Solar installers invest significant time and resources into educating their potential customers. And it can be a truly frustrating experience when all that effort doesn’t eventually translate into a sale.

We’ve heard it all: Consumers are “fence-sitters," “tire-kickers” and “window-shoppers.” In fact, one of the most common laments we hear from solar installers is about how often prospective customers ask lots of questions only to go silent after several conversations.

As solar evolves into a more mass-market product for American homeowners in the coming years, it’s time for us all to acknowledge a simple fact: Today’s “window-shoppers” are tomorrow’s customers.

It’s up to us to support these customers throughout their shopping experience so that they can gain the confidence they need to eventually make a purchase decision. 

Whether it’s solar panels, a new car, or a TV, window-shopping is a crucial phase

My Panasonic plasma television is approaching 14 years old. For the last year, I’ve been looking at the new organic light-emitting diode (OLED) TV technology as a replacement. I’ve visited several different websites to understand how OLED technology works and get a complete understanding of my options.

I’ve probably spent a few dozen hours researching different features, prices, and expert and consumer reviews. I’m also checking prices every couple of months. I expect that I’ll pull the trigger later this year, when the combination of price and features is a little closer to my budget and my preferences. By that point, I will have spent almost two years before making this purchase — one that is likely to cost me between $1,000 and $2,000. 

This is how I bought my car, Bluetooth headphones, and many other purchases big and small. Window-shopping online helps me feel confident that I am paying a fair price for the right product — far more than speaking with any salesperson could. I expect that if I do talk to a salesperson, it’ll be the last step in my process. 

Now, imagine you’re a homeowner considering a rooftop solar energy system. You’ve never owned one before, and it’s likely to cost you $10,000 to $20,000. Wouldn’t you need to window-shop first? 

The solar industry needs to make window-shoppi​ng easier, not harder

Our industry is not yet set up to help prospective customers shop around. Many of the solar industry’s sales practices are holdovers from an era when prospects were early adopters who required a very hands-on, one-on-one approach. Without evolving these practices, we run the risk of pushing our future customers away.

As an industry, we still don’t make it easy for prospects to learn about their options and prices without speaking with a salesperson — and even then, it can be difficult to understand which factors have the biggest impact on price. We only want to talk to people who are ready to buy, and buy it now, from us, and without ever doing any homework or speaking to another company. We typically employ commission-only salespeople who don’t have time to educate their prospective customers and try to avoid these so-called “tire-kickers."

When a homeowner contacts a solar company to get a sense of their options and prices, they often encounter a salesperson who will:

  • Ask several qualifying questions before offering any valuable information in return
  • Suggest that the salesperson visit their home before providing price estimates
  • Call the prospect repeatedly to follow up
  • Use aggressive hard-sell tactics to close the sale

It’s no surprise that these sales practices are dissuading people from considering a solar energy system. Anyone who has tried to buy a car, refinance their home, or make any other big investment knows that these high-pressure tactics can act as a big deterrent.

EnergySage has conducted in-depth research, including both one-on-one consumer interviews and surveys, to understand what today’s solar shoppers are looking for. Instead of holding it closely for our own competitive advantage, we want to share it with everyone in the hopes that it’ll help grow the industry faster. Here is a summary of what we’ve found: 

  • Millions of U.S. homeowners and businesses are considering solar today, and their first step is to go online
  • The solar shopping journey can last anywhere from a few months to as long as a decade
  • In each stage of the journey, customers want to know their solar options, prices and value
  • Shoppers want to feel confident that they have thoroughly researched their options and are making an informed decision
  • Because prospects have limited methods to research and window-shop, they typically seek quotes early in their shopping journey as a means of self-education. But don’t mistake this for a sign that they’re ready to buy immediately.
  • The lack of transparent information into price and equipment quality limits consumer confidence and turns off prospects that then sit on the sidelines as a result of their experience.

The solar industry has a huge opportunity to turn millions of interested prospects into solar customers. If we can offer people an easy way to research — that is, to window-shop — in a truly transparent manner, the industry can grow much faster than ever before.

We should be actively preparing ourselves to nurture the millions of prospective homeowners and businesses throughout the entire shopping process, from early research to decision-making. This may mean evolving solar sales strategies and getting away from the commission-only compensation model, for example. More collaboration and innovation is needed to solve this problem, and to get solar ready for mainstream consumer adoption.

At EnergySage, we are actively incorporating what we’ve learned from our consumer research: In the coming months, we will be launching even more powerful tools to make it easier for people to explore solar at their own pace, and from the comforts and anonymity of their own couch. Our team is confident that, if we do our part, we will make solar completely accessible and affordable to the mass-market buyer.

By doing this, we hope to multiply the size of the solar industry in the upcoming years.


Vikram Aggarwal is the CEO and founder of EnergySage, a leading online comparison-shopping marketplace for rooftop solar, community solar and solar financing.