How to choose a great solar supplier

There is a long list of qualities that you should seek when choosing a solar company – like transparency, track record and price. Thankfully, there is a shortcut to doing this, too.

I blame my parents.

Coming from a long, long line of teachers, it must surely be their fault that I feel compelled to talk publicly, as much as possible, about solar energy.

We recently did some work helping to update and educate consumers with Solar Citizens, speaking with hundreds of engaged solar owners around the country and we are currently working with Greenpeace on a similar exercise.

Greenpeace has chosen to focus on the lowest uptake electorates in NSW; we did North Sydney two weeks ago and were at Forestville on Saturday. The guys at Greenpeace have managed to secure Adam Spencer as our celebrity MC and I managed to secure a brand new Zero electric motorcycle to zhoosh things up a bit.

Speaking with consumers in a non-sales context is always a great learning experience for me. It helps me to understand what’s driving them, what they can get their head around and how to distill complex issues down into bit-sized chunks; all valuable stuff when it comes to helping them and also helping to tune solar business strategies.

There are some standard questions that we always get; how much will it cost, how long is the payback and is solar the reason electricity prices have risen. Ultimately, using good data we can answer these questions and bust the myths spread by the Dirty Three pretty easily. But interestingly there is a question that is much harder to answer that comes up more and more often and overrides everything else.

That question is: “OK, it makes financial sense, it makes environmental sense and there is a whole lot of 'BS' about what it costs society, I get that. But I hear horror stories from friends about poor quality products and very poor service levels. Every solar supplier makes big claims and I don’t know what to believe. How do I choose a supplier that will genuinely do the right thing by me?”

With 3800 or so solar companies to choose from, it’s a minefield.

I answer this question in two ways.

If I have time for a long chat then I’ll take them through our golden rules, which should be available on their supplier's webpage:

Transparency. Who is the company, really? Do they list their ABN or ACN? Are they explicit about their history and experience? Do they talk about who owns the business? If they aren’t explicit, my view is they are hiding something and I have to ask myself, why are they hiding that?

People. Ultimately, buying anything means dealing with people. Are they open and transparent about who their staff are and who I’ll be dealing with? Can they demonstrate that their staff are experienced and qualified? Are they using sub-contractors and, if so, how will they control quality and liability? If their website of full of generic statements and lacking specific detail, I have to assume they either don’t care or don’t want to tell me something.

Tangibility. Anyone can make a claim. 'We only use the best products'.  'Our aim is quality service'. 'We guarantee our work', and so on. To me, unless there is a tangible demonstration of how they will be held accountable to these promises they are 100 per cent meaningless. I look for terms and conditions that are simple and genuine. I look for promises that are backed-up by systems and written agreements.

Certifications and awards. Google 'quality logo' and you can download hundreds of stock images that look like they mean something. Any website that resorts to disingenuous stock logos makes the hairs of the back of my neck stand up. I look for genuine industry memberships and logos and I want to see them hyper-linked to the source so I can check. I also look for evidence they have gone the extra mile; awards they have won or non-mandatory compliance and industry certifications.

Track record. I accept that new companies deserve a go, too. Hence if you are new I expect you to say so (transparency) and have a good reason why you are awesome and can be trusted. With less experience, you will need to go the extra mile to get my trust; that’s only logical. If you are more experienced I want a track record, references from your suppliers and evidence of your sustained involvement in the business. Frankly, I have pretty much given up on customer testimonials because they are so easy to fake, although social media links can work. Press articles are solid and customer blogs are fantastic.

Price. Is their focus predominantly on the lowest price? If thats their primary pitch I draw several conclusions. Firstly, that they can’t be making much profit, so they are a collapse risk. Secondly, that they are somehow skimping on either quality or service or hiding costs. Some massive companies might be able to sell a bit cheaper and some are perhaps a little cleverer but for the majority there is no secret recipe that allows anyone to successfully sell at massively lower price points. Life is pretty simple. Everyone wants a great deal but everyone, also, equally wants great value no matter how cheap things are.

Quality. Do they really understand quality or is it just a set of token statements? With products can they back up their claims and what do they offer as tangible guarantees? With service, do they offer things that will enhance the quality of purchasing and ownership, or are they just trying to make a fast sale? What this all equates to is great value and long system life and I look for hard evidence that they can provide it.

Attention to detail. Is your quote verbal or just a basic email? This is an investment that is going to take some years to pay off so I want to see concise, plain English detail. I want to know enough detail to understand what I am and I am not getting and not be bombarded with useless bumph. Are they doing detailed designs and have they considered self consumption versus exports, or are they just trying to sell me a big system. This is a big one in today's world.

Professionalism. This really counts and can be measured in many ways. It encompasses all the other things here but is demonstrated through consistency, decency, courtesy and diligence. If your supplier wants your money they should look and act professionally in everything they do.

Innovation. Finally, I look for companies who are doing clever things. Are they innovating, helping the local community, supporting industry associations or doing something else that gives them the 'Je ne Sais Quoi' factor? Some companies actually point you to forums where you can do your own research, have active feedback processes and very strong warranty terms and conditions that really add value.

The second way I answer this question (which frankly is a lot simpler) is this:

– Are they a Clean Energy Council Approved Retailer?

The CEC Approved Retailer program is a voluntary code of conduct that aims to embody the principles listed above (and more) and was launched early this year. The result of a decade of discussions, it was borne out of long debates about the challenges that consumers face around these issues of quality and service at the retail level. There have been ramifications for installers who do the wrong thing for years but the reality is many are simply doing what the solar retailer told them to and there was (previously) no solar industry check on the retailer. Well, now there is ... for those companies who manage to get through their approval and due diligence processes.

Graph for How to choose a great solar supplier

Tellingly, so far the success rate for solar businesses applying to get the stamp has only been around 50 per cent, so you have to work hard to get through and a mere 14 companies have been approved, but it's growing as the program gains momentum.

I’ve been watching this program grow and actively encourage my retailer clients to sign up and my business clients to look for partners who are signed on as a demonstration of commitment. It's not a perfect program but is a great starting place for going one step above and beyond in a retail context, and it will get even better over time. In fact, I’m so impressed that when I was recently asked if I was interested in participating on the Code Review Panel for the Code of Conduct team, I jumped at the chance.

I am delighted to join a really experienced team including Gerard Brody, who is an esteemed consumer law expert, the Alternative Technology Association’s Damien Moyse who knows solar consumers inside out after years in the space and, of course, the hard working staff who keep the wheels turning in the CEC. I am to bring my industry experience, data and intelligence skills to the table and do everything I can to keep lifting standards and accountability so we can all prosper and grow.

Nigel Morris is the director of Solar Business Services

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