6 ways your solar company can compete against Tesla and Sunrun

By Scott Nguyen, CEO of Bodhi

There’s an anecdote that I share with nearly every installer I speak with because it illustrates the challenges facing smaller solar businesses. The story goes like this:

Credit: Dennis Schroeder/NREL

A homeowner explained that she had two homes, both with solar. With her first home, she installed with Tesla and had a horrible experience. For her second home, she decided to try a local solar company and had a great experience. Unfortunately, she couldn’t remember the name of her second installer.

This anecdote illustrates the sheer power of a brand name, and when it comes to solar, there’s no stronger name than Tesla. There’s a cache that has been built by its EVs and, of course, the recognition of its CEO, Elon Musk.

So how can your solar business compete with Tesla, Sunrun or any big national player? Below are six concrete ways to put your business on top and ensure your customers always remember your company name.

Piggyback on Tesla’s market power

Instead of thinking of Tesla or Sunrun as competitors, you need to go toe-to-toe with, and take advantage of their marketing efforts. Companies that are big and expanding into new regions are spending astronomical amounts of money to penetrate this new market. This means that, really, they’re doing the work of market education for you.

Use their marketing and sales efforts as a springboard for your own initiatives. Start thinking about your sales process as two distinct phases: There’s convincing people to go solar, which is where Tesla can do the heavy lifting. Then there’s convincing people to go solar with you† The latter is where you should focus your marketing efforts.

People shop around for solar these days. It’s in the comparison stage where your business can both be discovered and truly shine. Instead of trying to outshine Tesla’s brand — which is almost impossible — focus on efforts that will help you win in the proposal stage.

Make yourself easy to find on Google under the search term “solar installers near me.” Highlight your differentiators and tighten up your proposal process. These efforts are all much more likely to yield noticeable results to help you win against national players.

Embrace the ‘Buy Local’ brand

Did you know that 93% of consumers prefer buying local? Use this to your solar company’s advantage. The buy local movement offers an easy network for you to tap into and rally support for your business over bigger brands like Tesla and Sunrun.

Differentiate yourself as a local player by emphasizing your community roots. On your website, share your founding story and talk about your involvement in the local community. Participate in events that are iconic in your community — from sponsoring local sporting events and exhibiting at fairs or events.

People are drawn to solar because it makes them feel like they’re a part of something bigger. You can affirm that feeling by reminding them that they’re a part of a local community of forward-thinking energy consumers.

Use your local knowledge

While you can’t outspend Tesla or Sunrun, you can be more strategic than them. I guarantee that you’re more in tune with what happens in your local market than a national player. Tesla’s sales and marketing may be well-financed, but it’s generic.

Credit: Werner Slocum/NREL

Adapt your messaging and sales practices to match your customers’ unique likes and dislikes that are particular to the regional culture. For example, Austin company Freedom Solar Power hired Willie Nelson for its marketing to appeal to its customer base in Texas.

You should also use your understanding of your region to give yourself a leg-up on other fronts. You probably know the right people in the permit and inspection office to give a little nudge to an application ahead of the opportunistic visitors. Keep a constant eye on the local hiring market, so you can scale up as needed.

Tesla must acquire local knowledge — you have it built into your business.

be more nimble

Tesla is a giant corporation. No matter how whimsical its leader Elon Musk may seem on Twitter, to expand into new regions, they need an aligned growth and marketing strategy. This takes time — often a lot of it. The same goes for Sunrun. With over 11,000 employees, nothing goes quickly.

In the same way that you can use local knowledge to get ahead of national installers, you can also use speed as a weapon. Be nimbler across every department and at every stage of the solar process. From proposals on tighter timelines to being faster to respond to customers, you should be able to accommodate a reasonable customer request without going through tons of red tape. There’s a reason Tesla has bad reviews

Solar installation is never a cookie-cutter process (as much as we wish it was), and the big companies will be much slower at responding to changing conditions.

Embrace your network of customers and referral program

Earlier this summer, Tesla quietly cut their solar roof referral program from $500 to $300 per referred installation. If you have a more competitive referral program, bring it up as a differentiator.

Referral programs also work best when there’s a high density of customers, an advantage local companies will have over larger national installers. When a prospect hears about your company multiple times from the people around them, they’ll trust you more.

You should also use your customers as referrals for whenever their friends or neighbors get a quote from Tesla. Our customer Lighthouse Solar won a homeowner’s business specifically because Tesla, then Solar City, originally knocked on the customer’s door. The Tesla prospect had a happy Lighthouse customer in their network, and they made the decision to trust their friend’s referral and go with Lighthouse instead.

Leverage third-party software tools

Big companies like Tesla like to build their own software, keeping everything from proposal and site design to customer experience in-house. To do this, they employ an army of product managers, UX researchers, designers and software developers — not to mention all the managers needed to handle that employee base.

However, for small to midsize solar companies, building instead of buying software is a mistake. Third-party software companies are more effective and efficient than anything you could build in-house. They’re also always improving their product based on how the solar landscape is evolving. These companies focus 24/7 on the niche area that they service so you can focus on what you do best: Selling and installing more solar.

Finally, these software companies will often have a branded app and a digital experience that delivers on the expectations that your customers are bringing to their solar journey. For example, my company Bodhi has done extensive research on what the ideal post-install experience is for homeowners so that solar businesses can generate more reviews and referrals. Take advantage of these kinds of platforms, so that you can meet your customers’ digital expectations.

By following these six tips, you can ensure that your business gets the customer consideration it deserves. More and more homeowners are choosing to go solar — now is your chance to beat out the competition and create a community of loyal customers who never forget your name.

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