The Solar Software Ecosystem: Page 5 of 5
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Solar Site Design Solar Site Design takes a relatively low-tech approach to customer acquisition. The platform empowers independent service professionals—tradespeople, contractors, home automation experts, maintenance providers and so on—to originate residential or commercial solar projects as an adjunct to their existing businesses. Solar Site Design takes users through a simple site survey process, and then delivers this survey report to manufacturers, suppliers, engineering firms or finance companies that sign up to receive leads within the service territory. The company provides training for anyone who signs up to serve as a project originator.
Solar Site Design serves the needs of a wide variety of stakeholders. Project originators receive a commission for every lead that converts to a sale, while fulfillment partners get access to qualified leads. Solar Site Design also creates white-label origination programs for solar installation companies and EPC firms.
Solar Site Design / 877.286.1751 / solarsitedesign.com
SolView SolView has developed a suite of software around its computer vision and image analysis capabilities. The company’s Virtual Canvasser, for example, is a semi-automated solar potential assessment and lead qualification tool to help solar companies target residential customers across large areas such as neighborhoods, towns or zip codes. The platform extracts information from aerial imagery, including rooftop contours and orientations, and integrates these data with weather information, financial databases, utility rates and incentives. After Virtual Canvasser finishes its analysis, users can view the results online and sort them according to different parameters. Lead times for neighborhood-level or larger batch analyses are around 30 days.
SolView best serves residential solar installation companies looking to streamline customer acquisition and improve operational efficiency. The platform allows companies to prepare targeted proposals for best-qualified homes and homeowners. Be aware that SolView’s module placement algorithm fills all available roof areas, regardless of the feasibility or advisability of the module configuration.
SolView / solview.com
The Integration Challenge
While many tools exist to serve the construction industry, they do not apply directly to the high-volume, high-velocity needs of the smaller-scale distributed solar industry. As a result, residential solar companies have had to custom-develop many of the IT solutions they need, either in-house or using outside firms. Today’s market leaders have a clear head start on this, but their tools and processes are by no means perfect.
In some cases, the increased administrative burden associated with custom-built IT solutions may even negate the value of adopting the software. If company complexity requires increasing the number of IT systems and specialized staff to integrate and maintain those systems, companies should ask whether there is value—and a path to profitability—in implementing these systems.
Barry Cinnamon, the chief executive officer of Cinnamon Solar and Spice Solar, can attest to the reality of these challenges. Today, Cinnamon runs his small residential installation company near San Jose, California, with simple software and minimal automation. He uses a Microsoft Excel–based spreadsheet to put together quotes, a purpose-built layout tool specific to Spice Solar products and a basic CRM tool. Previously, Cinnamon was the chief executive officer of Akeena Solar, the first national-scale solar installation company. When he interviewed me on his “Solar Energy Show” podcast in April 2015, Cinnamon noted that as Akeena grew, the business became more complex and expensive to operate. Some of the attempts to use software and training to automate routine activities cost the company more money than they saved in the long run, in part because AHJs frequently changed local installation and permitting requirements.
SOFTWARE ADOPTION EVALUATION
I recommend that solar companies employ the following steps and best practices when evaluating software platforms for possible adoption.
1. Develop realistic expectations about what software can and cannot do. Solar is an energy business, and the energy business is rife with policies and regulations. Software will not streamline these policy and regulatory frameworks. While some software platforms may help your company keep track of AHJ requirements, someone must maintain these databases, which may require frequent updates.
2. Streamline your current process as much as possible. It is critical that solar companies first seek to understand the ideal experience from the perspective of the customer. Companies then need to align their human resources and processes to serve that goal. Only after completing this work can companies implement the automations most appropriate to support that process and experience.
3. Make sure you have the right people in the right roles. Just as it is important to align your work processes, you need to make sure you have the right employees in the right roles. After streamlining your processes, you may find that you have too many people covering one task and not enough dedicated to another. You may have created a new role or eliminated an old one. Be kind in this process. This is best undertaken as a bottom-up initiative where employees are actively engaged in the process of envisioning the best ways to serve customers. This way they will see themselves fitting into these new roles rather than feeling subject to a judgment imposed from above. In many cases, superstar employees will seize the opportunity to jockey passionately for a role they have always dreamed of and are likely to excel at.
4. Evaluate remaining employee and customer pain points. Once business owners have the right processes and people in place, they can examine the remaining customer and employee pain points. This analysis will provide insight about how best to incorporate software or process automation. If you skip straight to this step without laying the groundwork in steps 1–3, you run many risks. Your results may not stick, you may not achieve the desired results, and you could wind up overpaying for IT services or hardware.
5. Evaluate the costs versus the benefits of software adoption. As an example, assume that a solar installation company can reduce the sales price of a typical residential PV system by $450 if it makes a $5,000 investment in software tools and datasets. To amortize that investment, the company will need to increase its volume of customers. However, there may be additional business costs associated with serving more customers. The company might need to hire more office staff, add another installation crew and buy another truck. Further, there may be recurring costs associated with the software and datasets, including monthly fees for software-as-subscription services and access fees for on-demand imagery or electrical interval data. While some might argue that the initial investment will allow the installation company to win more business, others might caution that what follows is a compounding loss to the installer. After all, how long can a company operate at a loss to win projects before it goes out of business?
6. Create an implementation plan. Many IT implementations fail because they were not well planned and executed. Just as business-process changes require planning, documentation and personnel training, so does software implementation. Your implementation plan should include a calendar for adoption, and it should address employee training, communications, documentation and support services. Imple-mentations can go awry because people, generally speaking, do not like change. Involving employees early in the process—identifying pain points, suggesting improvements and selecting software—is a good way to help them embrace change.
7. Set goals. If you have followed steps 1–6, you should be able to set specific goals and metrics to evaluate the software implementation. Perhaps you want to see a 20% reduction in lost customer project files or convert 30% more leads to sales. If you set realistic and tangible goals, you can periodically evaluate your progress to see if you are on track to meet them. If not, you may want to reconsider using the platform. Just be sure to give your organization adequate adjustment time, as it takes a month or two for any change in process or software to become the new status quo.
Pamela Cargill / Chaolysti / Alameda, CA / chaolysti.com