The solar home system industry in Africa is quite unique in the start-up landscape. There are a large number of companies competing for a share of the tens of millions of households still in the dark.
These companies are willing to invest a lot of money in development, manufacturing, distribution, sales channels and customer support, but these investment costs add up to costly products, which customers are paying for using the most common way they know – Pay as You GO (aka PAYGO). And, this represents a risk which companies in this market are trying to manage.
In many countries in the world, when you buy a product or service, you pay for it either in cash or using a credit card – which reduces vendor risk to a minimum).
While using PAYGO to pay for services (like cable TV, Airtime, Pre-Paid electricity meters etc.) is very common and fairly safe for the sellers and the buyers – when it comes to using PAYGO as a payment method to purchase products like solar home systems, there is a greater risk for the sellers.
It is fair to say that the way of handling the product value vs. revenue assurance is what differentiates companies in the off-grid solar industry for domestic customers.
Lumos is unique in the off-grid solar industry. Our experience in Nigeria in Cote-D’Ivoire taught us that while the product cost and flexible payment plans are important – success resides in the relationship we build with our customers.
Customers in Nigeria, for instance, are very well connected. They are entrepreneurs, love innovations and most of them are constantly trying to climb their way up the ladder.
The solar home system company, especially in the PAYGO model, has to constantly prove its valuable to the customer if she wants them to credit the solar system again and again.
Customers in Cote-D’Ivoire, on the other hand, are mainly farmers and their income relies heavily on harvest seasons.
For that reason, many customers in Cote-D’Ivoire prefer to purchase long-term plans when they can afford it.
Here are some key strategies solar home system companies can use to engage their customers and to keep them crediting.
It’s not uncommon for start-up companies, especially ones that are product-based, to fall in love with their product. The developers and engineers are so involved that they push forward to get an endless list of features, processes, buttons and versions. While these features might be useful for some high-end customers – the downsides of these features are too many to count.
More features make customer onboarding more difficult; requires more training to call-center and sales agents; more processes to monitor; maintain and to market; harder customer education process; and most important – it shifts the organization from dealing with the burning issues – because let’s face it, there is no developer that would rather work on fixing small bugs in the payment process that effects 2% of the deals, instead of working on a new feature.
By keeping the product and the processes simple you make your service hassle-free for customers; easy for the sales agents and support teams; easy to monitor and educate; and you keep your employees focused on the main target. It doesn’t mean you shouldn’t implement new features – you just have to be very picky about each feature that you do.
Your customers are busy, they have lives to manage, school, work, kids and who knows what else. Try to minimize the number of interactions to the minimum necessary.
Nobody wants his solar home system supplier to send him a “have a nice day” SMS or who require him to call the call center every time he wishes to check his balance.
Our customers at Lumos bought a solar system to get the exact opposite: they want their basic electricity needs to be met and they need it to work flawlessly and hassle free.
Appreciating our customers’ time has created a lot of benefits for Lumos as a solar home system supplier.
It made us re-think the entire customer journey, making it shorter and simpler; it had an effect on service calls; it turned the Lumos customer service experience into a quiet place for our customers; it changed the way the organization works in such a way that each change/update or action that might have an effect on customers (e.g. sending an SMS, changing the UX etc.) must first be evaluated against the question: what will it mean for the customer?
It’s safe to say that caring about your customers’ time, will make you a leaner and smarter company with happier customers.
The most valuable information is around you all the time, you just need to pay attention. If you want to make it big, you cannot rely on the database alone. You must constantly be listening. What do your customers say about your product: on social media, to sales agents, to customer support, by usage? What do your competitors’ customers say about their products? What do your employees say?
The solar home system industry is filled with manufacturers, distributors and sellers that mistakenly think it’s all about price and finding the product sweet-spot where the cost-efficiency balance is at optimal point. The truth can’t be any further from this.
For instance, at Lumos we learned that the customers in Nigeria care a lot about service, they want to know that the company they buy the solar system from is here to stay and not a passing fad. For that reason, Lumos invested (and still invests) a lot of resources in developing service and sales channels which ensure our customers know that we are here to stay, and that our 5 years’ warranty not only shows trust in our product quality, but can counted on.
As a solar home system supplier, the data you have access to might seem limited. You have some basic credentials about your customers, their payment habits, service calls etc. Yet, don’t underestimate this data. It can teach you a lot about your customers choices and preferences.
Study the data to understand what bothers your customers. When looking at our customers’ payment habits, for instance, we learn when they have more money available, when it’s the best time to approach them with offers and promotions, and which offers are more likely to work for each customer.
Using data the right way enables Lumos to save our customers and service agents time, and helps us to leads the conversation with customers to the right place (so that, for instance, we won’t offer a customer who suffers a technical issue credit for a 1-year plan).
Once you’ve made sure you only reach out to your customers when they need you to and you’ve done your homework to learn what customers need and how you should approach them – only then, can you move forward to the next step: adding value to the interactions you have with your customers.
Here’s an example. At Lumos, we learned that many of our customers are calling our call center only to check how many days they have left to pay for the unit, so we changed the notification that is sent to customers that credit the unit so that now it includes the total number of paid days. This way the customer is getting relevant information, when they need it.
This small change both reduces the number of call centre calls and increases customer satisfaction.
At the end of the day, we, as service companies, need to be aware of the touchpoints we have with our customers, plan them wisely, and learn from each and every one of them.
This is the only real way to create the best service that leads to a smooth customer experience, and eventually, to happier and loyal customers. At Lumos, we understand that it’s a never-ending journey.
We have changed a lot since the day we started, and we will continue to change and adapt every day in our mission to bring affordable and reliable solar home systems to our customers while creating the best customer journey possible. For us, that’s a way of life.