3 tips to using empathy to grow a successful solar business

The value of focusing on people, not panels

Effective sales in solar don't happen by accident. But from the words of a sales manager we know, the top salesperson on their team makes it sound like it does. 


“It seems like he just has a conversation with customers and they end up moving forward without much effort. He always has something interesting to say about his customers. He has been doing this for a while and gets more referrals than others.” 


Of all the strategies for effective sales teams, the approach to build a team that is empathetic to their customers and to their fellow team members may be the least explored.  


In this post, the 1st in a new series exploring the behavioral science of solar consumers, we dive into how empathy holds the key to successfully growing a solar company.  Quite simply by putting the customer first, empathy cannot only reduce cancellations, increase referrals and generate valuable confidence in the company’s ability to navigate project vagaries, but also yield ongoing benefits throughout the company’s processes and culture.

What is empathy in solar?

What do we mean by an empathetic approach? There are multiple formal definitions, but we like to define it as: 


Empathy is simply listening, holding space, withholding judgment, emotionally connecting, and communicating that incredibly healing message of ‘you’re not alone’.


In distributed solar, each rooftop represents an individual, who despite fitting into a particular buyer’s persona, is still a person or household that feels unique. In fact, this customer is accustomed to being treated uniquely given the hyper-personalization of more and more buying experiences. 


And this is one of the challenges of our solar industry. How can we optimize the delivery of a unique solution to customers who are individuals and do this at scale? To accomplish this, a solar company must not only rely on operational efficiencies where possible, but also develop strategies to ensure that each customer feels as if their experience is tailored for them. Using technologies that enable design flexibility, efficiency in data management and leveraging standardizations all enable a company to deliver a tailored, more personalized customer journey.


A key part of this is the sales team, as a powerful part of their business that sets the tone, builds trust, and brings the customer closer to the company. That’s where an empathetic approach comes into play.


That’s not to say it’s easy. In fact, empathy is unfortunately less common today. A University of Michigan study, which analyzed data on empathy from almost 14,000 college students gathered between 1979 and 2009, found a 48% decrease in empathetic concern and a 34% decrease in perspective taking, or the ability to look at things from another person’s point of view. Although empathy as a capacity has decreased, customer demands to have a personalized buying experience has increased.  That means


you have a sales advantage by going against the grain and showing empathy.


Furthermore, the values of a consultative sales approach are well documented. Sales programs like the Sandler Sales Methodology approximate an empathetic approach. What is less defined are the values that this approach can have specifically for solar companies, given the unique position solar companies have to capitalize on a long term relationship with their customers through evolving buying experiences.


The following are 3 tips to focus on in order to maximize the value of an empathetic approach. 

1. Use discovery to build trust.

This is more than the sum of a few standardized questions. It is a deep listening to understand where their questions are coming from, what assumptions about solar they’re basing their comments and decisions on, and the effect solar will have on their lives. 


For example, a customer may indicate that they want to save money off their utility bill. On the surface, this is simple and falls within the standard sales pitch.  The stated motivation is to save money. 


However, what if underlying that statement, there’s a different motivation that the customer doesn’t express or even aware of to express?  What if the impact of the savings doesn't meet a particular % threshold, the customer may not be that moved? In this situation, the offset is more important, which may be less about the financial return, and more about the satisfaction of “being powered by the sun.” 


Understanding what truly excites the customer and what result will validate their decision is the start of a relationship built on trust. Trust is not granted from a single transaction, it arises from the relationship created and validated by the salesperson and the customer alike. And in the early stages, it’s still fragile.  Having the sales team build trust is an investment in the customer’s future relationship with the company.


2. Stay centered on customer experience

Adapting a sales program around empathy means that the customer experience is not dispensable. It must be balanced among the sometimes competing objectives of the company. Empathy does not mean yielding to the customer, instead it is an honest acknowledgement of the customer’s perspective in the context of the company’s capacity.


Sometimes, the customers’ experience is not obvious to us. It is the job of a salesperson to wear the shoes of the customer as they begin their journey. A customer is likely sorting through various proposals each with a slightly different angle or spin on the value proposition of solar. The customer will make a decision and then jump into a new set of steps that are full of new language and new processes. 


A sales person that takes an empathetic approach can work backward from the outcome of having solar and walk the customer through each step of the process, as if the decision has been made. It gives the customer confidence and awareness that the next steps are not full of uncertainty but are just part of the process. This discussion will give the customer a chance to speak to other concerns that may not arise from a strictly transactional sales process. 


Where will the conduit go? 

What happens if we remodel the area next to the solar system? 

Does this system allow me to add batteries? 

Can I prepare for EV charging during the solar installation?


A thoughtful and considered answer to each will also benefit the operations team, quite simply by transmitting the customer’s concerns before the concerns arise. Operations can listen to the sales team and likely avoid the pitfalls that come out of a customer feeling like they haven’t been heard.  And furthermore, this can prime the customer to consider follow-on products and services.


3. Apply the empathetic approach on your colleagues

When given time to resonate across the spectrum of the company, this approach can build cohesion among very disparate departments. Sales and marketing can sometimes play different games than operations and service yet another. Management has its own agenda. Given this, it is quite natural for silos to form- a fact borne out in the industry today. A company for every process. But who then owns the customer relationship? Building a company to stay with the customer needs a culture that does not implode.


Applying the empathetic approach to the people at your company can actually make the company itself more resilient in the face of change. For example, project managers can deliver the news that the inspection process is now taking 4 weeks longer than what the sales team might have initially promised. This news if delivered without deep trust may sound like a dodge, but if trust has been developed and the customer knows that the company is working on their behalf, the customer may become an advocate for the company’s struggles rather than an antagonist against the company’s shortcomings and without any friction between the two departments.



Conclusions

An empathetic approach to sales is a focus on people, not panels.The outcomes are happier customers, easier referrals, external champions, higher net promoter scores, better reviews, and stronger relationships among employees. 


If you’d like to talk more about empathy or the behavioral science of solar consumers, contact us.