The coronavirus has halted many forms of commerce, but it poses a particular risk for rooftop solar. This is a product that, until a few weeks ago, relied on face-to-face contact for most transactions. Now such interaction is banned as a public health imperative. 

Confronted with a potentially cataclysmic shift in the business landscape, some U.S. installers are trying new approaches. They're finding they could be better positioned to sell clean energy if and when things return to normal.

Before the coronavirus pandemic, many American solar installers sent employees or contractors to ring strangers’ doorbells. They appeared at community gatherings and big-box stores with booths and literature to pitch their wares. Even when customers reached out online, the next step was often sending a sales rep to finish the conversation in the home.

“The kitchen-table sale is an integral part of the solar sales process,” said Vikram Aggarwal, founder and CEO of online solar marketplace EnergySage. “Companies really want to get to the kitchen table.”

The loss of that crucial tool foreshadows a tough time for residential solar companies, compounded by broader economic disruption. Some companies are coping by slashing spending; others have opted for layoffs.

A contingent of entrepreneurial, tech-savvy companies is trying a different route: asking how to sell as best they can without in-person meetings. They’ve glimpsed a small shimmer of hope amid the chaos: Technology makes it relatively cheap and easy to shift operations online; it’s still possible to close deals this way; and a digital-centric strategy could be better for business in the long run than the historical dependence on face-to-face sales.

“For companies that are reluctant to [discontinue] in-person sales, it will be a blow,” Aggarwal said. “The companies that are willing to adjust and adapt to the reality of how consumers want to be solicited or prospected with, they will see tremendous success.”

The essential sales tool is gone

Reliance on in-person conversations varies from company to company, but residential solar experts agree it played a central role in sales strategies across the board.

EnergySage recently published a survey with responses from 772 solar installers across 48 states. Only 11 percent of respondents said they regularly use door-to-door canvassing. But more popular techniques also result in face-to-face contact, like community events (20 percent frequently use this method), direct sales (41 percent) and referrals (77 percent).

“Previously, probably 90 to 95 percent of our closed sales had an in-person meeting of some sort,” said Wil Ralston, president of SinglePoint, which owns solar concierge business Direct Solar America. “That’s how solar traditionally has been sold.”

SinglePoint is a publicly traded company that buys other companies and helps them scale. It acquired the solar business in May 2019. Since then, it grew from selling in eight states to 25, and it now has a staff of 60 people. Direct Solar America does not install, but it does handle sales and sets customers up with financing options and local contractors.

Now it does that remotely. “Nobody’s letting anybody into their house right now” for sales conversations, Ralston said. 

The scramble for digital alternatives has begun. Now, instead of walking around the yard and imagining panels on the roof, sales reps walk through the same details over Zoom, GoToMeeting or Google Hangouts. 

Instead of attending local fairs and festivals, upstate New York community solar company Astral Power switched to Facebook parties and virtual lunch-and-learns, co-founder and President Thom Smith told GTM. Door-to-door canvassing has given way to “social canvassing” on Facebook and Instagram. 

The solar design and proposal process had gone digital already, with software tools like Aurora that visualize the home with solar panels in place. Financing applications were already digital. The primary change, then, is for sales reps to get comfortable selling through a screen, and for customers to feel comfortable making a five-figure purchase virtually. 

Direct Solar America now sees around 40 customers per week through the online channel and is hiring for additional online sales roles.

“We had to either shift to the online model now or take a serious hit this year,” Ralston said. “We’re not yet where we were, but we’re getting back there very quickly.” 

Only 11 percent of installers surveyed frequently used door-to-door prospecting, but many of the more popular techniques relied on in-person meetings too. (Image credit: EnergySage)

Online doesn’t have to be scary

The looming question is whether enough people feel comfortable buying solar online to sustain a growing national industry.  

It's too early to resolve that based on empirical data, but sources pointed to a few reasons why the industry’s conventional wisdom here — that solar must be sold face-to-face — may be incomplete. 

For one thing, solar’s lust for proximity makes it an outlier in today’s economy. How many fast-growing, cutting-edge industries depend on employees knocking on doors and entering homes to finalize a sale?

Other industries have found consumer traction selling expensive items over the internet. Tesla sells far more expensive luxury vehicles over the web — and bucked the solar industry trend when it moved its panels to online sales too.

That move provoked skepticism from those in the industry who didn’t see how solar could be sold remotely. But Tesla framed its unorthodox strategy as a response to the persistent customer-acquisition costs that have dogged the industry for years with no sign of abating (the jury’s still out on the success of this, although Tesla did turn around its declining quarterly solar sales months later).

“The solar industry always talks about customer acquisition,” Aggarwal said. “Online [sales have] dramatically changed the cost structure of practically every other industry, so why not solar?”

Aggarwal, of course, runs a platform dedicated to moving the solar sales process online. But EnergySage’s survey shows that this approach to selling solar was gaining traction before the pandemic: The sales channel that saw the biggest jump in installers frequently using it in 2019 compared to 2018 was online bidding platforms. That answer jumped from 10 percent of respondents to 21 percent, while all the other channels stayed flat.

Obvious benefits for solar companies... 

Companies may adopt emergency tactics to survive the current crisis, and revert to prior behavior as soon as the virus recedes. But expanded digital sales offer enduring benefits for both installers and customers.

For solar companies, going digital cuts out the logistics of traveling through space and time to close a deal. No gasoline costs, no hours spent in traffic, no arriving at an appointment to find nobody there and having to drive many miles home empty-handed.

Maryland-based Lumina Solar regularly pays $50,000 per year in fuel costs for the fleet,* said co-founder and CEO Mike Kirby. The company, which launched in 2018 and employs close to 60 people, still rolls trucks for operations, but saves on travel expenses from the sales process. Emancipation from physical travel creates opportunities as well.

“We have more confidence to sell in a bigger territory because we don’t necessarily need to drive three hours one way to meet with a prospect — we can do that on Zoom,” Kirby said. 

SinglePoint had planned to move sales online eventually to streamline operations, but hadn’t gotten around to it until now, Ralston said.

“This whole situation and what it’s forced us to do will only position the company to be more efficient and [have] lower costs,” he said.

The COVID-19 crisis forced Astral Power to embrace technologies that it may have overlooked previously, Smith said. “When we come out on the other side of this, we’re going to be really strong, because we’ll have this solid foundation of distance learning and digital tools and social media."

...And for consumers

On the customer side, those who like their privacy will now be able to weigh the numbers and make a decision without the pressure of a stranger exhorting them from across the table. For those exemplary millennials who have managed to actually purchase homes, this is almost undoubtedly a more natural way to shop than the previous solar industry standard.

Solar suffers from perennial accounts of “hard-sell” tactics leaving consumers feeling taken advantage of. What is said in the heat of a personal sales conversation doesn’t always come through in a contract, to some customers’ chagrin. But virtual sales mean that customers can keep a record of their interactions.

“If I’m a consumer, I want to communicate on record,” Aggarwal said. “From a consumer perspective, online [communication] is a no-brainer. Any industry would do well to give the consumers what they want.”

Sitting face-to-face is not a fundamental requirement for selling solar. It’s a means to achieve the level of trust and comfort necessary for a homeowner to commit. The challenge now is for solar companies to recreate that feeling from afar.

“At the end of the day, sales is about relating to people,” said Smith of Astral Power. “People still want to be able to look you in the eye and shake your hand. Now they can look us in the eye through video conferencing.”

Fortunes have been made by those who create palpable bonds with viewers through a screen. Solar vendors must try for themselves since, for now at least, no other option exists.

*Corrected to reflect that the fuel expenses refer to the fleet as a whole, not individual vehicles.