The 7 hidden challenges of the sales to operations hand-off

If you’re dealing with bad reviews and solar cancellations, it’s time to look at the beginning of the customer journey
Author : 
November 9, 2023

We have an installer in our network who was battling a 50% cancellation rate.  At first, when the cancellations started to roll in, it just seemed like a symptom of the larger solar landscape.  But as the problem continued, he started to wonder if the problem was internal.  Sure enough, once he started talking to his teams, some issues bubbled up.  His sales team was frustrated because they kept closing deals that weren’t going through.  Meanwhile, his operations team was complaining because each new customer was coming in with unrealistic expectations. 

Our advice to him?  It was time to reevaluate his sales to operations hand-off.  It’s the same advice we’d pass along to any solar installer who is unhappy with their cancellation rate. And honestly, that’s the majority of solar company owners we speak with.  The numbers also back up this sentiment.  On average, NREL found that solar cancellation rates are about 30% in the US.  On top of that, 75% of cancellations occur between contract signing and permit submission.

It’s understandable because this is a fraught period of the customer journey.  Even in the best-intentioned solar companies, solar sales and ops teams often have a hard time working together.  These departments have different priorities, they’re trained to master different skillsets, and they often use entirely different tools and softwares.  In summary:  They don’t really have a whole lot in common. 

Given all this — it’s no wonder the solar customer hand-off is tough and filled with cancellations.  But that doesn’t mean that the problem is unsolvable.  In fact, there are some straightforward solutions that should slash even the most stubborn of cancellation rates.  

The first step is to expose and examine the hidden challenges of this period of the solar customer journey.  Below you’ll find the 7 challenges of the sales to operations hand-off, along with tips you can bring back to your business and improve your cancellation rates. 

1. Sales and operations have different ideas of “good communications with solar customers.”

When a solar salesperson is trying to close a deal, it’s not uncommon for the solar pro to be in daily contact with the homeowner.  They’re incentivized to answer their questions, send them updates about the contract process, and even just check in to take the customer’s temperature.  They text. They email. They pick up the phone.  If you asked them point-blank how often they should be in contact with the homeowner, 90% of sales reps are going to tell you that a text a day is normal — maybe even conservative.

Of course, if you forced this frequency on your solar project managers, they might just mutiny. For example, one solar installer CEO told us that he asked his PMs to reach out to customers once per week.  The PM shot back, “That’s going to take me 3 days to complete.”

Your sales team, ops team, and solar customers would all define "good" communications diffferently

Unlike sales reps, PMs commonly reach out to the customer only when something actually happens.  This could be twice a week, or it could be once a fortnight.  While some project managers may also reach out intermittently with “no update” updates, even the most diligent PM would be hard-pressed to meet the cadence established by sales.

RELATED: A fool-proof checklist for successful communications with solar customers

The result is misaligned expectations right from the outset.  The solar customer has become conditioned to expect daily communications with their solar company, and unless these expectations are addressed upfront, they’re practically destined to have a bad experience.  The best way to counter this and reduce cancellations is to have the first outreach from your PM to the customer redefine the communications relationship.  Be explicit about how often they should expect to hear from you — and then follow through on that commitment.  It also helps to augment the operations teams capabilities with automated project updates to ensure more frequent communication.  

2. What a sales person means, and how a customer interprets a statement, are often two very different things.

Once you’re in the solar industry, it can be easy to forget what’s common knowledge and what’s inside baseball.  Take for example when a salesperson says, “The system comes with monitoring.”  Within the solar industry, we know that this likely means that the homeowner’s inverter comes with an associated app where the customer can monitor their system themselves.  However, what the customer may interpret this statement to mean is, “My solar company will be monitoring my system 24/7 and will tell me if anything is wrong.” 

Often, it’s down to the project manager or operations team to uncover these hidden assumptions or miscommunications.  And they can’t always catch them proactively.  A homeowner may not have understood that the system size they’re buying isn’t going to completely eliminate their electric bill every month, only on average over the course of a year.  Or they may not have fully grasped that they’ll need to trim their prized oak if they want to maximize their solar production.  These realizations often happen midway through the installation process, and they can cause homeowners to feel betrayed and cancel the project.

The best way to stay ahead of these misunderstandings is to train your sales team to get granular during the proposal and contracting process.  As one of our customers says, “There’s no such thing as a good 15-minute solar sale.”  Instead, take the time upfront to make sure the homeowner completely grasps what it is they’re buying and what it means for their energy future.

3. Operations folks are generally not extroverts. 

When you hired your project managers, you vetted them for key skills.  You wanted to make sure they were highly organized.  You probably grilled them on how they handle competing priorities and quizzed them on their knowledge of the solar installation process.  In your quest to find someone with these abilities, you in turn potentially deprioritized characteristics like “outgoing” or “always on.” 

Even if your PMs are perfectly friendly people, sales people tilt the scale.  Sales people are VERY friendly.  They are usually the most people-persons to ever exist.  Asking your project managers to fill these very large shoes can be a big mental lift on top of what is already a very stressful job.  On the homeowner side, cancellations are predictable, and on the project manager side, burn out is almost inevitable.

Fortunately, there is a way to avoid these hits to your business.  The most important thing is to give your operations team the resources they need to become people folk.  Many solar businesses are able to make this work by leveraging an automation platform in addition to their solar project management tool to fill in for some of the customer touch points.  That way, routine communications are handled automatically, and your operations team can save their energy for the high-value conversations and moments along the solar journey.

4. Important information is not being passed across teams effectively.

Unless you’re making a concentrated effort to avoid it, it’s all too easy for departmental silos to form between your sales team and your ops team.  After all, your sales team have different processes, likely using different softwares, and they’re operating on very different timelines to your operations team.  On top of that, both departments are incredibly busy and like to stay focused on their own goals and metrics.

While this may make for incredibly driven and seemingly efficient teams, this heads-down approach is actually causing huge inefficiencies as customer and project information falls through the cracks.  One of the easiest ways to solve this issue is to invest in a CRM software that both teams can use and that can serve as the source-of-truth for each project.  That way, once sales enters the customer’s information, it’s locked into a centralized database that everyone, regardless of department, can access.

Another key way to handle this challenge is to have standing “hand-off” meetings, as well as internal kickoff checklists and surveys.  This allows the sales team to convey any special requirements or nuances to the operations team upfront rather than the operations team being surprised later in the project.  One thing to note, if you take the time to find the right CRM for your solar business, you might be able to avoid a lot of these extra meetings and additional paperwork.

5. Manual work causes time lags between important customer milestones.

It’s a universal truth that context switching sucks.  If an employee can batch their work, they’re most likely to do it, because they’d rather try to get into a flow state — regardless of whether that work is entering in customer information, calling homeowners with updates, or arguing with the permit office.  Unfortunately, while batch work makes sense logically, it doesn’t work well logistically.  

When project managers batch their work, they inevitably hold off on actions that could move the project forward or keep the customer informed.  For example, we’ve heard that it can take up to 8 days for the back-office team to submit the signed contract to the financing company for the Notice to Proceed approval.  These kinds of delays are a breeding ground for cancellations.  

The best way to beat this batch approach is by incorporating some automations into your operations’ workflows.  For example, Bodhi has an integration with Sunlight Financial that once a contract is signed, it’ll automatically submit the contract for NTP approval, install photos for Installation approval, and the PTO letter for PTO approval.  

In another example, if customer updates are automatically triggered based on when the PM updates their CRM with information like permit approval or system photos, then there’s no need for your ops team to set aside additional time later in their day or week to also take care of these actions. 

6. Customers forget all the information that the salesperson told them.

One of the most frustrating challenges within the sales to operations hand-off is that even if your sales team does everything right, the ops team can still be in for a headache.  

Your sales team can explain every detail of the homeowner’s system, set proper expectations around timeline and production, and explain how things are all subject to change, but then…the homeowner just forgets.  Despite the best efforts of your sales team, everything still may feel brand new to your customer when your operations team reaches out to them. 

That doesn’t mean that your sales team shouldn’t still try their best.  They’re responsible for laying the foundation of the project, and even if your customer forgets the specifics of what they said, they won’t forget how your team made them feel heard and informed.  

In terms of besting this particular challenge, our recommendation is to have resources that your homeowners can reference throughout the installation process.  While it may seem like a heavy lift to create these assets, the upfront work will pay dividends in the long run. Ideally, these resources are available to your customers digitally through a customer portal.  Email also works — but as your PMs can tell you, they’ll likely have to resurface these email threads. That’s why a centralized, (and branded!) solar customer portal works best.

7. Sales sets expectations based on best case scenarios rather than worst-case scenarios, especially on timing.

Sales is filled with perpetual optimists.  This is great for team morale, but it can come back to haunt a solar company when these best case scenarios are communicated with the homeowner.  Even if your sales team caveats these statements with phrases like, “If the permit approves quickly,” or “If you’re able to accommodate our schedule to allow for fast turn-arounds,” these phrases are likely to go the way of challenges 2 or 6.  Either they’ll be misremembered or forgotten entirely.

That’s why it’s important to follow the old motto:  Underpromise and overdeliver.  If your time-to-install typically takes 6 to 8 weeks, quote 8 to 10.  Not only will your operations team thank you for it, but your customers are likely to rave about how you exceeded their expectations.

Reduce your solar cancellations by focusing on customer experience

A lot of installers think the hardest part is closing a deal.  And who can blame them?  In this time period of high interest rates and economic uncertainty, many markets are facing an uphill battle when it comes to selling solar.  However, what comes after the official “sale” is just as important and can have just as much impact on your bottom line. 

Across all of these hidden challenges, the common through line is customer experience.  If your sales or ops team are doing things (even accidentally!) that are negatively impacting the customer’s solar experience, cancellations and bad reviews are sure to follow.

That’s why at Bodhi we’ve created a platform to help residential solar installers deliver amazing customer experiences with ease. If you’d like to see if Bodhi is a good fit for your solar business, why not get started for free?

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