The world, it is a-changing. Faster, and faster, and faster. You’ve got to be nimble, you’ve got to be quick. How do you know where your industry is going? How do you know what your customers are going to want, even before they know?
This week, I’m excited to welcome two gentlemen who know how to evolve and remain nimble in an ever-changing industry. James Marlow and Jamie Porges of Radiance Solar spend their days in an industry that has undergone huge changes in the last 20 years. From these challenges they’ve learned a lot about how to plan, how to pivot, how to serve their customers, and which customers they should be serving.
Dig Into the No
Porges makes a point of teaching his team to dig into the “No’s” that they get from potential customers. “If you listen to those customers, and you keep talking to them over the years, and they finally said yes, you get the clues. What are the metrics that are important to them? Why they’re going to adopt solar, and what’s important to them.” The reasons have changed over the years. At first, customers wanted to make a statement. Today, costs have gotten so low that most customers are driven by savings.
Here’s where you can really see the future of your industry. Says Porges, “If somebody says no, really dig in and find out why they said no. There’s so much valuable information on where the market is going, and what we need to do, and how we need to adapt our business to get them to yes, or where the industry needs to go to get them to yes. That impacts our planning quite a bit.”
Know Where to Go to Find the “Yeses”
By listening to your customers, you can be at the forefront of the industry as it shifts. Steve Jobs was famous for quotes like, “It’s not the customer’s job to know what they want,” or “Get closer than ever to your customers. So close that you can tell them what they need well before they realize it themselves.” That kind of intimate customer knowledge comes from a healthy mix of industry research and listening to your customers.
For Radiance Solar, as the industry changes, so does their customer – and deciding how to redefine the funnel is crucial. He says, “As prices come down, you’re broadening the funnel of the potential customers that you have for your product, and at that point, you’re really trying to figure out which verticals within that funnel are going to be most advantageous.”
They have recently decided to step away from residential customers. Marlow explains, “Shifting away from residential, and focusing exclusively on utility and commercial was a decision we made last year, and one that we’re very happy with.”
Roll With the Changes (and Plan for Them)
The solar industry started out as an industry focused on environmentally concerned customers. With prices dropping drastically (20% in the last year, and 90% in the last 20 years) it has entered the mainstream, and in doing so, the business model surrounding solar changed just as quickly. Large energy companies are now adopting solar as a cost-effective addition to the energy mix. It makes up about 2% of Georgia’s energy supply, which is about the same percentage as hydroelectric. That’s a great departure from the very niche market it was 20 years ago.
Marlow and Porges discuss creating a business strategy as an important element to surviving a quickly changing market. As a business strategist, I’ve talked to a lot of CEOs who say that they don’t like spending time in research and strategic planning because by the time they’ve finished the plan, it’s already obsolete. To be fair, Marlow and Porges agree with the part about plans being obsolete quickly, but they still attest to the value in the process overall.
Radiance Solar started out as a solar solution for hot water heaters, but shortly after they started out, the price of natural gas dropped, and there was no longer a demand for solar heated hot water. At the same time, electricity prices started rising. Says Porges, “In about 12 months we did a 180, and we based our business more on solar electricity. About every six months, the business is different, because prices change, regulations change, tax policy changes, and you just have to kind of roll with the punches, and rewrite your business plan every six months.” But, planning is a key piece to knowing what to expect, and to being able to recognize as things start to change.
Predict the Future
Listening and research are the keys to reading your customer’s mind. Know what your customers say they want, yes, but have the technology and industry knowledge to know what they really mean. Customers can only describe their needs in the language they know. It’s been called the “faster horse” theory. Basically, it means that when he was working on the Model T, if Henry Ford had asked his customers what they wanted in regards to transportation, they would have said they wanted a faster horse. It was up to Ford to take that customer need and combine it with his knowledge of industry and technology, and provide the customer with what they weren’t able to put into words.
Even after anticipating your customers’ needs, communication is important. Porges says, “I think one of the big lessons that we’ve learned in the last year or two is that you can do great work, and great work often speaks for itself, but if you’re not advertising your great work to the customer while you’re doing that work, you’re missing an opportunity.” At the end of the day, all the research, planning, and reinvention is about serving the customer. Know who they are and what they want, and remind them that you’re the one who is giving it to them.