These days, customer service comes in a bewildering array of flavors — many of them robotic.

Thanks to advances in artificial intelligence (AI) and other self-service technologies, companies are now automating traditional points of customer contact, such as call-in centers. In fact, Gartner predicts that by 2020, 85 percent of all customer interactions will be handled without the involvement of an actual human.

But technology alone cannot reinvent customer service, even in a modern industry such as solar. “If your primary goal is not keeping [a PV installation] up and running, then you’re not on the right path,” said Roberto Cardoso, director of service, North America for inverter manufacturer Sungrow USA. “That is the foundation for all service practices.”

Here are five ways solar companies should approach service by tapping into the combined power of people and technology to keep plants generating the maximum amount of energy possible.

Modernize the appr​oach 

In 2017, a Folsom Labs survey found that increasing sales and leads was the top concern for small and medium-sized solar installers, with improving customer satisfaction ranking as the No. 4 concern. Service is key to both of those, as happy customers are more likely to provide referrals.

As with other areas of the energy sector, that means getting up to speed with other consumer sectors to leverage the best in technology when it comes to servicing. The starting point is often embracing chatbots and AI that can identify and sort customer issues so they can be addressed in the quickest and most effective manner possible to minimize downtime for PV systems.

For example, Sungrow commits to answering service inquiries for its inverters anywhere in the world within one hour and to actually resolve any problems within 24 hours.

Use data to improve service in the future​

Beyond using AI and machine learning to prioritize responses, another key for quality service is to increase data streams coming from inverters. For example, inverters that provide error codes can be used to ensure that technicians not only know the problem they need to fix but also the equipment and materials they need to bring to do the job quickly, said Cardoso.

It’s one thing to rely on inverter codes and other diagnostics to bolster the effectiveness of individual service calls. But it can be even more powerful when data is collected and analyzed to make improvements for the future.

“Every month we review all the cases we created and we add all the feedback from the field to see if the parts we sent were correct or not and we try to learn from that on a constant basis,” said Cardoso. It’s also possible to use data to predict when an inverter may fail and use that information to perform proactive service.

Embrace remote servicing 

Remote servicing doesn’t always have to be a heavy lift technologically. It can be as simple as having a call-in number where customers can reach a technician who can walk them through simple troubleshooting steps. Or, if those don’t work, schedule an on-site visit.

One technology advancement aiding remote servicing is the ability to upgrade firmware remotely, which was particularly important last year when California’s Rule 21 required the use of smart inverters in all solar projects.

Education, education, education​

It's best when a customer has the knowledge necessary to handle service issues by themselves. This is possible when suppliers have robust training programs in place. Sungrow separates training based on whether it’s a string or central inverter.

“For string, people can come to our service center and get hands-on training once per month and we also do webinars for installers on how to do commissioning and troubleshooting,” said Cardoso. For central inverters, Sungrow ensures there are trainers available during commissioning to provide instruction to customers who want to do basic servicing themselves.

In-house vs. as-a-service

Not all service is created equal. Given the long tail of solar installers, it’s legitimate to ask whether it’s best to look for suppliers who have in-house expertise versus those who contract it out. In some cases, it makes sense to outsource servicing for PV systems altogether. It’s also possible to take a hybrid approach to service. At Sungrow, service issues are divided into different levels depending on the complexity. Simple troubleshooting tends to be outsourced while the more challenging service calls are handled by in-house experts.

For solar installers, there needs to be a dynamic approach to service that matches the pace of the quickly evolving industry. “Running an effective service center requires maintaining a culture of continuous improvement,” said Cardoso.