In a new Greentech Media series, we’re asking people with jobs in cleantech — from installing solar panels, to permitting wind projects, to promoting building energy efficiency software —to tell us what they really do all day.
We hope this series can serve as a source of information and inspiration for recent graduates, cleantech professionals planning their careers or anyone who wants to transition into the industry. We also hope it makes cleantech opportunities more visible and accessible to those groups, including women and people of color, who are underrepresented in our growing industry.
What do solar salespeople do?
By 2024, 2.5 percent of all U.S. homes will have a solar installation. But what happens before the contract is signed and the panels go up?
Jenna Ahlman, an inside sales representative at Blue Raven Solar based in Utah, spends her day calling prospective solar customers over the phone to see if their homes are a good fit for solar. Ahlman is a solar salesperson, and her role is the link between solar companies and the people they serve.
“I spend my day talking to people who say they’re curious about solar but aren’t convinced that they should look into it. I tell them why it’s important and give them information,” said Ahlman.
Residential solar salespeople spend their time gathering leads, explaining the value proposition of solar to interested people and following up with potential customers.
Solar sales can be broken out into two types of jobs: inside and outside sales.
Inside solar salespeople connect with households over the phone, calling lists of potential leads or responding to inbound inquiries to talk with the goal of arranging a time for another salesperson to visit the customer’s home.
Don’t want to sit at a desk? Outside salespeople usually start their career in solar sales by canvassing door to door to set up appointments, before moving into a more senior position that entails longer, more detailed home visits. Viktoriya Vorobyova from Venture Solar, who is based in Brooklyn, New York, described it as “like cold-calling but in person.”
“You really have to grab somebody’s attention right away and make them interested within the first 30 seconds to get someone to sit for an appointment,” said Vorobyova.
A solar canvasser might knock on more than 100 doors in a single day. Canvassers gather information from interested homeowners, such as the age of their roof and their credit score, and hopefully end their interactions by setting up an appointment for senior salespeople to return and make the sale.
Not all solar companies have door-to-door canvassing teams, but it remains a mainstream tactic for local installers. (Customer acquisition is notoriously expensive for residential solar companies; while some companies have experimented with dropping the door-to-door channel, it is still in widespread use.)
A canvasser who does well in the role can be promoted to a senior outside salesperson, whose job it is to convince a prospect to go solar over the course of one or more home visits. A salesperson in this role must prepare extensively for meetings, get to know the house and homeowner, communicate potential costs, and answer questions about energy bills and the nuances of installation.
The process of making a sale can take multiple visits and calls. If the sale is made, the salesperson stands to make a significant commission.
That's why solar sales positions are sometimes advertised with $100k+ salaries — it's not a sure thing, but it's possible to earn significant commissions in solar (just don't forget that commissions are often taxed at a steep rate).
What skills does a solar salesperson need?
Ahlman stressed the importance of time and data management to keep track of important information and manage a busy schedule of meetings. A solar salesperson needs to coordinate calls and visits with busy prospects. Arriving late to an appointment or double-booking someone for a call can quickly sour a relationship.
Vorobyova noted that salespeople need to be able to quickly and clearly explain how much in additional savings a household can enjoy as a result of state and local solar policies.
“Communication and self-awareness helps,” said Vorobyova. “You have to know how to talk to pretty much everybody. Every single day, you meet so many different people from different backgrounds. The majority of them have never looked into solar. The most important skills [are] communication and being a people person.”
Ahlman agreed. “Speaking is very important — being clear with what you’re saying and communicating clearly what our promotions are.”
What might people not know about being a solar salesperson?
You have to be resilient to sell solar.
“People can be rude,” said Ahlman. “Even those who have requested something from you, not cold calls."
One thing that surprised Vorobyova was the lack of environmental motivation among potential customers.
“Not too many people really worry about the environment or believe in…what’s happening,” she said, referring to climate change. “I was surprised about that. But hopefully, that’s starting to change now.”
At the same time, Vorobyova noted, salespeople need to understand policy to pitch solar effectively. Although most solar sales conversations focus on the value proposition of home solar for a specific prospect, solar salespeople need to always keep the big picture of their city or state’s solar market in mind — particularly incentives that might impact how much savings a customer will get from solar.
In New York, rebates and tax credits can cover nearly three-quarters of gross costs for most solar projects, according to Brooklyn-based installer Brooklyn SolarWorks.
“It’s good that there are state, federal and city benefits,” said Vorobyova. “[In New York] those benefits are starting to go away, so talking about that gives people a sense of urgency.”
What’s your favorite thing about your role?
Solar usually saves homeowners money over time. This is part of what makes solar a unique product to sell, according to Ahlman, and part of what makes residential solar sales rewarding.
“We sell a product that’s going to save you money,” said Ahlman. “We’re asking to put money back in your pocket. Often, right away you pay less for electricity than you would normally be paying, or at least over the life of the system, you save thousands of dollars.”
For Vorobyova, the feeling of doing something that will change the energy system and fight climate change is the best part of the job.
“It’s very exciting to be a part of something that I consider to be a major solution for my generation and future generations. Every day before I go to bed, I feel good about myself,” she said. “I’m doing something that’s good for me, my customer, the planet. Since I was little, I was very outdoorsy and was concerned about climate change. Solar means I’m able to address it.”
What barriers might stop someone from succeeding?
Certain physical abilities are a requirement for outside solar sales, as salespeople need to travel long distances and enter many types of homes that might not meet accessible design standards. Evening hours and weekend work can also be expected in some solar sales roles.
But when it comes to education, solar sales can be more accessible than some other positions in the cleantech industry. Salespeople learn about the product they sell on the job, and a college degree typically isn’t required, although salespeople come from a variety of educational backgrounds.
“The first few days, we had in-house training and learned everything about the company and the benefits of solar, so education isn’t much of a barrier,” said Vorobyova.
The role is also flexible and potentially lucrative, Vorobyova said. “It can take up as much time as you put into it. It can be a little difficult sometimes on very busy days, working so many hours, but if that’s something you’re willing to do, then you can succeed. If you want time off, they’ll approve it. And there’s no cap on how much you can get paid, or on your satisfaction.”
Every solar company is different. Often, new salespeople can succeed and move up quickly based on strong performance. Vorobyova canvassed for three months before being promoted.
However, compensation structures differ from company to company. Some installers advertise high salaries but may hire a contractor on a commission-only basis, at least at first. This means entering the field can involve a period of risk.
“I’d say the biggest barrier that stops people from joining sales is the intimidation,” said Ahlman. “For me, I was one of the first girls in the department. That can seem a little intimidating. But it really isn’t once you do it."
Which jobs in cleantech and renewable energy would you like to know more about? Do you know someone with an interesting job in the field? Drop us a note below. This series is supported by WAGE, an initiative of Wood Mackenzie and GTM.