In my last post, I wrote about my marketing plan for starting a renewable energy company that will be an offshoot of an existing construction company in the great state of Maine. Now, I’m going to discuss how we’ll be setting up the marketing and sales engine that will drive the businesses. Some have asked if I’m nervous about posting this information (as if I’m giving away some sort of “trade secrets”). My answer is absolutely not. Not only do I think it can help other solar and geothermal contractors dealing with similar issues but if anything it will help me more. Writing down the plan down forces me to focus the idea and ask myself if it makes sense.
In this article I will discuss how I plan on creating the processes and metrics necessary to optimize the marketing, sales, design and installation process of a new company that will sell geothermal, solar pv, solar thermal products. Read below for the full article and if you have any questions or comments on the article please feel free to leave them in the comment section, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or ask a question on HeatSpring’s facebook page: http://www.facebook.com/heatspring. Enjoy!
After posting my first article on the new endeavor, I received some interesting comments and emails asking if I needed investment. We don’t need nor want investment (mainly because it’s a pain in the butt to deal with investors) and plan to grow the organization organically, driven both by cash and a hyper-efficient sales, design, and installation process. HOWEVER, it is an interesting thought experiment to consider. What sort of processes and metrics would a service-based company want/need to create, track and optimize to become “sellable” or valuable enough so that a potential investor would invest cash. Plus, ALL solar companies say they are super efficient, so how do I know if I’m any different?
The residential solar market has been challenging for many companies in the past few years. A residential division has been sold from Borrego to groSolar, only for groSolar to sell it to SolarCity just two years later. Many other companies in the northeast have left the residential market searching for larger projects while the region has been flooded with competition with the likes of REC and SolarCity entering the region. It’s not that residential solar cannot be profitable, it’s that you must be determined and efficient in order to keep overhead to a minimal while creating processes that streamline and optimize both the sales and installation process.
There is an interesting corraraly between this question and my work at HeatSpring. HeatSpring is a small company driven by cash and efficiency, all processes needed to be efficient and scaleable. From a marketing and sales perspectives this means that a few single actions will lead to a series of other (trackable) actions that eventually result in a direct sale and a small number of high qualified leads that have a high closing rate when called. Our key metric is profit per employee. The goal is not to grow the revenue (not that we don’t do it!) but to become more efficient with existing resources. After all it’s more profitable in terms of costs savings/time/predictability to become more efficient at conversions then to try and increase revenue.
For this thought experiment on creating a renewable energy company I’m going to use the metric profit per employee (that’s me!) over time. Namely because I’m not into working 80 hour works (that sooooo baby-boomers) but also because it will force me to focus on the 1 or 2 areas that really matter. For the record, I’ll be spending less then 10 hours per week on this venture and yes, I believe it’s absolutely possible.
The time variable is also critical because it forces you to create efficient and scaleable systems and not get sloppy. The same principles that will allow me to maximize profit per employee in a small amount of time will also create a company that is “sellable” due to it’s processes, efficiencies and metrics.
Now, I’d like to back up for a second. What type of companies are “sellable”? When a company is sold or purchased it’s all about assets and there are a few main asset categories that are looked at. I’m going to keep this really 101:
- Intellectual Property. Typically patents, but can also can apply to copyrights.
- Physical Assets. Factories, real estate, equipment, etc
- Relationships. Contracts, marketing lists, supply agreements.
- Intangibles. Culture. best but also hardest to understand and value. Think Zappos
- Processes. Process that can scale and be repeatable. Think McDonalds. Nothing McDonalds creates cannot be copied, it’s the efficiency and scale that they do it on that makes them valuable.
Even if you don’t plan on taking investment its useful to think about how to create processes and metrics that would make your small business “sellable”. When I’m thinking about a service oriented, construction based business focusing on renewable energy products, here are some thoughts that come to mind:
- It’s a service based business so it needs to be very lean (no overhead) and flexible. If you get a large job you need to be able to ramp up and down quickly. Jobs don’t last very long.
- The business does not have many innate assets, only tools, and it’s mostly liabilities (getting sued, equipment leases) but it can create assets.
- The main asset that can be created is a marketing and sales engine. How much is a website worth that creates 20 high quality leads a month for geothermal or solar project that have a 30% close rate and the average size of each job is 30k with a 10% profit margin? This can be calculated in excel in 4 minutes.
- Even though the fulfiment side of the busines might not be an assets per se, a optimized marketing and sales funnel can be extremely valuable. It takes a long time and a lot of focus to create a streamlined, metric driven sales funnel that works. I’d argue few organizations have them. If you can prove that it works, its much easier to sell and also for you to calculate the value of your company because you have stable numbers.
- I’m not saying that the construction side of the business is not important. It certainly is for reasons we’ll discuss below. You need the construction side of the business while ramping up because you need to fulfill orders and create cash. However, having a construction crew WILL NEVER sell a company. A marketing machine is a clear asset and can be sold. Focus on it.
- How much is a client list worth? Another possible asset is simply the client list. While I don’t know how much a client list is actually worth and its hard to value it will likely derive value from two things. First, cross sale and up-sale opportunities. Second, credibility. Buying a company that already has 100 clients versus the same company with 2 is a clear choice.
What metrics should be looked at? What are the processes?
Before we take in deep look at the metrics and processes needed to establish we’ll split the business into two halves. I find it most useful to look at a renewable energy business before the contract and after the contract is signed. It allows me to understand, from a 30,000 ft level, where the revenues, costs, processes, metrics and opportunities are. It’s also useful so you can understand where you should be looking for red flags to make sure something is not going horribly wrong.
Before the contract is the revenue side: You’d like to maximize the following equation money + speed / marketing dollars spent. This mean you want to get the most money, the quickest with the least marketing dollar spent. Where is the opportunity here? Understanding which customers close faster and for less money. It’s sounds easy but you need to be diligent in collecting the right information to perform this analysis.
After the contract is signed is the design and installation step: The design and the installation are the main costs of the business. Fulfilling installation will account for 60-80% of your costs between equipment and labor.
The design and installation part can be your businesses greatest ASSET or greateset LIABILITY. The installation will be the greatest asset if you can make the client love you, and tell everyone in town about how amazing you are. It will become your great liability if 1) the installation is done incorrectly and requires a call back, think roof leaks, inverter issues, etc or 2) the client hates your installation team and tells everyone that you stink.
With these in mind, I’m going to walk through each segment of the business and discuss the strategies, processes and metrics that I’ll be creating.
Strategies: Provide value to the customer. Here’s a general rule of thumb, if your customers will not PAY for the information your marketing to them because it’s not useful enough to them then your marketing STINKS. This means, articles, whitepapers, videos, handouts, workshops and presenations MUST be useful to your customer.
Here’s a couple thoughts you want a potential customer to think of your company after coming into contact with you. First, if the marketing information is this good, their service must be great. Second, if they don’t need your service currently, they use some of your advice and remember your name in the future.
You need to set expectations and weed out buyers that are not ready to buy within the next two months. If you send a sales person to the site, they should expect to get a downpayment. Don’t get lazy with your marketing and take all leads.
Processes. One landing page that is the central focus on your website and collects enough data on your customer so you can properly qualify them. In order for a site visit to happen everone must fill out the form. This will be key to creating a solid list, managing contacts, and creating a streamlined process. If someone calls you and wants to do it over the phone, you can fill it out over the phone. Also drive local keywords to this page.
When your getting started if you get too many leads (read they take up too much time), make the form longer or charge for a site visit. When optimizing the process you want to crawl/walk/run. You need to be methodical and diligent. Having hundreds of leads is not useful if you don’t know which ones are more likely to close then others.
Create a customer video for each installation that will be presented to them at the end of the installation. It will educate them on the system and also provide a nice “sharing artifact” that they can use to share with other friends. Everyone LOVES speaking about their solar and geothermal system and a video will make it easier for them to market your services.
Metric. Conversation rate of the landing page.
An overlap with the sale segment is determining which leads close more quickly! You need to be collecting a series of information that will allow you to qualify the customer but also determine what sets them apart. If after a few sales you cannot determine who closes more quickly, you need to change the information that you’re collecting!
Fully Qualify: You never want any objections at the end of the sale. The vast majority of objections come because the customer was not qualified property.
Come up with a list of MUST answer questions for every site visit. Fill in the information on a electronic form (iPad). If the custoemr is not propertly qualified walk away from the project and be clear to tell them why.
Site Specific Information: gather pictures, roof measurements, electrical informaiton and everything you need to compelte the design on the FIRST time. This will save you a lot of time and hassle down the road.
Close on the First Visit: If the customer is properly qualified, get the contract signed and a downpayment (a small amount will do, $1000) on the first visit. Create the sales presentation on the site visit, based on their budget, electricity prices, and timeline.
Make sure to have a specific list of qualifiying question that must be answered at every site visit. The list can be flexible and should shift over time based on the closing rate (what makes people buy and what objections that have) and other feedback.
Create a list of site questions needed for the design and installation team. The list can also change over time if something becomes needed or not needed. Just make sure to standardized it when it does change.
Some companies use paper forms to capture data, then they go back to the office and create a preliminary design and economics and send it back to the customer in attempt to close them. THIS IS A WASTE OF TIME! I’ll say it again, while this seems cheap, simple and efficient it’s a waste of time. It also increases the liklehood of human error in copying the data. Invest in design, sales proposal or solar economics software that allow you to create the data electronically the first time (never have to copy anything) and create the preliminary design and a final proposal on the site visit the FIRST TIME. Again, this might seem like it takes a “long” time to set up and the software might cost a little bit of money. But remember, the goal is the highest profit in the least possible amount of time. Not only will this help to increase closing rates (leading to higher profitability) but will also decrease time invested with each customer while providing the same level of service.
Closing rate for the type of customer. Just getting the closing rate of all visits is not enough. You need to determine which types of people close more and why. Likewise, figure out why people are not closing. What are they objecting to? Are you qualifiying correctly? Is there a sales skill that can be implemented or do you need to find different leads. You’ll be able to find this information if you are keeping good information on qualifying each customer.
Make sure you understand the following facts about each highliy qualified lead that you come into contact with:
- What “closed” each person? Were they already attracted to renewable energy or was it something that was said in the sale presentation that convinced them.
- Why was a sale not made? Each highliy qualified lead that doesn’t convert, determine why.
- How quickly did they close? Again you want to understand this group so you can find more like them.
Keeping with the theme of the most profit per employee over the least amount of time invested, you should find a project engineer to manage the design and installation. What is a project engineer? It is someone who can do both the design work and also manage the project. Some companies divide these roles into project managers and design engineers. Their logic is that it leads to more efficiencies of scale, because the roles are specialized. However, I’ve noticed that this tends to create more mis-communications internally and also can hold up a crew if a change needs to be made and the engineer is busy.
In my experience the best project engineers tend to be general contractors who are extremely interested in renewable energy. They need to be able to learn quickly (namely the design and code of solar pv, solar thermal and geothermal) and know how to deal with clients and manage a crew. I also tend to favor general contractors because they tend to understand buildings systems better then other trades, as well as how to integrate new systems into the structure.
Bring inspectors in early if there are any structural or electrical questions. The goal should be to have every project pass inspect at the first time.
Get VERY familiar with a portfolio of equipment needed to size a system. Your goal should be to almost be able to create the design entirely in your head.
- Get good at using 2 types of solar pv modules, 2 inverters, 2 racking and so that you can be flexible depending on what the distributor has.
- On the geothermal side, be familiar with 2 types of heat pump, and 2 pump packages.
- Get familiar with two types of solar thermal collectors, pump packages and storage tanks.
Create the process so that all information is collected on site visit and is transferred directly to the project engiener once the contract is signed. The project engineer will then orders the materials and schedule the crew for the date when the materials will arrive.
Automate the connection between the completed design, the bill of materials, your distributor and the schedule of the crew or sub-contractors.
Make the project engineer responsible for the profitability of the job. Much like salespeople get paid a base + commission. The project engineer should be paid base + commission based on performance. If you hire the right person, and trust them, they’ll blow you away.
Create a design checklist and commissioning report for each system to make sure all issues are addressed.
To be honest, I’m still figuring out what the good metric is for the design processes. Probably time between contractor signing and the installation beginning. A RED FLAG will occur if the design is wrong due to information collected on the site visit.
Only go when you have ALL the material and equipment.
Should aim for 2 day installation for a 4 man crew.
Provide crew bonuses based on customer feedback + time of installation on the follow up. Leave it up to the crew how they choose to deal with clients. If a customer has high regards for the crew in terms of manner, cleanliness , they get a bonus.
Create a project video for each customer that is customized to their installation but also provide educational information. It will increase their knowledge and comfort with the system and will also help with referral business.
Once the design is completed and bill of materials has been ordered, the installation will start when they arrive.
Metrics – Optimize
Time of installation. If it takes a 4 man crew more then 2 days, investigate.
Follow up with each customer after the installaiton to make sure they are satisfied, if they have any questions. Ask them 2 or 3 important questions. Some thoughts include.
1) How would you rate the crew?
2) Understand how the system works, if it’s having a problem and what to do if it does? (never want someone NOT knowing what to do)
Optimize the Processes
After each installation, especially in the beginning when you’re trying to master these processes look back at each installation and answer the following questions.
- Which leads close more? Where are they coming from and what makes them different?
- Which leads close faster?
- Was the design correct the first time?
- Did the installation take 2 days?
- Was the client satisfied?
- How profitable was the job?
Key is setting up a few key systems and metrics that will let you know how the processes is working. Don’t need to track everything. Less then 5 metrics is good. But these should also have “red alert” settings so you can figure out if some thing is going wrong.