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Transitioning to online selling means growing pains for solar installers

by Kelsey Misbrener, Solar Power World – When Sheryl Lane, COO at Earth Electric, first heard about consumer solar marketplace EnergySage, she was excited about the opportunity and signed up her company right away.

But after putting in more than 100 quotes and not landing any jobs, she wondered what was going wrong. Lane thought her most important selling point was missing from the platform: The personal touch of a local installer.

“It’s making it like some cheesy, non-personal experience, and it’s just not the way it should be done when you’re talking about such a large investment and people putting holes in your roof,” she said.

Earth Electric is a small installation company in San Jose, California, that employs six people and averages 300 kW in annual (mostly residential) installations. It’s been in business for almost a decade, and Lane credits its success to thorough industry knowledge and personalized attention to detail.

So the fact that EnergySage requires installers to communicate exclusively through its internal messaging system, without requiring the customer’s phone number or email address, is problematic for Lane’s business model. But EnergySage founder and CEO Vikram Aggarwal said it keeps contact information optional because consumers don’t want to be solicited. They want to be in the driver’s seat when they’re online shopping. And until the industry makes system prices more transparent and easier for consumers to search, they’ll continue to turn to marketplaces for easy, unobtrusive answers.

“Today, without EnergySage and without picking up the phone and talking to a solar contractor, there is no way to get prices,” Aggarwal said.

Aggarwal thinks the solar industry avoids publicizing detailed pricing and product information on installer websites for fear of losing competitive advantage. He compares the secrecy to shopping at his family’s clothing store in India, where there were no price tags and the sales associates set the price based on what they thought each shopper would be willing to pay.

“Solar is sold like we used to sell clothes in India, which bugs the hell out of me,” Aggarwal said.

As solar becomes more mainstream, Aggarwal sees more visitors come to EnergySage to scope out prices. Last year, he said the site had about five million U.S. visitors. This year he expects that number to double.

“The good news is that a lot of people are very interested in solar,” Aggarwal said. “But the bad news is it takes time for them to go from being interested to becoming actual customers.”

These quote seekers are a huge time suck for installers like Earth Electric putting in bids through marketplaces without any results.

To request a quote, consumers must fill out a profile on EnergySage that is reviewed by the marketplace for viability. Aggarwal said people who make it that far are pretty motivated consumers. Approved consumers are shared with EnergySage’s network of contractors. Up to seven installers can submit a bid on any one request.

“Yes, there are a lot of tire kickers. There are a lot of window shoppers. I don’t think the industry can get away from that. I think what the industry needs to do is get ready to serve window shoppers, because these window shoppers eventually will become customers,” Aggarwal said.

Rudy Wright, president of Wright-Way Solar Technologies based in East Texas, said he has landed one big job from EnergySage. He likes the tool because he knows consumers enjoy the ease of online marketplaces. But he and his colleagues have put in hundreds of hours of work sending proposals with little return on the time investment.

One problem he had with the marketplace was that installers had to submit bids through the EnergySage platform instead of their own solar modeling software like Aurora Solar.

“I raised nine kinds of hell with them because they kept calling me going, ‘Why aren’t you doing more bids?’ and I’m like, ‘Well guys, there’s 100 tire kickers a week in Texas, and I can’t do 100 bids in your software and still do my job that puts food on my table,’” Wright said.

EnergySage’s Quick Quote feature somewhat solved that issue by allowing installers to input a few pieces of information to generate a generic quote in a matter of seconds, but these quotes are general estimates rather than carefully tailored projections using sophisticated software. Wright uses Quick Quote and tells customers to call him for more information.

Wright said one of the things he likes about the platform is if a customer ends up buying solar through a different EnergySage contractor, he gets an email from EnergySage telling him so. In the past six months, Wright said his company sent out about 500 bids. He only recalls getting three to five emails back from EnergySage saying those customers opted to go with a different contractor. The other 495 customers didn’t go solar, at least through EnergySage.

“I kind of get a little bit of feedback to know OK, it’s not just me. They’re just not buying,” Wright said.

Marketplaces spread solar awareness

Azam Kazmi, president of YellowLite in Northeast Ohio, thinks online marketplaces are well worth his time. YellowLite has been signed up for both Pick My Solar and EnergySage since their inception.

“For the returns, they don’t ask for a whole lot,” Kazmi said. Compared to the cost of organically researching and following up with leads, he said these platforms charge less. He does admit organic leads are much more valuable and likely to end in a sale, but he likes the volume of leads these platforms generate, especially in a market like Ohio where solar is still not a kitchen table topic, or as competitive as Southern California.

Kazmi said he doesn’t get many leads from Pick My Solar yet, but the ones he has received have been more qualified than EnergySage’s.

“You’re dealing with fewer customers, so the close rate is better, versus EnergySage with more leads,” Kazmi said. He doesn’t have a problem with the lack of serious leads on EnergySage, though. “They’re leads. There’s not a whole lot that they could do, I think, on their end besides just saying that ‘Hey, we are a tool available.’”

Although Pick My Solar is also a consumer-facing marketplace, it serves a different purpose. Pick My Solar is meant to replace an installer’s sales and marketing team, so its rates for signed contracts are higher than EnergySage’s. Pick My Solar calls this distinction a “managed” marketplace versus the “unmanaged” consumer-to-installer communication on EnergySage.

Pick My Solar staff receives customer requests, creates quotes based on information in its installer database, designs systems using Aurora Solar, sends the customer three different quotes and then sends the signed customer contract to the winning contractor.

“We’ve already kind of done all of the legwork for [the installers]. When we close that sale, it’s basically plugging into their pipeline, into their operations team,” said Rex Kehoe, partnership director for Pick My Solar. “So it kind of bypasses all of that work that needs to be done and time, energy, money that’s spent up-front.”

EnergySage’s Aggarwal said Pick My Solar is not a true marketplace for consumers because its main function is to become an installer’s sales team. That may be so, but Kehoe said Pick My Solar is a better option for installers that don’t have the time or resources to spend sending many quotes to customers who may not be serious about buying.

Pick My Solar has focused its expansion efforts on partnering with certain utilities like Con Edison New York to serve their markets. It has about 100 vetted installers signed up on pickmysolar.com currently. EnergySage aims to serve a national consumer market and has 500 pre-screened installers on the site now.

Transitioning to online selling

Kazmi tasks entry-level employees at YellowLite with working the solar marketplaces. Once a customer gets closer to buying, he assigns an experienced sales consultant to the lead.

Although Quick Quote makes it easy to send that initial bid, winning a customer usually requires much more effort. Installation companies must continue to follow up with leads through the platform.

Aggarwal said contractors should have a salesperson dedicated to working EnergySage on staff, or at least someone who’s internet-savvy and can close deals on the platform. In its “Top 10 tips for installer success,” EnergySage advises installers to submit quotes within one hour of the request, avoid pushy sales tactics of door-to-door sales and make sure all messages to consumers are friendly and free of spelling errors.

Some smaller installation companies don’t have the resources to have an employee work the site full-time. Dara Bortman, VP of marketing and sales at Exact Solar in Philadelphia, said her company signed on to EnergySage around the time it launched, but hasn’t done much with it since then. The type of jobs that interest her company almost always reach EnergySage’s seven-bid limit before Exact Solar has a chance to submit a bid.

“They’re getting them really quickly,” Bortman said. “So if you don’t do that, and you go on and see the email an hour or two later, you look at [the potential job] and it’s full. You can’t even bid on it.”

Bortman said most of her company’s leads contact Exact Solar directly by phone or through its website. Often, customers find the company through its good ratings on Angie’s List and SolarReviews.com.

“Unless I have extra time, I’m not going to go to [marketplaces],” Bortman said.

Exact Solar is adding a second salesperson this year, so if the normal lead pipeline doesn’t keep both salespeople busy, Bortman said maybe they will spend some time on EnergySage.

Verification practices

Another reason Lane thinks Earth Electric didn’t win bids on EnergySage was she often found herself being outbid by unqualified contractors. She thinks third-party companies are using the site to find jobs, then subcontracting the work out on the cheap. Her company has been contacted by some of these companies offering to hire Earth Electric at 60 or 40 cents per watt.

“So these out-of-area ‘contractors’ are getting local installers who are hungry in a very competitive marketplace to install for them while they rake in the cash and aren’t even licensed to contract,” Lane said.

EnergySage said it is aware of the problem of verifying subcontractors and is working to develop more checks and balances to make sure all parties, contractors and subcontractors alike, are properly vetted.

“I understand it,” Aggarwal said. “We are trying to figure out how to address that through more transparency, while being respectful of the trend in the industry of this specialization.”

Aggarwal said many companies are now either focusing solely on sales or on installation, and subcontracting installations out or using tools like Pick My Solar for sales and marketing functions. He said the best way to fix the problem is through more transparency. Installation companies that perform all the labor in-house should call attention to that on their profiles. If a company tells EnergySage it uses subcontractors for the installation right away, Aggarwal said EnergySage will verify both the sales company and the subcontractor.

Playing with numbers

Exact Solar does most of its business in two states that are very different solar-wise: Pennsylvania and New Jersey. Pennsylvania has cheap electricity and low-priced SRECs, so the profit margin is thin. The added cost that must be paid to EnergySage for the sale could kill a job.

“If someone has a perfectly sunny roof that faces south, it can still work,” Bortman said. “But add in any variable like shade or orientation, and then you add in 12 cents a watt [for EnergySage], it can really make a difference and really make the numbers just not make sense.”

Add in the module price increase from the tariffs, and the system price would probably make the payback period longer than 12 years.

In New Jersey, solar makes a lot more financial sense. Electricity costs more, and SRECs are about $200 per MWh. Bortman is open to giving EnergySage another shot in the state if it makes sense in the future and Exact Solar employees see better returns on their time investment.

Making the numbers generate profit for the installers with the added payment to EnergySage can be tough because many consumers are just looking for the lowest price on the site instead of the best comprehensive deal to fit their needs. That type of “race-to-the-bottom” mentality hurts smaller contractors like Bortman and Lane.

“I’m not in it to be the lowest price,” Bortman said. “I’m not in it to be the highest price either, but, you know, I’m in it to be the highest quality. And maybe it’s hard to get that across in a bidding setting like that.”

Lane said she’s spoken with other local companies that have managed to clinch a couple of jobs through EnergySage by pricing jobs very low.

“That’s fine for a little while when you want to keep your employees working, but you can’t continue to grow and prosper…which is why we’re all in business,” Lane said. “We’re not here to be the low-price leader. As a local solar installer providing the level of customer support that we do, we can’t afford to be the Walmart of solar.”

EnergySage refutes the idea of a “race-to-the-bottom” on its website, pointing to a 2017 study by NREL that found “only about 38% of customers that have adopted PV on the quote platform selected the lowest available bid price.”

In the still-young solar market, marketplaces like EnergySage can help spread awareness of the technology and the cost that’s missing from solar websites. For solar contractors who don’t like buying leads outright but need more jobs, solar marketplaces can serve an important role in their project pipeline. But EnergySage does hear the valid concerns of installers about verification and time commitment and is working to improve the experience for installers.

See article on SolarPowerWorldOnline.

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