An EPC in the northeast was relaying how his business grew 50% last year. (Yes, even during THAT economy.) He had built up a reputation as an installer that got jobs completed quickly and without many complaints. With that reputation, sales dealers sought him out even though his redline was higher than his competitors. However, as more jobs came in, his operations team struggled to keep up. What had previously been a boon was now a burden as more projects fell through the cracks and his reputation took a hit.
We see this a lot. Project management processes that work great just fine at lower project volumes often break down as solar companies grow or they enter the busy season. At these higher project loads, every inefficiency is magnified and starts to snowball into PM headaches, bad reviews, and the dreaded cancellation.
What’s interesting is that these problems are now coming even for the solar installers who maintain consistent project loads. After a challenging year, we saw how slow sales and poor operational habits forced many new entrants into the solar market to close their doors.
While we’re hoping for a brighter 2024, market predictions show that it’s likely to be another year of headwinds for the resi solar market. That’s why it’s more important than ever to identify ways that you can empower your project managers to deliver on the project timelines and great customer experiences, regardless of project load.
The good news is that sometimes all it takes is a small shift in your process or tech stack to make an outsized difference in a project’s timeline or a customer’s experience. By bringing these 5 tips into your operations, you can achieve smoother solar installations, faster time-to-install, and fewer cancellations.
Tip 1: Document mistakes to avoid project management déjà vu
Project management mistakes are unavoidable. What really sets a successful solar company apart from the competition is not whether mistakes happen — it’s how these mistakes are handled. Once your team works together to find a solution, it’s critical that both the problem and its resolution are documented somewhere new and existing project managers can easily reference.
By properly documenting project management mistakes and their solutions, you can naturally create a playbook that will help when your company has a similar issue in the future. Every company needs to find a system that works for them, but a couple of basic principles can steer a management team in the right direction. Our top two pieces of advice:
- Document mistakes right away. By enforcing a policy of chronicling errors as quickly as possible, you ensure that key details are captured and not forgotten. With this simple step, a manager can create a roadmap where future issues can be easily sidestepped or very quickly resolved.
- Incorporate the learnings from the mistakes into your Standard Operating Procedure. This goes beyond documentation and speaks to how your business will actually incorporate these playbooks into your company culture. By incorporating the learnings into your SOPs, you can better ensure that every project maintains the same high quality, no matter the circumstances.
While a technician who makes a mistake may not personally make the same mistake again, the goal is to help another technician avoid the same issue. That’s why it’s important to develop a documentation process that is easy to reproduce and which allows managers to monitor the installation from a closer, more valuable level.
We spoke to a former project manager who had to learn the hard way the value of establishing an effective documentation process. In one instance, her company was finalizing a racking design for panels that were similar but not quite the same as the ones the team normally installed.
Unfortunately, a slight variation in weight upended the design process and made the project much more difficult than necessary. By amending the design process to ensure project managers always wrote down the specs of the panels, she ensured the company would never have to solve the same problem twice.
Tip 2: Set installation expectations early and often for a better customer experience
Setting customer expectations is an essential part of just about any business, but it's especially important for solar installers. For most customers, this is their first time going solar and they have no idea of what to expect.
As any PM can vouch for, many homeowners purchase solar based on either minimal or flawed information about the solar install process. They don’t understand what an AHJ is, how their HOA might need to be involved, or how the utility is involved. Taking the time to answer these (sometimes unasked) questions upfront helps ensure that your PMs don’t run into issues later down the line.
In addition, it’s important to set clear expectations on the timeline of the project. This is especially important as some may be postponing other home renovations until after the installation is complete; others may have upcoming vacations that will impact their availability for on-site visits.
To ensure both your sales and operations team are equipped to set realistic expectations with your solar customers, create both an internal and external version of the following Q&A:
- What is the time-to-install range I can expect?
- What are some of the project milestones I will need to be at home for?
- What kinds of approvals will my system need?
- How often can I expect updates, and who should I reach out to?
- Where can I find information about my solar installation and system?
Tip 3: Hold sales-to-operations handoff meetings to discuss any nuances of a new project
Solar project management doesn’t happen in a vacuum. How difficult or easy a project is to manage depends quite a bit on the kind of relationship and expectations the sales team has already established with your customer. When there’s a mismatch between how a PM and how a sales rep would approach a customer — that’s when cancellations occur.
The data backs this up. NREL found that in the US solar cancellation rates hover around 30%. On top of that, 75% of cancellations occur between contract signing and permit submission. What this proves is that whether the sales-to-operations handoff is smooth or rocky has a huge impact on a solar company’s bottom line.
If you want to begin to improve this process, the first step is to formalize the handoff process by having dedicated meetings to discuss the nuances of new projects. Your team should use these meetings to discuss:
- What expectations or promises the sales team has already made
- What communication preferences the customer has already expressed
- What solar 101 facts the sales team has already shared (HOA approvals, permitting, utility hook-up, etc.)
- Whether there are any red flags or extenuating circumstances the PM should be aware of
In addition to these meetings, we also recommend that solar businesses invest in a CRM. With a CRM, you ensure there’s a source-of-truth for customer information across the company. Both the sales team and the project management team can input in customer details, creating a centralized database of project information.
Tip 4: Rethink your to-do list on a quarterly basis
We agree that it's satisfying to check off a box on a long to-do list, but solar project managers also need to be wary of hollow victories. There are times when a PM can become so focused on handling the smaller day-to-day components that they forget to keep their eyes on the horizon. While maintaining organization is certainly important, it can be easy to lose perspective when there are always a thousand small tasks keeping the ops team busy.
That’s why we recommend regularly checking on the big pieces of each project’s puzzle. Being proactive in heading off any larger issues with an installation project will ultimately save you time and headaches. To this end, try to pinpoint and prioritize the types of problems that can cause a schedule disruption, which can affect an entire installation team as well as the broader company.
As an example, take the status of a roof warranty in relation to a solar installation. Because it theoretically shouldn’t take long to call the roof manufacturer or the homeowner to confirm the warranty details, it can be very easy to push the task beneath others that superficially appear more important. In reality, failing to confirm the status of a roof warranty can cause a major delay in an installation.
To stay on top of everything, it's helpful to continually reevaluate priorities and look for issues that only seem small.
Tip 5: Set annual OKRs to keep everyone aligned
It's one thing to set goals; it's another to quantify those goals in a way that can be measured and reported on. Objectives and Key Results (OKRs) can help turn a general set of goals into impactful results for your business. As the Harvard Business Review points out, OKRs help managers constantly evaluate the impact of the team's efforts, allowing them to regularly improve the process on the go.
Related: How to build a competitive advantage for your solar business by going beyond customer service
OKRs can be especially helpful during the busiest season of the year. While an uptick in business can make everything feel somewhat chaotic, OKRs can keep a team grounded and focused on their efforts. A 2020 McKinsey study notes that agility is essential in improving key elements like customer satisfaction, efficiency, and employee engagement. Because solar is so dependent on ensuring customer satisfaction and organically generating leads, the industry is uniquely suited to OKRs. Not only can OKRs keep all departments moving in the same direction, but they can also simplify the onboarding process for new employees.
Improving solar project management happens one step at a time
Staying focused on all the elements of a solar project can feel like an impossible task at times. It can be difficult to see a way to improve the process while simultaneously trying to balance the daily minutiae and keep an eye on the big picture. But instead of looking for wholesale changes, these simple changes can yield huge rewards, like tighter communications and fewer 1-star reviews.
If you’re looking for a tool that can complement your existing solar project management software and deliver a great customer experience, Bodhi can help. By offering a suite of communication tools, we help PMs stay ahead of customer expectations.Get started for free.