A fool-proof checklist for successful communications with solar customers

Here are the 12 things your project managers need in order to keep homeowners happy
Author : 
August 3, 2023

We spoke with a solar project manager who told us a secret: They were about to quit their job.  They had been working at their company for a little over a year, and the reasons for leaving kept stacking up.  Seasonality meant sometimes they oversaw 30 projects, and sometimes they were responsible for 100.  And during those periods, customers kept calling or texting them while they were putting their kids to sleep.  They couldn’t get budget approval for any tools that might help them.  After a year of working at their company, they realized that the problem wasn’t with how they were doing their job — it was how the job itself was set up.

This is an example where everything has gone wrong with communications, for both the project manager and the customer.  No one is having a good experience, and the project manager doesn’t feel empowered to make the necessary changes that will benefit themselves, the customer, and ultimately the business. 

Maybe every part of this story resonates, or maybe you can only identify with a few of the headaches this project manager had to go through.  Regardless, we’ve spoken with a lot of businesses that are stuck in this operations rut in one way or another.  They’re often not sure how to start improving things since the challenges themselves can be so thorny, and it’s tough to change engrained processes.  

That’s why we’ve created this checklist.  By checking off these 12 items, we guarantee that not only will your project managers be dramatically less stressed, but your customers will be much happier too.

1. Create a digital and hardcopy of a “Here’s what to expect” resource.

The truth is, better operational processes actually begin during the sales cycle.  No matter how many times your sales reps explain what a solar install looks like and how long it takes, solar homeowners are doomed to forget.  In other instances, the sales team may actually forget to set proper expectations.  When customers don’t know what to expect, they create their own expectations.  That’s when you’re truly in trouble.

Digital and physical assets that explain exactly what is going to happen during the solar install process, as well as how long things roughly take, are crucial.  These kinds of leave-behinds can literally save a project from cancellation or spare a business a one-star review.  Digital versions presented within a customer portal have the added advantage that they’re always accessible (not lost) and can be easily personalized to your customer.  

There’s still a lot of misinformation out there about solar, and these resources can set the record straight.  They also give your operations team a voice during the sales process to ensure that all departments (and all solar customers) are on the same page.

2. Develop sales to operations hand-off process that includes notes about the customer.

Interdepartmental hand-offs are one of the most challenging parts of a business, no matter your company culture or industry.  The fact is, unless there are strict hand-off processes in place, details and action items can fall through the cracks.  That’s why we recommend every solar business develop a robust hand-off process that not only includes notes about the customers, but has guidelines about what those notes should include.

Some details that aren’t commonly included today but which we strongly recommend standardizing in all of your hand-off notes:

  • Who else lives in the home?  That way the PM and crew are not surprised when there’s a secret stakeholder husband or wife or their dog promptly runs away when the fence door opens.
  • What expectations have been set about the timeline?  There’s nothing worse than when a homeowner admits halfway through the project that they thought they would be done by now because of an off-hand comment from a sales rep.
  • What other projects might be happening at the home that could affect the timeline?  This could be a new roof, home renovation, EV charger addition, or big landscaping job.

3. Create message templates so you don’t have to keep writing the same message.

If you asked your project managers, we’re sure they would tell you that they spend at hours a week typing out variations of the same responses.  “No, the permit has not yet been approved, but we’ll contact you when it has!”  “Yes, we’re still expecting an install date of October 3rd.  Please make sure you’re home on this day.”

These responses are tedious to write out, and keeping this process manual takes time away from more valuable work that your project managers could be doing.  That’s why we recommend creating message templates that address (at least!) the top 10 questions and emails you get from your homeowners.

4. Have a “no update” update message ready to use.

In our opinion, this one is worth calling out separately from just your standard templated responses, especially since most solar companies overlook it.  Your “no update” update message should not just be used in response to customers asking for an update.  In an ideal world, your project managers are using it proactively.

The "no update" update may feel redundant to your team, but it can make all the difference with your solar customer

This is because studies show that if you proactively check-in with a waiting customer, their internal ‘waiting clock’ resets to zero.  If they’ve been stuck in permit limbo for 4 weeks, they’re more likely to say they haven’t been waiting that long.  However, if your team skips the “no update” update, customers get crabby, may feel like they’ve been waiting 6 weeks or longer, and then leave you a one-star review.  That’s why the “no update” update is a powerful defensive tool, as well as a great way to create a better customer experience. 

5. Find a tool that makes it easy to text message customers.

The reality of some solar customers is that they want to text their project managers.  They’re used to doing this with the other contractors in their life, and they’ll just never stick to an email inbox — no matter how much easier it would make your PMs’ lives. 

Rather than fighting this reality, we recommend finding and investing in a tool that makes it easy to text message customers.  Ideally, you can use this tool across desktop and mobile, so that no matter what your workflow looks like that day, you can keep up with all of your customers’ questions.  We’d also strongly recommend investing in a tool that still allows you to leverage templates, even though these messages will be sent as texts.  All the points from checklist item 3 still stand, after all!

6. Invest in a team inbox.

Nothing is more frustrating than taking over a project, and the only record of the customer’s communication history lives on one person’s phone.  Without some kind of team inbox, you’re building bottlenecks into your operational processes.

The right tool should consolidate all of your incoming customer messages across all PMs, so that if one person is out sick, another can step in.  This also gives you visibility into responses, so that PMs don’t have to stop what they’re doing to prove they already responded to a customer — the VP of ops can see the response for themselves. 

7. Find a tool to automate routine communications.

Sometimes even templates aren’t enough.  When the busy season hits, and your project managers are dealing with triple their normal project volume, even just adding in a template to an email can mean the email doesn’t get sent on time.  That’s why it’s so important to not only create templates but also invest in tools that will actually allow you to automate routine communications. 

So long as you have a CRM, you should be able to find platforms that will take the information from your CRM, and automate customer-facing, personalized updates based on where the project stands.  Of course, some updates and communications are still going to require the personal touch of a PM.  However, by automating the routine, you make time for the meaningful.

8. Offer your customers a project tracker.

No matter how frequent your customer updates are, there will always be homeowners that want more.  And our guess is that this section of your customer base is growing.  How could they not, when every other industry is investing in a project tracker?  From the famous Domino’s pizza tracker, to the shipping portals Amazon offers, homeowners today not only expect constant updates, they also expect a way to check the status of their orders and projects themselves.

A solar project tracker fulfills these expectations, offering your customers a way to self-service and giving precious time back to your PMs.  Project trackers can also bring all of a project’s documents in one place, as well as house FAQs and that “what to expect” asset we mentioned earlier.  That way, customers never have to bug your PM to resurface a document or reiterate an email they’ve already sent.

9. Create a SOP for how to handle escalations.

If you don’t count just the sheer act of juggling all of the project management work itself, escalations are probably the single most stressful part of any PMs job.  No one likes to be yelled at, whether it’s over the phone, in an email, or called out in a Google review.  And these situations are even worse when there’s no clear process for the project manager to follow.  Should they involve the CEO?  Do they need to discount the work?  Does someone need to pay a house visit to the customer just to reestablish a relationship? 

A Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) will answer these questions and give clear next steps.  Create a ranking system that will allow project managers to gauge just how severe a situation is (if they’ve left a 1-star Google review it’s probably a code red!), and then outlined next steps.  These instructions should include who should be looped into the customer issue, as well as what potential paths for remediation your company can offer.

10. Embed surveys along the customer’s journey.

Does this sound familiar?  Your homeowner hasn’t complained throughout the entire solar project, the installation is completed on time, and….they give you a 2-star review.  Unfortunately when it comes to solar customers, you can’t trust the adage, ‘No news is good news.’  Instead, it’s important to check in at every stage of the project to see how your customer is feeling and what they need.

That’s where surveys come into play.  By embedding simple, easy-to-answer customer satisfaction surveys along the customer journey, you can head off miscommunications or misalignments in expectations.  While it may hurt to see that a homeowner gave you a 2 out of 5 during the permitting phase, it’s better to keep that feedback internal so it can be addressed.  Without an outlet, customers will turn to Google reviews or bad-mouthing your business on social media.

11. Have all customer data in one location for your ops team to easily reference.

Having customer data in a CRM, but also in emails from a sales rep, but also meeting notes in a Google doc, essentially means that you don’t have the customer data at all.  Your project managers are going to have to spend at least 30 minutes tracking down everything they need to know in order to take action on a project — and even then information may still get lost. That’s why it’s important to have a centralized location for customer data.  

12. Have all customer data in one location for customers to easily reference.

Those frustrations we outlined above for your project managers?  The same is true for your solar customers.  They also don’t want to have to reference 2 email threads and a group chat just to feel confident that they’re caught up on the status of their project and know where their documents are.

By having a customer portal for your customers, you head off questions about where their proposal or designs live.  In the best case scenario, this customer portal would also house all of the communications around the project, as well as the project tracker, solar FAQs, etc.

The real need for better solar customer communications 

Customers have higher standards for communications than ever before.  Unfortunately, the operations team often gets overlooked when it comes to solar companies investing in themselves.  Both the sales team and the marketing teams may have clearer “ROI” for each penny that you put in.  

However, we hope this checklist shows you that there’s real value in investing in your operations team.  Giving your customers an amazing customer experience is the best way to get more.  Happy project managers mean happy customers.  And happy customers that had an amazing customer experience are your ticket to more 5-star reviews, referrals, and follow-on sales.  

If you’d like help putting this checklist into practice and leveling up your customer experience, feel free to schedule some time with us.  We’re also happy to chat.

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