6 tips to automate your solar operations the right way

Whether you want to get more referrals or take the load off your ops team, automation is critical to your solar business’s success.
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July 11, 2023

We’re starting to get into solar’s busy season, which means a lot of people have growth on their mind.  We were talking to one installer that has been around for over a decade.  We asked them what their secret to growing sustainably and reliably over these past 14+ years was. Their head of operations told us that by adding automation, they wouldn’t over-hire when times were good, only to have to fire when times were bad.

We’ve heard variations on this theme more and more frequently from solar businesses in recent years.  As an industry, solar is starting to realize that in order to keep pace with the demand (and the unpredictable regulations that can impact that demand), we need to embrace automation.

However, there’s a lot of fear around the shift to automation.  Solar owners worry that automation will destroy the “personal touch” or brand they’ve established with customers.  VPs of operations and managers worry that automations will go wrong.  Employees worry that it will take away jobs or even result in layoffs.

That’s why it’s so important that when you bring automation into your solar business, you do it the right way.  Implemented effectively, solar companies that have embraced automation have been able to handle twice the volume of projects while keeping their head count constant.  Their service teams are also less stressed, because they have the automations in place they need to make solar asset management easier — keeping them ahead of the customer and weeding out nuisance alerts.

Below, we share the 6 tips that will help you do the same for your solar business, while casting aside any automation fears. 

Examples of automation in solar operations

Before we dive into the tips, we wanted to share some examples of things that can be automated within a solar business.  Some solar pros reading this may already have all of the examples we list implemented into their business.  Others may find this the initial inspiration they need to keep reading.

Solar marketing automations:  The marketing department is often the ground floor of automation for solar businesses.  After all, most CRMs will allow for some kind of automated follow-up email drip, allowing you to re-engage contacts to sell them follow-on items or remind them to review and refer.

Solar sales automations:  For sales, we often see automatic deal creation in the CRM when a form is filled out on your website.  From there, a sales rep may get an automatic notification and assignment to take further action.

Solar ops automations:  For operations teams, it’s becoming more popular to automate basic customer project updates when certain fields are filled out in a CRM.

Solar service automations:  Solar service departments will often automate monthly production reports to try to keep customers at least somewhat engaged post-install.

Now that you have a taste for what’s possible, let’s get into the tips to ensure your business automates the right way.

Tip 1: Automate the mundane, not the meaningful

Of all the fears that we mentioned at the top of this blog, perhaps the biggest is the fear of automation replacing employees.  This means that even if a big boss wants it, staff might not adopt automation or even a solar project management tool out of fear of losing their jobs.  But the important thing to understand is that automation is about automating mundane, routine tasks so that your staff can use their human talents to solve the more complex problems. 

When we work with teams to automate their communications, we focus on communications that are necessary but incredibly boring for a trained PM.  Communications like regular project updates, “no update” project updates, and review and referral requests are all prime candidates for automation.  They’re also the kinds of emails your team will thank you to take off of their plate.

Your employees are the most valuable, irreplaceable part of your business.  Your software should give them time back so they can pay special attention to the extreme customers — those who are either generating tons of referrals and should be nurtured, or those who are at risk of leaving a 1-star review and need a call to vent it out instead.  We even had a customer who, after they had automated their routine communications, suddenly had the bandwidth to research new markets to expand their business.  That’s the kind of priceless work a robot can’t touch, but which human teams rarely have the bandwidth to tackle. 

Tip 2: Build automations for the way you actually work, not the way you want to be working

We talked to an installer who had automated their homeowner communications to go out when specific tasks in their CRM were completed.  The problem?  The team only updated their CRM every other week, meaning homeowners got hit with multiple updates at once.  Some of them even conflicted with each other!

This is why it’s so important to build automations for the way your team actually operates.  Even with a once-a-week bulk CRM update, it’s possible to create thoughtful, well-aced automations — but only if you acknowledge and build around this process. 

Of course, you can use the implementation of automation as a time to update and upgrade your processes, but be realistic.  If you’re looking to automate project updates, have a team meeting to answer the following questions:

  • How often does your team update your CRM?
  • How often do your customers expect updates?
  • What do you routinely forget to do, but you know it needs to get done?

Once your team is aligned on your responses, build (or work with your software’s customer success team to help build) the automations that both match your answers, while also helping your business achieve the goals it set out to achieve.

Tip 3: Automate workflows, not just single tasks

This is a common mistake, even among people that are excited about the power of automation.  For example, we talk to solar businesses all the time that have told us they “already automate their referral requests.”  However, if you want to automate effectively, it’s far better to automate multiple steps rather than single, discrete tasks.

This helps ensure that the necessary actions or processes are being completed and not bottlenecked by any one person not completing a task or not informing their colleague that the next step is ready.  This keeps automations from breaking, and it also helps your business deliver an all-around stronger customer experience.  And the better the customer experience, the greater the chance for five-star reviews, referrals, and follow-on sales.

Tip 4: Train everyone, but also have a clear leader of the automation effort

It’s never good to implement technology in a silo, and yet we see a lot of companies buying “solutions” for a specific department.  When they think about automation, they’re razor focused on what it can do for their team alone.  However, if you think that the platform you’re using for automation is going to be just an ops tool or just a sales tool, you’re probably missing out on some of the potential applications and value you could be getting out of your platform.  Even worse, you might actually bombard your customers with conflicting information or break a process elsewhere in your business.

That’s why it’s important to get cross-department buy-in on your automation efforts.  This allows you to build robust automations by incorporating other perspectives into the design of the automations.  It also means you can share learnings and potentially even automate parts of interdepartmental hand-offs that previously slowed everyone down.  And just as importantly, by getting multiple stakeholders involved, it means that if one person is out on vacation, and something breaks, your business isn’t left in the lurch.

However, that being said, we do recommend having one clear leader of the automation effort.  This person should be responsible for implementing and training your team on the platform.  Without a designated person to guide an automation effort, the process can drag out — or maybe never even come to fruition.

Tip 5: Personalize your automations

Just because something is automated doesn’t mean it can’t be customized.  In fact, good software platforms should encourage you to add personalizations into your automated communications.  After all, customers today have a low tolerance for generic messages.  They view these messages with a higher degree of suspicion and may even find them confusing.

For example, we heard from one installer who set up an automated from their CRM about HOA being approved that had a disclaimer in the body text that said, “For those without an HOA, please disregard.”  This is the kind of sloppy, generic automation that can result in MORE phone calls for your project managers, eating into their time to actually push the project forward.

The best automation platforms these days are powerful enough to handle the nuances of who has an HOA and who doesn’t, as well as all of those other small customizations that make a customer feel taken care of.  By personalizing your automations, you can directly combat fears of losing that personal touch.

Tip 6: Review your automations quarterly

Solar changes fast.  There are big outside factors, like regulation or seasonality.  Then there are the smaller changes, like the staffing changes at the local AHJ or new builds uncovering new territories.   There are even changes to your business, like how many PMs you may have.  

All of these changes have implications for how your sales, marketing, and operations teams operate — and they are also all going to have implications for the automations you’ve set up.  That’s why it’s important to review your automations quarterly and see if they reflect the new realities of your business.

Regularly reviewing your automations also allows you to reflect on how they worked for you. At your regular quarterly or bi-annual team meeting, you should gather your team to ask the following questions:

  • After a quarter of data, what could be optimized?
  • Did your ops team notice routine tasks that they were still having to do manually?
  • Did you deliver a better experience to your customers, or are there still improvements to be made?

If you invest in a software with a dedicated customer success representative, you can easily take these learnings and fold them into updated and optimized automations.  Regardless, there are bound to be minor tweaks to the messaging or the automations cadence that can domino into big savings (or earnings!) for your business.  

Take these tips and invest in a platform that helps your business beyond just automation

Now that you know the right way to implement automation, it’s time to find the right platform to support your game plan.  We have whole articles about how to choose the right software for your business.  However, what we’ll say here is:

  • The software should relate back to business goals, not just its own set of vanity metrics
  • The software should integrate with the tools that you already use
  • The software should give your team more time back, not just be another tool they have to check-in on

At Bodhi, when we work with our customers, we measure the success of our platform based on the real business metrics that our installers tell us are important.  We’re proud of the fact that Bodhi installers have an average cancellation rate of 5.7% because it means less lost revenue.  Similarly, we tell people about our installers’ Google review score of 4.7 because we know that high customer acquisition costs are a major challenge in the industry.  Whatever software vendor you go with, you should make sure they’re willing to align on these key business metrics.

You should also invest in a software that will provide you with a dedicated customer success rep.  As we’ve alluded to throughout the article, having a dedicated rep essentially means you now have an expert in automation as a part of your team.  Your rep can help you take your learnings and develop even stronger automations, as well as ensure the software can stay aligned with your business goals as they change and grow.  You also get a person who can help you out long-term with any issues.

How to get started with automation

Even though automation can be intimidating, it’s the only way for a solar business to achieve scale.  Automation keeps your business stable during seasonality, and it allows you to grow year-over-year without burning out your team.  One of our Bodhi installers has told us they’ve been able to 2x their revenue without adding anyone to their team.  Another has been able to expand into new regions because their staff has new bandwidth.

If you’re looking for a solar business management software to help you scale and deliver personalized, automated communications, schedule a demo today.

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