Imagine you’re a consultant who has just been hired to help revive Circuit Town, a struggling electronics store. When you visit Circuit Town in person, the first thing you notice is that its foot traffic is higher than you expected. In fact, the store seems to be quite popular -- the majority of people in the area say that they’re both familiar with Circuit Town and interested in the kinds of products it has for sale.
However, out of the hundreds of shoppers passing through each day, you notice that most of them walk out empty-handed. Why? Interviews with potential customers reveal that Circuit Town shares almost no information about the laptops and smartphones on its shelves. You notice that nothing has a price tag on it, and shoppers tell you that to find out how much something costs, they reluctantly must ask pushy salespeople who give different answers every time.
Moreover, the store only offers one or two choices for each product, with very limited information about them. Because the store doesn’t provide key product details, Circuit Town shoppers have no way of making an informed decision. And to top it all off, Circuit Town doesn’t even have a website.
At the end of your assignment, the store owner asks you for your recommendations on how to fix Circuit Town’s issues with customer acquisition. “You don’t have a customer acquisition problem,” you reply. “You have a customer experience problem.”
If you work in the solar industry, the story of Circuit Town likely sounds familiar. There are countless articles and pundits arguing that solar has a customer acquisition problem. And it’s true that, while equipment costs have fallen significantly over the past few years, customer acquisition costs have remained stubbornly high. However, high customer acquisition costs are merely a symptom of the larger issue: The solar customer experience doesn’t put the customer first.
There are millions of American consumers today who are already interested in solar energy. Pew Research recently found that 89 percent of U.S. adults favor the expanded use of solar power, while only 9 percent oppose it. This makes solar power more popular among Americans than democracy itself (86 percent say it's good; 13 percent say it’s bad).
Think about that. Americans are more likely to support solar power than they are to support representative democracy. Surging organic traffic on EnergySage.com and Google Trends data confirm that consumer interest in solar has never been higher than it is today.
So why aren’t more people installing solar panels? Just like in Circuit Town, the problem isn’t due to a lack of consumer awareness or interest. Millions of consumers are already browsing the solar “store” today -- they just aren’t buying anything. And based on the thousands of conversations we have had with solar shoppers over the years, I can tell you that the poor customer experience is exactly why they aren’t making a purchase.
This issue can take many shapes. For example, forcing consumers to invite a salesperson into their home -- or in some cases, provide a Social Security number -- before giving them even a ballpark estimate of prices is a self-inflicted injury. Considering how many of us do our research and make purchasing decisions online (without having to talk to anybody), requiring phone calls and in-person meetings just feels outdated.
The same holds true for limiting choice and obscuring product quality information in solar quotes. Amazingly, many solar installers still don’t provide all the details about the equipment used in their offers. It shouldn’t surprise you that a recent NREL study identified difficulty in finding a trustworthy installer as one of the main barriers to solar adoption.
These problems are all solvable -- just think back to the last time you had a great shopping experience. Chances are, you had all the information you needed to make an informed decision on your own. The solar industry has a lot to learn from other industries that are already focused on creating the ideal customer-first experience. But we must first recognize that the true problem holding back our explosive growth is not customer acquisition. If we start to put the solar customer’s experience first, then solar will fulfill its destiny as a mainstream consumer product.
***Vikram Aggarwal is the CEO and founder of EnergySage, a leading online comparison-shopping marketplace for rooftop solar, community solar, and solar financing.