How to evaluate software for your solar business, Part 1

A framework to understanding the role of software in your business

At the height of the busy season last year, we took a call from a solar Project Manager at her wits end.  She told us, “I’m looking for a centralized text messaging platform that will allow us to view the texts sent between our staff and our customers.” She explained their organization had grown quickly over the preceding years. As their business grew across multiple time zones and they added more personnel, it was becoming impossible to keep track of all the communications with their customers.  There were texts being sent between the project managers and the customer and the salesperson and the customers, not to mention the emails and phone calls.  Their ability to maintain good communication was slipping away. 


After listening to her dilemma, we asked about the outcomes the PM envisioned a centralized text messaging platform would provide.  For example, would it lead to improved responsiveness, staff accountability, and consistent messaging.  She hadn’t thought about it this way before.  When the project manager took a step back to focus on the desired outcome rather than a specific solution, she began to see that software could bring more value than originally conceived.  “Our customers expect constant updates,” she continued.  “We don’t necessarily need a centralized text platform. What we need is to remove the necessity for our customers to ping our staff for updates.”


Successful utilization of software tools is paramount to our success in solar as we battle persistent challenges including the high cost of customer acquisition.  In a recent article, Wood Mac reports,

“Software solutions are the key ingredient in the ‘secret sauce’ of future customer acquisition optimization and cost reductions.”  


But we also know of the many tales of disaster that poor software has left in its wake.  How then can we square what seems like a superficial regard for software in the solar industry with the potential value it could unlock? 


Over the next two articles, we will discuss our experience and observations in helping build effective software stacks for the complexities of the solar business.  In Part 1, we describe how to evaluate the role software can play in your business and in Part 2, we’ll outline seven practical steps to evaluate if your software choice is a good fit for your company.


Set an objective that focuses on the outcome you want to achieve, not the software’s feature

This step is both the most crucial and the most undervalued. This doesn’t have to take ages, but your software evaluations should begin with an objective and honest appraisal of the outcomes to your business, your department, or your role you are looking to realize with a new software.  


It’s important to resist the urge to focus on the feature or functionality that a software solution should have. For one, focusing on the features narrows the value you can actually obtain from software.  For example, looking for a project tracker is very different then looking for a 50% reduction in customer support costs.  


And like the example of the PM mentioned above, focusing on the features can either (1) lead to a band-aid solution that never really addresses the real cause of the pain or (2) a disastrous experience because everyone wasted time, money, and effort on the wrong solution. 


To set an outcome focused object, first engage your team.  Ask them to envision a future version of the business or themselves free of pain they always have to deal with or where goals are easily achieved.  Ask them to articulate that outcome.  We encourage listening to each perspective and look for what underlies their approaches.  


Leadership may start with an aspirational approach - “We should enhance the quality of our service”. The operations manager may use a gap analysis to identify inefficiencies - “We keep making mistakes because of the discretionary selection of photos taken in the field”.  Or staff may provide key anecdotes that point towards a potential solution. “I spend all my time emailing the same response to new customers”. In each of these cases, there is a more generalized principle that can be evinced and should be highlighted. 


Sometimes each of the perspectives from your staff may seem unique and unrelated, but when put together, the principles of consistency, accuracy and accountability start to emerge. On their own, these principles don’t direct you towards a particular software, but they become the guideposts by which you can ultimately measure the software’s fit for your business.



Defining the role and relationship you want for your software

Whether as casual as downloading an app, or as committed as learning to program, we bring a certain attitude and relationship to the software in our lives. Inside a business, defining this relationship is critical to understanding whether a particular software will be an effective fit.


We see 3 types of relationships you can establish with software. While they are not mutually exclusive, each evokes a set of expectations that can align with your purpose.


1. Tool-Based 

Word processing, photo-processing, and CAD drawing programs are good examples of tools that make our work easier, more accurate and more legible. We typically don’t give much thought beyond arriving at an interface, inputting work and expecting a certain result. The software is simply a tool.  


Most software has something of this element, but more often than not, it is the user that imposes this characterization on the software. For example, take CRMs.  At its very simplest, it is a tool for data management -  a customer record is created with data fields, project or time based status all of which become an accurate portrait of that customer relationship. Today’s modern CRM can offer more than this. However, when we hear about how project management and sales teams bemoan the tedium of inputting data, it is a signal that a tool-based relationship is dominant.  And that’s a shame because you’re paying for so much more than a digital rolodex.  


2. Platform-Based 

Many recently developed software can be considered platforms - environments unto itself, either as a connected set of integrated tools or a complex set of interfaces to manage larger and larger amounts of data. These platforms can enhance productivity but more importantly engender creative applications and scalability within a larger dataset. 


For example, modern CRMs embraced as a platform by the company can reveal your same customer data as rich, interrelated, and rife with patterns and value. It is more than the collection of data points but can support analytics that are actionable or tie in activities across departments.  This relationship amongst the data and actions offers new value to the company. 


3. Self-Organizing 

Software is not always a one-way street nor is the relationship simply judged by utility. Software, if engaging and engaged robustly, can start to have a reciprocal effect on the users. The use of the software improves the people using it which results in better inputs to begin with.


This is certainly a generous and less obvious vision of software, but one which we believe has the most value to deliver. In the example of the CRM, the software not only responds to the user’s intentions, but it can- by its very design- encourage certain habits, strategies and practices that further the objectives of the company. 


Hubspot is a good example. Its strength lies in the robust functionality of designing and managing communications to leads and prospects. As a user of Hubspot, the focus on the strategy of communication can actually improve the type of communication as well. Because we pay attention to more dimensions of communication as suggested by Hubspot, we have a chance to improve our communication overall.


A customer experience example

Another way to consider these different relationships to software is to look at how a particular software can embody each of these relationships in integrated ways. For example, consider a solar company’s objective to improve their customer’s experience of going solar. They can look at this problem from each lens of how they can relate to the software. 


A tool-based software should eliminate steps through automation. 


A platform should allow a company to deploy tailored experiences to individual customers while maintaining the ability to track metrics about the experience of their entire customer base. 


Finally, a software that is self-organizing should have a reciprocal effect on the staff that are using it. Not only do the customers enjoy a better experience, but the experience of the staff is also improved, leading to better job satisfaction, more attention to detail, and better relationships with the customers.

Your goal would be to find a software that can have this reciprocal effect. (Hint: check out how StraightUp Solar did this.)


Conclusion

Defining the objective and defining the relationship to software constitute the pre-work of evaluating the software choices you have as a complex business. When these are undertaken intentionally, the subsequent practical steps of evaluating a particular software solution comes relatively easily. 


Remember that any software supplier has designed their product to solve several problems. They likely have a clear statement as to why their product is the best solution for you. What is more important is to enter that conversation with a clear idea of the outcomes you are after and a clear sense of how your company will relate to the software’s role in the company. From there you will be able to have a clear discussion with a software supplier about how to integrate their solution.


In a following post, we will discuss the recommended best practices for how to evaluate the fit of a new software in your business.