5 tips for building a profitable solar service department

With the right strategy, your service department can actually boost your bottom line
Author : 
March 3, 2023

We’ve talked to a lot of solar salespeople about service plans in recent years, and everyone seems to agree that the solar O&M and service is a source of stress.  As one installer based out of Alaska put it, “You have to strike the balance between good customer service and creating a project that you’re gonna lose money on. It’s an easy trap to fall into.”  

This trap is especially easy to fall into when your solar customers don’t know what to expect post-install.  Sales are often solely focused on signing a homeowner and starting the installation.  From there, most project managers have tunnel vision on moving the project forward to completion.  What this means is that your employees have usually skimmed over maintenance expectations with your customers.  It’s little surprise then that the service department is a point of stress and has to handle a wide variety of issues that wreak havoc on a company’s efficiency and bottom line, from phone calls to truck rolls.   

While it's natural to talk up the advantages of solar when dealing with a new customer, there needs to be a plan to transition from sales to service.  After all, a disconnect between homeowner expectations and reality can be extremely costly.  

We've spoken with plenty of talented salespeople in the solar world, each with their own tips on how to turn homeowner interest into a sale.  Creating a profitable solar service plan is no different.  By knowing the goals of prospective customers, educating them on the needs of their system, and giving them access to monitoring tools, the savvy salesperson can build a trusting relationship with their customers and help a homeowner take the next step.

In fact, backed by the right solar software platform, any forward-thinking sales team can do two things at once: Build customer confidence and provide a long-term service plan that's beneficial to both parties.  Without further ado, here are five tips to create a solar service plan that will keep you in the black.

Tip #1: Set realistic service expectations 

It can be tempting to set up a utopian scenario for homeowners ready to move forward on a solar PV system.  By calculating the assumed energy creation and costs, a salesperson can draw a straight line to the expected long-term energy savings.  In such a scenario, the old "set it and forget it" mantra can put the homeowner at ease, leaving them with sweet thoughts about their about-to-be-installed panels and promised future savings.

But even though painting this vision might lead to a great initial customer experience, it can also be a costly misstep.  Instead, a salesperson should be able to speak confidently about the cost-savings of solar while also explaining the typical maintenance needs of a PV system over its expected lifespan.  If a homeowner doesn't understand the basic dynamic here, taking a little bit of time upfront can make a meaningful difference in the long run.

To provide some clarity, an easy comparison can be made to the auto industry.  A car salesperson may refer to a car's reliability, but no one steps into a new car thinking they'll never have to take it into the shop.  A car purchaser typically understands that by keeping the vehicle in good condition and staying on top of necessary maintenance, the car will be able to function properly during its lifespan.  

The same basic principles apply to a new solar PV system.  A salesperson who sets realistic expectations will prepare the homeowner for the appropriate needs of the system and provide a pathway to a positive customer experience that lasts.  Overall, more than 80% of businesses say that improving the customer experience leads directly to more revenue.  For an industry like solar, where sales teams rely on customer referrals, maintaining happy homeowners by setting appropriate expectations is critical.

Tip #2: Be efficient with truck rolls and service visits

Getting new customers to sign up for a solar PV system tends to be the exciting part, but it's keeping down service costs that ensures a project is profitable in the long run.  To that end, coordinating truck rolls around service visits is one of the best ways to keep service costs lean.  A single truck roll often costs a solar installer between $150 and $300, which directly cuts into profit margins if they're paying out of pocket.

By stacking truck rolls together, solar installers can make a significant difference to their bottom line.  As a general rule, teams should be doing more than one service visit with each truck roll to keep expenses down and promote all-around efficiency.  

Even if this means pushing a customer service call back a day or two, it's typically worth it for an installer looking to manage costs effectively.  With sound communication and reliable service times, most homeowners are understanding and willing to adapt.

Installers also need to make sure they're looking out for any reimbursements from the panel & inverter manufacturers themselves.  Manufacturer reimbursements can either offset costs or, if a crew is efficient with their truck rolls, make service calls profitable on their own.  By properly managing service visits and maximizing reimbursement potential, an installer can lower costs and improve profit margins.

RELATED: How to build a competitive advantage for your solar business by going beyond customer service

Tip #3: Charge for solar service visits

This may be controversial, and each installer will have to find the best arrangement for them, but it is often a good idea to simply charge for solar service visits.  If trained appropriately, your sales team can set these expectations upfront and explain the way your business approaches service costs.  Most homeowners understand that servicing a PV system is costly – if not for the homeowner, then for the solar installer.  An appropriate charge that solves a critical issue will still be well worth it to the customer hoping to maintain the system for decades.

Charging for visits also encourages homeowners to take responsibility for the unit.  If a homeowner thinks all service calls are free, they might call the installer for reasons that don't really require a service call.  This can create a negative experience on both sides.

Tip #4: Be proactive to achieve successful service plans

It's helpful to place yourself in the shoes of the homeowner.  When they notice that their PV system suddenly has a hitch, they can quickly begin to draw reactionary conclusions.  Because they likely aren’t solar experts, they might be distressed about how long it will take to have the system fixed.  How much will it cost?  Will this derail their entire solar investment?  Such questions can suddenly find their way to the inboxes of customer service or sales reps.

Proactive solar installers, on the other hand, implement a system for proactive monitoring and maintenance are at a significant advantage compared to those who only react to customer inquiries.  By using smarter monitoring software, they are able to quickly detect and alert customers about any issues with their solar system, along with the necessary steps to address them.  

This not only helps to resolve the problem more efficiently, but it also puts the installer in a much better position to handle customer questions and concerns, as the solar installer’s service team is already aware of the issue.  

In contrast, those who only react to customer inquiries may find themselves scrambling to catch up, risking a negative customer experience and potentially damaging their reputation.  Being proactive in monitoring and maintenance can help to ensure customer satisfaction and prevent costly solar asset management and disruptions.

The biggest advantage here is to help take out the uncertainty for a customer.  One of the largest sources of anxiety for a customer dealing with a problem – in many different industries – is being in the dark about the potential solution.  Imaginations can easily run wild, and it is usually the customer service reps who bear the brunt of the frustration.  Instead, an aptly equipped solar installer can quickly pinpoint the problem, explain when and how it can be resolved, and attach an appropriate charge to the service visit.

The peace of mind this process offers the homeowner usually makes service charges much easier to digest.  It also keeps customers from plugging up the phone lines of busy service reps.

Tip #5: Use the right software platform to enhance your service plan

Unlike earlier generations in the solar industry, installers no longer have to operate in the dark.  Previously, sending out a service team was the only way to diagnose a problem with a PV system, which kept service costs high and efficiency low.  With today's top solar software, however, a service department can immediately gather information about a PV system long before a truck roll has to be scheduled.

RELATED: Bodhi's fleet monitoring platform

The ability to combine various solar monitoring platforms into one centralized location provides an increased advantage for today's solar installers.  By coalescing the data into a singular, easy-to-use portal, it's easy to monitor system performance and communicate maintenance requirements to the customer.

Advanced solar monitoring alert systems not only detect issues but also provide valuable insights into the performance of a solar system.  By integrating a platform that adjusts for weather conditions and tracks performance over time, installers are able to reliably identify underperforming systems in real time, allowing them to take proactive measures and address any potential issues before they become major problems.  

This not only helps to improve the overall performance of the system but also keeps customers informed and satisfied with their investments. 

In contrast, solar companies without the advantage of a robust and consolidated monitoring platform may struggle to effectively monitor and maintain their systems, leading to higher service costs and more unsatisfied customers in the long run.  Investing in a robust alert platform can give solar installers a competitive edge and help ensure the longevity and effectiveness of the systems they install.

Set yourself up for success with the right solar service plan

While many industries focus on a quick sale, solar is about maintaining a positive customer experience for years and even decades.  To make this a reality, it takes forthright guidance from the beginning, along with attentive service well after the final panel is in place.  In an industry of tight profit margins, installers need to find a way to manage customer expectations while keeping the cost of service visits affordable.

While this can seem like a difficult or even impossible task, combining a long-term strategy with the right customer experience software can make a substantial difference.  By balancing optimism with realism and implementing a system built around proactive troubleshooting, installers put themselves in a position to succeed.

To see what an all-in-one customer portal complete with real-time solar monitoring can do for your business, contact Bodhi to schedule a demo.   

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