Center on Solar Consumer Protection! Posted on May 11, 2022
Solar energy is still new to many households and businesses. Companies must guide customers through the solar sales process and beyond to provide a good solar consumer experience. A company’s success in doing so, not only protects consumers, but also minimizes business risks.
The solar sales process and customer relationship is long. Companies must manage customer expectations throughout this lengthy relationship. This requires being aware of how consumers become aware of solar, decide to purchase solar, what happens between the sale and solar system activation, and even what happens when the system is up and running.
During the solar sales process, key considerations include thinking about the nature of the sale and managing expectations. For example, where did the sale take place? In the home, on the phone, at a business? What are the available products and services? In order to manage customer expectations, companies must cover a host of considerations with the consumer, such as savings and incentives, government and utility involvement and the system’s functionality.
From the point that the solar contract is signed through the solar system’s activation process, companies should provide customers with a roadmap that guides them through the installation, inspection and system activation/PTO process. This includes road mapping key issues such as what should be communicated to the customer, how often and who is reaching out and answering calls.
After the solar system is activated, consumer protection issues shift to developing well-thought out relationship and complaint management procedures. Relationship management considerations include operations and maintenance obligations, account management and collections. Perhaps most importantly, companies should have a plan for complaint management, such as a written, comprehensive policy, coordination with third parties and feedback loops. Some companies utilize root cause analysis policies to identify the sources of any problems and complaints. Other policies include the SPOC, or “single point of contact,” approach to reduce the number of touches, which is a potential solution to avoiding customer complaints from a lack of response or long response delays.
Both federal and state laws govern consumer protection. With respect to federal laws, the Federal Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA) and Federal Trade Commission Act (FTCA) both impose stiff fines on violators. The FTCA requires truthful and full disclosure, which generally involve factual determinations based on the 4 Ps: Prominence, Presentation, Proximity and Placement. Under the FTCA, “clear and conspicuous” is a performance standard, not a font size.
A primary issue for compliance with the TCPA is “consent.” Unless a recipient has given prior, express consent, the TCPA 47 U.S.C. § 227 and Federal Communications Commission (FCC) rules under the TCPA generally:
- Prohibits solicitors from calling residences before 8 a.m. or after 9 pm, local time.
- Requires solicitors maintain a company-specific "do-not-call" (DNC) list of consumers who asked not to be called; the DNC request must be honored for 5 years.
- Requires solicitors honor the National Do Not Call Registry.
- Requires solicitors provide their name, the name of the person or entity on whose behalf the call is being made, and a telephone number or address at which that person or entity may be contacted.
- Prohibits solicitations to residences that use an artificial voice or a recording.
- Prohibits any call made using automated telephone equipment or an artificial or prerecorded voice to an emergency line (e.g., "911"), a hospital emergency number, a physician's office, a hospital/health care facility/elderly room, a cellular telephone, or any service for which the recipient is charged for the call.
- Prohibits autodialed calls that engage two or more lines of a multi-line business.
- Prohibits unsolicited advertising faxes.
- In the event of a violation of the TCPA, a subscriber may (1) sue for up to $500 for each violation or recover actual monetary loss, whichever is greater, (2) seek an injunction, or (3) both.
- In the event of a willful violation of the TCPA, a subscriber may sue for up to three time the damages, i.e. $1,500, for each violation.
In addition to federal laws, each state has its own set of consumer protection laws. When using third-party lead generators “it wasn’t me” is not okay. Companies can purchase liability when buying leads. Thus, it is important to vet a company’s procedures. For example, what does their “consent” say? To comply with consumer protection statutes across the United States the trend towards using plain English in all communications is often advisable.
Every company selling solar and other renewable energy products should be consulting the consumer protection guides and resources offered by their trade associations. For example, SEIA’s Consumer Protection Guide is an essential resource. States’ consumer protection rules differ, so joining a local trade association and using their guides should also be a basic business practice. For example, in California, CALSSA has created a Consumer Protection Code of Ethics.
Companies that center on consumer protection throughout the long solar customer relationship set themselves up for success and sustainable growth.