to ask for a free solar quote. Sadly, this is pretty typical for solar websites. Residential installers seem to be convinced that putting such a form in the face of every visitor will lead to more sales leads.
For example, SolarCity just changed the top area of its website to show a place to enter your zip code and a button saying “Get A Free Quote.”
Research has shown that tweaking web forms can indeed lead to more visitors filling them out. And if your website gets a lot of traffic as SolarCity’s does, then even a small increase in form submissions, say 5%, can mean hundreds of additional leads per week.
But few solar company websites get thousands of visitors a day as SolarCity’s does.
Instead, most residential solar installers are lucky to get a few dozen visitors each day. So, a 5% increase in people who fill our their free quote form might translated into one additional lead a month. That small a benefit is not really worth a company spending much time on.
The big problem is that, in their obsession to tweak their “free quote” forms, solar companies are missing the forest for the trees.
Only 4% of website visitors on average are ready to buy across industries. This means that the vast majority of visitors to a company website, about 96%, are just poking around. These early-stage prospects are not ready to buy yet but still need more time to educate themselves on their options and to evaluate the company’s offering versus other options.
On a solar company website, this means that on average, 96% of visitors will not fill out the “free quote” form.
These visitors are not yet ready to get solar. So the last thing they want is to schedule a home visit or get a phone call from a sales rep. Instead, these prospects just want to look around the web to educate themselves on solar without being bugged by pushy sales people.
Most solar company websites have no way to capture these early-stage prospects as sales leads. If the only option is a “free quote” form, then the site is giving 96% of its visitors no way to convert to leads.
How to Get More Inbound Leads
Chuck’s company was typical. That’s why they were getting so few inbound leads. All they had was the “free quote” form. So they were probably only converting about 4% of their web visitors into leads.
Of course they need the “free quote” form. But that’s not enough. The company could have gotten many more leads by adding a second offer, one that would not trigger an immediate phone call from a sales rep but that would place the visitor’s name and email address in the company’s lead nurturing system.
Using what’s called a lead magnet — a free download that’s attractive to potential customers — Chuck’s company could have generated twice or three times the number of leads. Here’s how it would work:
- Offer a free ebook on a subject of interest to a website visitor, such as “The Top 10 Questions We Get on Residential Solar.”
- Require the website visitor to fill out an online form to download the ebook.
- Ask the visitor only for name and email address but not for a phone number, to avoid scaring the visitor off.
- Whenever the form is filled out, add the visitor’s name and email address to your lead-tracking database.
- Nurture that lead over a period of weeks or months using a series of 6-10 email messages set to go out automatically every 10 days or so.
- When the lead is ready to buy solar, it’s easy for them just to reply to the most recent email. Instead of doing a Google search for “solar installers near me” the lead will be more likely to contact first the company whose ebook they downloaded and whose email they have been receiving.
Just think of how it works in dating. You get to know someone and build trust over a period of months or years of spending time together. Then, when the marriage proposal comes in, your intended is more likely to say “yes.”
It’s the same with sales. Build trust over a long period with a prospect who’s given you permission to contact them, and that prospect will be more likely to buy — and to buy from you instead of from your competitor.
Lack of Leads and the Threat of Sales Force Turnover
If Chuck’s company had been more creative about generating inbound leads, they could have made their website a lead-generating machine.
Unfortunately, it seems that his company’s outreach was all sales and no marketing.
That’s why they were getting so few inbound leads and why the company could pass so few good leads along to its sales reps.
And poor marketing support for sales reps generally leads to increased turnover in a company’s sales force. That can cost a solar company big money in additional recruiting and training costs, not to mention lost sales from losing skilled veteran sales reps and having to replace them with new hires.
Losing talented sales people is never good for industries like solar that rely so heavily on personal sales.
But in the coming months, sales force turnover could pose an even bigger threat to residential installers. Solar companies that experience high turnover in outside or independent reps might just find themselves in trouble if 2017 turns out to bring a slowdown in residential solar, as Bloomberg New Energy Finance has predicted.
For sales force turnover, just take Chuck as the example.
After a couple months knocking on doors, Chuck was thinking of moving on, leaving this company and maybe getting out of solar sales altogether.
And honestly, I couldn’t blame him. His company just wasn’t offering the kind of marketing support that hard-working sales reps deserve.
Marketing is the Air Cover that Sales Needs
To understand why you can’t have successful sales without effective marketing, let’s take an analogy from military strategy.
Sales is like the marines landing on the beach. They’re the toughest troops and they do the hardest job. Marketing is like the air force that provides those marines with air cover to minimize casualties and help the troops advance more quickly.
Chuck’s company was just putting him out on the beach with no air cover. In the face of heavy artillery fire from the enemy, Chuck’s company was basically saying, “sorry, we’re not going to send any planes out to knock out those enemy cannons and machine gun nests. You’re on your own. Just keep moving up the beach, and you’ll get there eventually. Have courage man!”
Because Chuck’s company gave sales reps no marketing support, their sales reps were failing. That’s hard on the sales reps, who will surely start dropping like flies. But it’s also hard on the company, which isn’t going to make much progress up the beach — in fact, they might be pushed back into the sea.
That is, the solar company that doesn’t offer its reps good marketing support will see decreased sales and possibly go out of business. They’ll see rapid turnover among their sales reps and eventually, they’ll have a hard time hiring new sales reps. Nobody wants to sell solar for a company that doesn’t give sales reps the help they need to make sales.
It’s not just unfair to the sales reps to send them out into the field with inadequate marketing support. Failing to do good marketing is also short-sighted for any solar company’s sales.
If you’re a sales rep, ask your company to give you more leads — and better leads — soon. They owe it to you if they want you to succeed.
Company management can see the whole formula to generate their own inbound leads online in our own ebook, “Stop Buying Solar Leads and Start Making Your Own Better Ones.”
— Erik Curren, Curren Media Group