Help! F***ing supply chain problems have delayed all my solar projects!

8 tips to maintain customer trust amid delays that are out your control

We recently spoke with a solar professional at his wits end over the frequency of supply chain disruptions impacting his business. It had gotten to the point that his own sales team pleaded with him to pause battery sales until they could get assurances on delivery dates. Every sale they made, it seemed, would incur a delay, damaging their relationships and causing sales and operations teams to repeat efforts. 


Within the solar industry there are constant opportunities for delays in our projects. Today, it’s global supply chain issues and labor shortages. A year ago it was the permitting office.  And before that was the utility. Next year it will be something else.


Even though these delays are not your fault, you own the customer relationship, and the customer will look to you for answers.  It's a tough spot, but careful navigation of this delicate issue is the difference between a 5 star review and a 1 star review, a solar champion or a solar detractor.


In the face of a delayed project, successful communication is critical to maintaining relationships and the profitability of a project. In this post, we provide you 8 practical tips you can employ today:



1. Do not go “radio-silent” on your customers 

Bad news is hard to deliver but that’s no excuse to ghost your customer.  Radio silence will cause your customers to second guess the trust they put in your organization, degrade their solar customer experience, and manifest in the hidden costs of poor communication which includes poor reviews, higher customer acquisition cost, and even turnover in your team. These outcomes are far worse than “ripping off the band-aid,” to tell your customer you won’t be meeting the original (or revised (or re-revised)) schedule. 


Most customers are generally reasonable people who in all likelihood have encountered other recent delays - for example, check out this reddit thread of how it's taking 6+ months to get a couch!


Don’t assume that the delays we find upsetting are also upsetting to your customer. With a friendly phone call, you may learn that your customer is busy the next few weeks anyways and the change in schedule doesn’t make a difference to them. If a customer is anxious to see their solar array installed as soon as possible, a timely reminder that the modules have a 25 year + warranty and that a delay of a few weeks, while annoying, won’t make a practical difference to the reasons they decided to go solar. 


2. Set expectations and follow through

A particularly risky challenge to navigate is when we owe the customer an update, but we don’t have the information that the customer expects - for example when a customer demands to know an install date, yet the vendor or equipment manufacturer is unable to commit to a delivery schedule. 


A valuable message to have in your toolbox, is “The update is there is no update. Our team continues to work diligently to move your project forward. This is what we have done so far and this is what we’re doing next, I’ll follow up with you again on this date...” 


When you provide this update, be certain to follow through, even if the next update is still, “We haven’t heard back from...I’ll keep you posted if anything changes, otherwise I’ll contact you again on..”  


Solar customers expect and deserve updates, especially when the project has been thrown off the original course. Most of all, they want to know that they’ve put their trust in the right organization, and that they feel supported in their customer journey. Be empathetic and don’t let the customer feel forgotten about! 



3. Go with honesty rather than excuses 

It’s difficult to repeatedly come up with fresh excuses for why something hasn’t happened, and your customer will quickly come to view you and your organization as inept. “The truck broke down” or ”The crew lead is sick” are weak and cause the focus of the customer’s frustration to be placed on your organization.

The truth is usually simpler than the excuse you’re trying to come up with, and your customer won't fall for them anyways.   If your team is grinding to resolve an issue,  it’s ok for your customers to be aware of that. It’s highly possible that when they learn what’s going on behind the scenes, they’ll appreciate your effort and even think more highly of your organization.


4. Develop an escalation process 

An escalation process can be helpful in providing structure and consistency to customer support.  Delays and the frustrated customers they cause are time consuming and stressful to resolve. Draft a formal escalation process and reimbursement schedule that clearly and simply describes the corrective action to be taken when customer service issues arise. 

For example, if an install date gets rescheduled, empower your project coordinate to offer free movie tickets. If the install date is missed by >1 month, consider offering a free 1st year inspection.

Not only will your need to problem solve each time an incident occurs be greatly diminished, but the system will provide a standard process towards resolution that can help manage customer expectations.


5. Use language to create space between your organization and the issue 

Consider the difference between, “We expect these panels to arrive at the end of the week.” And, “Our vendor has told us to expect these panels to arrive at the end of the week.”


Framed as the latter, if those panels don’t arrive at the end of the week, the customer understands that it’s because the vendor, not your company, has failed to meet their commitment. If the customer is frustrated, the conversation can be focused around the remedial action the vendor is taking, versus the remedial action your solar business needs to take. 


This is not to suggest deflecting accountability, but when externalities impact your business a little extra transparency can go a long way.


6. Provide citations for delays

You’ve worked hard to earn credibility and now find yourself working hard to maintain it.  If the issue is systemic, providing a relevant news article to your impacted customer may help to affirm the scope of the challenge. Purchases are emotional decisions, and project delays can often be taken personally by solar customers. A news article can serve as a tool to communicate the pervasiveness of the issue - that it’s not just them who's impacted. Canary Media, and PV Magazine are two excellent sources.  


7. Underpromise and overdeliver

At this stage the customer is under the impression that you’ve over promised and underdelivered, time to reverse course. When given a date range by a partner like, “6 to 8 weeks,” consider dropping the early number and only relaying the later date. The risk you’re mitigating is when a customer is told “the panels are 6 to 8 weeks out,” what they often hear is “the solar panels are 6 weeks out,” and when the panel delivery occurs in 7 weeks, you're dealing with a frustrated customer instead of an excited one... 


8. Expect that as business gets busier, communication will drop off. Plan accordingly.

Keeping a customer updated is easy - when you have 1 customer. The updates per project times the number of projects can quickly amount to an overwhelming volume of updates. For one Missouri based solar company, Bodhi sent 1,163 automated customer updates in Q3.


Updating customers is a critical business function, but oftentimes the folks who keep customers updated have additional responsibilities - like submitting permits or scheduling crews. If a coordinator finds they only have the bandwidth to complete only two of their three responsibilities, which of Submit Permits, Schedule Crews, or Update Customers do you think is getting dropped? It will be Update Customers. 


Once the customers stop receiving proactive updates, the solar business can expect to become reactive to customer inquiries, and communication related challenges may quickly spiral.



Conclusion

An effective communication strategy in the face of delays is imperative to keeping customers happy and ultimately reducing the high cost of solar customer acquisition. Tools like Bodhi can be implemented into a solar software stack to automate mundane post-sales correspondence and reduce headaches for your customers and your team. When the next industry-wide challenge hits us, you’ll be able to focus on closing deals and executing projects.  


If you’re in a tight spot for equipment, it’s likely our friends at Baywa, Soligent, ThePowerStore, and CED Greentech can help.