A recent guest column in a local Denver newspaper could be a harbinger of the future for communitysolarproject owners if they're not careful when choosing their customer management contractors.

The writer alleges he was misled when signing up for a community solar project in Colorado (the “customer acquisition” side of the business), and treated horribly when he tried to get out of the 20-year contract. It’s hard to blame him for getting so upset that he wrote a piece warning others not to sign up.

At Clean Currents, the company I ran from 2006-2014, we had a process and a culture in place that resulted in unprecedented levels of customer happiness with an energy company. It all starts with how the customer is acquired.

My philosophy is that the way you sign a customer up will determine the way you interact with the customer going forward. Companies that acquire community solar customers without spelling out clearly the most important terms of the contract are setting themselves up for future problems. There should be total transparency and no over-promising on savings or other misleading sales tactics.

Once the prospect has become an actual customer, it’s vital to keep in constant communication with them and give them several easy ways to communicate back with you. For example, Neighborhood Sun has a customer feedback page on our website, with a policy that says we will print all comments, whether positive or negative (of course, with the exception of vulgar, racist, etc., language). 

Next, there should be procedures in place that allow customers to easily escalate their issue to upper management. It’s not as hard as it sounds. At Clean Currents, we had more than 5,000 residential customers, and we had a procedure that allowed for calls to be elevated to me, the president of the company.

I was not stuck taking hundreds of calls a day, because the truth is that 99.9 percent of customer problems can be solved with customer service reps. But the several dozen calls I took over the years, with the ability to make an instant decision on behalf of the company, paid off in spades for us.

It goes to the old maxim -- one happy customer will tell 10 other people, but one unhappy customer will tell 100 people. That’s exactly what happened in Colorado, and exactly what never happened under my watch.

Finally, it takes a company with a culture so strong it infuses its values into every employee. It’s a culture devoted to excellence, to over-delivering, to being held accountable, and most importantly to the old but not outdated maxim, “The customer is always right.”

The customer management players in the community solar space largely fall into one category: teams that feel they’ve got great software and data management systems that can throw up a few ads to attract customers.

For community solar project owners, all the players must look essentially the same. They can all communicate with the utilities, do billing and collection, store and track customer data and answer basic customer questions. Most also think that marketing and sales just involves throwing up some targeted ads to the right people.

A survey of the various web platforms shows that branding is an afterthought, as they all pretty much look the same and deliver the same vanilla messages about saving money. Let’s call these "billing companies who know what Facebook is."

True marketing and sales is a complex, yet subtle, effort built around brand identity.

The most successful practitioners of this craft know that brand can’t be easily created from scratch. These days, they also know that brands have to stand for something and not just be content with being part of the crowd.

For community solar project owners, the choice of who they partner with is perhaps the single most important decision they will make. Partner with a "billing company that knows what Facebook is" and you face the prospect of high customer attrition and difficult customer re-acquisition, and thus wildly missing the mark on your revenue projections.

Instead, ask potential partners about their brand identity, their corporate culture, and how they create customer happiness. Research whether they’ve done customer engagement before, and if so, what kind of complaints have been filed against them, whether it be in misleading marketing or in customer service.

Don’t let the Denver community solar story happen to you.

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Gary Skulnik is the CEO and founder of community solar specialist Neighborhood Sun Benefit Corp.