Expect more from your inverter supplier
By Ed Heacox
The inverter industry is not meeting expectations nor the basic needs of the solar power business—the customer service and support norms are rooted in legacy standards and routines.
Let's start with technical support and phone access to inverter experts when needed-exactly when needed. How many stories have we heard of installers or O&M technicians trying to troubleshoot problems and they cannot get the inverter supplier on the phone? This intolerable norm must be corrected by the inverter industry now. There are many reasons this problem exists; inverter margins are squeezed, these suppliers need to reduce costs, and service execution is difficult.
The service operations of inverter firms have been challenged by a fixation on a 'cost per watt' mentality. This metric ignores the value of excellent service and seems to be a lazy standard that definitely damages the ability of suppliers to invest in the right service infrastructure.
Part of the challenge is the solar industry structure itself, whereby the inverter procurement is separated from the long-term asset owners. The incentives of purchasers (EPCs, installers) with short-term interests are misaligned with the longer term performance needs of asset owners. O&M firms are often stuck in the middle, challenged to solve problems with limited slow support from inverter companies.
A key reason for weak inverter service performance is that great service is hard. Actually, an important and simple factor is the commitment level of the supplier to excellent service; all possible great performance starts with this commitment to high-level service-an intention to reject the norms, overcome the margin squeeze, and simply decide that life-cycle service is important.
In the companies I have worked for, we found this commitment to service became a competitive strength and a fundamental part of our value proposition to customers-it became a key reason why we won market share, starting with the savviest and thoughtful developers and EPCs. Eventually, all customers appreciate good service, but market share is gained with the best customers and those have been the first adopters of our service model.
Service is hard, but that is no excuse. On the surface, a good service strategy is not too difficult-but execution is! Once the inverter firm commits to service, the design of the team is important. Inverter users need instant phone technical support, high-speed local onsite support, and a supply of parts and spare units, training etc. Thus, the service model should include centralized tech-support phone experts who are always available during sunny hours and can pick up the phone. (We use an SAAS phone system and measure incoming call pick-up-by-human rate; our goal and current rate is 90 percent.)
While this centralized system works, it can be frustrating for customers to call into the 'randomizer' and the need to re-educate the tech support person about their situation. Therefore, to complement the centralized resource, it is ideal to ensure the customer has direct, personal mobile phone access to their regional field service contact—a first-name basis, real relationship. These field technicians need to be agile, equipped with parts/spares and tools, and be good multiplexer problem-solvers. Our strategy is to have regional techs across the U.S., each with their own stocked van; sometimes these guys drive up to 4,000 miles per month. The structure and tools are important and so is the nature of the team.
Execution success depends on the individual players and how they work together. For example, a star field service person needs to be skilled but also needs to be a customer-centric and determined problem solver. The best just can't sleep until problems are resolved. Complicated PV system issues are like fun puzzles, almost entertaining to the best technicians! Also, each person needs to be a strong teammate; success by one, always depends on the support of others. Therefore, these folks need to think of themselves as being on a team, not just a MacGyver Lone Ranger.
Building this sort of team takes years and is very difficult to cultivate and tune. The leaders of the team must be master multiplexers themselves and have a very high capacity for juggling resources, planning, and prioritizing. There must also be a strong escalation path for out-of-line situations. Finally, escalations must not be feared; instead, they must be embraced as a healthy part of the support process, to get to resolutions and happy customers faster.
We might need to be patient with the well-intentioned inverter firms, but we should be intolerant of the lazy ones. The industry is somewhat stacked against service excellence but it is possible to overcome the challenges.
Thoughtful and determined focus on execution and teamwork is required, and the supplier commitment to performance is a prerequisite for success. Inverter customers and owners need to challenge the suppliers and have a critical eye for the reality of the inverter supplier service will. We have found that the service investment is challenging but has a favorable market share ROI—and ultimately the resulting economies of scale are good for the P&L.
So excellent service may be challenging—but it is worthwhile. A challenge for customers is to reinforce this life-cycle value and for the inverter firms to step up.
Ed Heacox is General Manager of Chint Power Systems America (www.chintpowersystems.com).