As the fortunes have shifted in the solar industry, more media attention is moving to the world of smaller players. However, the language used to describe smaller players in this industry is far from celebratory in many cases. It's diminutive and damaging to credibility. I would like to recommend that we, as an industry, take a more uplifting tone as we specifically describe the companies of competent tradespersons who sell and install solar products.
Why This Matters
As business models continue to fragment and lead generation and sales-only organizations proliferate, this can cause consumer confusion. Prospective customers have complained to their representatives about landing on websites or being called by companies the customer thought was a solar contractor only to find themselves bombarded by dozens of actual solar contractors later on or straight up scammed. Consumer protection is an issue SEIA and many of the SEIA state affiliates are taking very seriously.
So here’s what you can do to help.
Words Are Powerful
As solar professionals, we can differentiate our language and adopt more specific words that are more universally understood by consumers to help alleviate confusion.
Let's contrast a few definitions of terms that are currently commonly interchanged or used in the industry and explore what they really mean and how these terms can be perceived.
Installer: a person who places or fixes equipment or machinery in position ready for use.
That doesn't sound like a company to me. Someone who puts in a satellite dish can be an installer. Have you seen the quality of many of those jobs? Do you want that image in the mind of your prospective customer?
Contractor: a person or company that undertakes a contract to provide materials or labor to perform a service or do a job.
That sounds much more like a competent tradesperson and licensed company that I can trust. We have shied away from embracing our true nature as contractors and a construction-based industry for many years.
I would be proud of the licenses you have worked hard to earn and hold: use the word contractor. Lead gen companies and sales-only organizations cannot legally use the term contractor.
We’ve tried to look and talk like Silicon Valley, the financial services sector, or consumer goods as VC-backed firms skyrocketed to the top of the marketshare heap. The tables have turned. It’s time to own it and be proud: we work in construction and we are contractors. That’s something a consumer can trust and get behind.
To unpack this a little further, I also would recommend we employ the honorable word used in HVAC and other trades to describe our skilled labor: technician.
Technician: a person employed to look after technical equipment or do practical work in a laboratory, an expert in the practical application of a science, or a person skilled in the technique of an art or craft.
The implication of “skilled in the technique of an art or craft” is critical here and creates a positive differentiation from simply using the word installer.
How We Talk About Industry Dynamics
Long tail: (in retail and marketing) used to refer to the large number of products that sell in small quantities, as contrasted with the small number of best-selling products.
My least favorite is the use of “long tail,” a term used in retail products distribution, to describe small solar contractors. It objectifies small contractors in a dehumanizing way. I find this term to be the most reprehensible. Many small solar contractors have worked hard to bootstrap their successful businesses, many not taking a cent of outside money to do so.
We should celebrate these businesses with the respect they deserve as the backbone of the solar industry, weathering the storm of industry changes.
Backbone: the chief support of a system or organization; the mainstay.
Think about the words you use. They are powerful.