Expanding to new regions can be hard, but with the right tips, you can avoid some of the biggest challenges
A few years back, we were talking with a customer who had just expanded into a new market. As partners of this solar installer, we were excited to hear about their growth and were eager to congratulate them on this new chapter of their business. However, their response surprised us:
“It’s actually a lot harder than we anticipated.”
Now, we know that this reaction isn’t uncommon.
For solar businesses that have ambitious growth goals, expanding to new regions increases their total addressable market. That’s why it can seem like the natural next step for a company.
However, as our customer conversation demonstrates, becoming a multi-region organization also comes with its fair share of challenges and headaches. From new jurisdictions with new permitting rules, to new competition with sometimes dubious marketing tactics, expanding into a new region isn’t a decision to be taken lightly. It requires an almost wholesale re-evaluation of your processes and priorities.
In fact, being a multi-regional solar company often gives urgency a new meaning. As many larger installers have shared, going multi-regional means that your priorities are not dictated by what’s on fire — but instead what’s burning brightest!
That’s why we wanted to share seven tips to help put out some of the most common fires once and for all. Whether you’re looking to expand your solar business into a second region, or you’re an experienced multi-regional company looking for new solutions to address old problems, these seven best practices will help you make your multi-regional solar business a success.
Trust us. If you prioritize creating standardized operating procedures at the outset of your multi-regional business, you’ll save yourself from a lot of confusion later down the line.
When you only have one office to oversee, training and tribal knowledge can often be enough to ensure that the majority of your staff are all following the same set of processes. However, once you expand to multiple locations — some of them potentially across state lines — you need more robust documentation to ensure your employees do their job in a way that aligns with your vision for the business.
Going through the process of creating standardized operating procedures will benefit you twofold. Not only will it allow you to scale your quality of service and ethics of operating, but it will also force you to think through whether the way you’ve done things will still serve you as you grow.
Do you need to standardize the proposal process across your sales reps now that your star salesman won’t be able to personally oversee each customer conversation? Do you need to document what would force a truck roll since your employees won’t just be able to ask you directly anymore? Asking these kinds of questions can help you determine whether there are crucial updates to your operating procedures you need to make before you pass over a set of processes to a new location.
We also recommend doing your research on all of the different tools and platforms your growing business may need. After all, aligning around the same software is another crucial part of standardizing across offices. For field crews, this could mean universally adopting Device Magic or Site Capture to make sure your teams are all using the same thing and consistently getting the same data. For project managers, this could mean bringing on Bodhi.
Once you’ve decided on your shared tools, one of the best ways to begin to standardize adoption throughout your business is by developing a knowledge base (or company Wiki) that employees across regions can access and search. Confluence, Tettra, and Shelf are all popular options for housing your new SOPs (Standard Operating Procedures).
Regardless of which platform you use, this internal library should house everything that a new employee or office would need to know:
Practically, knowledge databases help you help your employees by giving them the information they need to perform their job well. Culturally, these resources telegraph to your employees that they have joined a robust and cohesive organization. They demonstrate a shared language and a strong culture, which allows your team to operate more efficiently.
Another common challenge for solar installers who grow into a multi-regional business is properly maintaining stock and inventory across locations. While in the past, you may have been able to do stock checks yourself or manage your warehouses via a spreadsheet, these systems of inventory management are destined to break as you scale up. As all installers know, incorrect inventory can mean excess down-time — which is the last thing you need once you’ve set your sights on growth.
The fastest and most scalable way to overcome this challenge is to implement a robust CRM that either includes inventory management, like Blu Banyan, or can be integrated with a 3rd-party inventory management tool.
Whether you opt to go for a holistic platform or an integrated tool, keep in mind that either solution should include frequent or quarterly cycle counts. This will help you keep the right level of material based on monthly or quarterly run rate and allow you to make more real-time decisions around inventory ordering.
Of course, more goes into inventory management than just finding the right software. As you grow across regions, you should also prioritize building a strong relationship with your distributors and vendors. These organizations are essential partners for your company’s growth. The right vendor serves as an inside line to discussions around allocation and supply chain updates. Building a strong partnership now means that you’ll have access to better information that can help with forecasting in the future.
Solar is a capital-intensive industry in general, and as a company grows into a multi-regional business, the challenge of cash flow becomes even more acute. That’s why it’s important to have tools to help you manage your cash flow before you expand.
Similar to your inventory management software, once you’ve grown to multiple locations, it doesn’t pay to try to save by managing your cash flow via a home-grown app or spreadsheet. There are a number of trusted options in the industry, from BayWa Split Pay and CED Ensemble, to Solar Engine Solutions. Each has their own advantages and disadvantages, which is why rather than offering a one-size-fits-all recommendation, we instead would advise solar installers to do their own research.
You should evaluate financial softwares in the same way you would any other software in your solar software stack and set an objective that focuses on the outcome you want to achieve, not the software’s features. Book demos for all of the softwares you’re interested in, and then go from there.
As your business grows, it’s important that the quality of your services remains consistent — no matter how many regions you’re addressing. That’s why continuing employee education is so important.
While SOPs and knowledge databases make a big difference in adherence to keeping up quality long-term and empowering employees with self-guided studying, these resources are not meant to replace a strong training program. Not only does training help with employee retention and job satisfaction, but it is the number one tool you have to keep your business competitive. After all, your human team members are your most important resource.
Fortunately, there are more resources available than ever before to help you ensure all of your reps and field crews are staying current and maintaining the same high standards. By taking advantage of industry training and educational events, you can ensure that the quality of your company’s work and team’s competency stays high even as you scale.
One of our favorite resources is the continuing education classes offered at all NABCEP events. If it’s difficult for your team to make it out to one of these conferences, you can also sign your team members up for some courses through Heatspring, which offers many NABCEP certifications remotely.
For more equipment or parts-specific training, your vendors should be more than willing to invest time in training your team so they really understand what they’re selling and installing. The same goes for your software stack. Your software vendors should be active partners in ensuring your team understands how to use their platform to build a competitive, multi-regional business.
Beyond these concrete training programs and continuing education classes, you should also strive to build a culture across your locations that rewards employees who go above and beyond with their learning. By listening to podcasts like Solar Buzz, Suncast, or the Solar Builder Podcast, your teams will stay fluent in the latest industry trends — no matter which region you may be serving. This is an invaluable competitive differentiator that will help them appeal to every solar customer persona.
Of course, before you can train your staff, you need to recruit them. Expanding into new regions means dramatically scaling up your teams, which can be a big challenge for solar installers who are literally branching out into unknown territory. After all, this is a difficult hiring market, with potential recruits spoiled for job options.
That’s why, no matter their size or region, one of the best ways for solar installers to stand out and attract the talent they need is to have a company culture that shines. If you have an established reputation as a great employer, news will quickly spread into your new territory.
Emphasizing company culture is the best recruiting strategy you can have. It ensures that you have a hiring strategy that is “always on,” because your current employees are willing to do the work for you. Happy employees create a built-in new candidate pipeline, as they refer those in their network back to the company’s open positions.
You can also diversify and accelerate your recruiting by developing partnerships with local, relevant trade associations. For example, in our hiring webinar, the CEO of Arctic Solar Ventures, an installer based out of Alaska, shared the story of how he partnered with the carpenter’s union to help him meet his recruiting goals. By finding a local organization that had members with relevant cross-over skills, he was able to begin building relationships as a business that will serve him for years to come.
Even solar businesses that only have one location have a hard time getting all of their sales and marketing team members to stick to consistent messaging. As any multi-regional solar businesses will tell you, having multiple locations only intensifies this problem.
While messaging may seem like the least of your concerns (especially when compared to cash flow or inventory), inconsistent brand language can make a real difference to your bottom line. After all, having core, consistent messaging helps make your business recognizable and memorable to potential customers. It can be the difference between a homeowner remembering to call back your sales rep versus Googling and accidentally finding a competitor.
For solar businesses that are starting their messaging work from scratch, we recommend creating a value map that allows you to hone in on what matters most to your homeowners. While messaging may change slightly from region to region, your core messaging should be consistent enough that homeowners across your geographies recognize you as one company. To put it another way, Kentucky may be different from Oklahoma, but you still want the brand to feel consistent and offer consistent quality to your customers.
Once you’ve developed your messaging document, it’s time to roll it out! Begin by incorporating this language into your employee training, so that from the very beginning, your team knows how they should be using to describe the company. From there, make sure the messaging has been folded into your sales scripts and other reference materials.
If your sales team is struggling to consistently use this messaging with customer communications, you may also want to consider a platform like Bodhi. Bodhi allows you to automate the delivery of great messaging, so that your customers get the same, excellent customer experience every time. Especially as the solar market gets more crowded, having a recognizable and consistent brand will help you penetrate new markets more quickly.
All of the challenges we’ve discussed thus far have been internal business challenges. However, as anyone running a multi-regional solar business knows, one of the greatest challenges you’ll face are the external governing bodies that rule over the industry. Solar legislation, regulatory bodies, and AHJs all vary by region, and understanding the different landscapes and legalities is a full time job in itself.
However, when you’re expanding into a new region and feeling daunted by the prospect of a new set of rules, the most important thing to remember is that you don’t need to recreate the wheel. Instead, leverage your new local resources. Join your local solar associations — from SEBANE to FlaSEIA — and take advantage of the work they’ve already done. Through these organizations, you can quickly learn everything from the regulatory atmosphere for pulling permits, to the solar legislation that’s coming up in the next election cycle.
Once you begin to understand the landscape, you can get involved in even bigger ways. Attend rallies to fight solar taxes and campaign for regulatory support of the solar industry, so that the last barriers to mass adoption of solar are finally removed.
At Bodhi, we pride ourselves on supporting solar installers who are trying to grow, which means sharing best practices like those we’ve outlined above. We also help growing solar companies by automating customer communications, so that teams can focus on executing projects and expanding the business.
As one of our customers shared, “I'm using the time Bodhi saves me to research new markets."
If you’re looking for a partner to help you expand into new markets — or even just scale your local footprint — we’d like to get in touch.