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Understanding trade allies to improve program success

This article is republished from the April 2017 issue of Strategies, AESP’s exclusive magazine for members. To receive Strategies, please consider joining AESP.

Utility demand-side management (DSM) programs rely on trade allies to market the benefits of energy efficiency and demand response offerings to end-use customers. These industry, design, and engineering professionals provide utilities with a direct link to their customers and are a key channel for delivering cost-effective program benefits and positive customer experiences. An engaged, well-equipped trade ally network can extend a program’s reach and help achieve program goals—from energy savings to customer satisfaction. Conversely, a disengaged or ill-equipped network can create barriers to program success.

As part of DNV GL’s effort to understand market trends and ways to improve program performance, DNV GL conducted a market research study on trade ally program behavior, their perceived benefits from participating in utility DSM programs, and their insights on the barriers to program participation from the end-use customers they serve. This report highlights proven tactics that program administrators can use to influence the behavior of trade allies to deliver energy efficiency projects and quality service to utility customers.

DNV GL surveyed more than 300 trade ally organizations that deliver energy efficiency projects for various utility programs across the nation. With a range of organizational sizes and types of energy services offered, the survey respondents represented a broad view of organizations serving small commercial, large commercial, institutional, and industrial customers on behalf of utilities. As such, their insights on the end-use customer are extremely valuable for utilities and utility program administrators.

In this article, I will highlight some of the findings on selling points for energy efficiency, barriers to customer participation from the trade ally’s perspective, and which program marketing tools are most effective for trade ally sales efforts.

Dollar motivations: Selling points for energy efficiency

To achieve broad market transformation, trade allies must be equipped to sell energy efficiency projects to end-use customers. A successful program administrator has their pulse on what is effective and what the barriers are for those trade allies as they sell energy efficiency.

In 2015 market research published by DNV GL focusing on contractors indicated that, aside from the utility rebate, growing their business was the biggest motivator to sell energy efficiency. In fact, many successful trade allies build rebates into their business models to leverage the draw of energy efficiency into their sales approach. In our latest research study, we asked trade allies about the selling points they found most effective for energy efficiency. Opinions seem to be holding steady, with similar results for the 2016 survey.

Understanding customers through trade allies

Aside from reduced operating expenses, trade allies reported reduced maintenance costs as the most effective selling point for energy efficiency (65% of respondents), with the additional benefits of improved occupancy comfort (14%) and environmental benefit (10%) coming in significantly lower.

Barriers to customer participation: Insights from trade allies

We know that talking dollars is the prevailing method that trade allies use to sell the benefits of energy efficiency to end-use customers. The respondents also identified several barriers to customer participation in energy efficiency programs. A moderate or high barrier for most respondents is customers understanding the value of energy efficiency.

This is where utility program administrators can provide direct sales support to trade allies to help them broaden the message of energy efficiency to specific customer segments.  Providing trade allies with marketing materials that outline the potential savings of sector specific measures allows the trade ally to focus their pitch to highly relevant measures while engaging the customer in a manner that makes it apparent that the trade ally and the utility understand their sector. By producing materials for key sectors that are likely to generate a high volume of savings or, for that matter, that are underperforming relative to their potential, a DSM program can improve customer engagement and project output.

Accessing the decision maker within an organization is a barrier for trade allies. This is an issue for all businesses, regardless of what industry they operate in, and is not unique to the energy efficiency or contractor fields. For trade allies, this is likely to be a rather opaque issue that requires diligence in identifying the decision maker. This is because there is not always an obvious owner or a single owner for such decisions. In other words, the trade alley needs to understand that they need to invest the time to understand who the decision makers are within the end customer and it will ultimately make the sales process smoother and more effective.

What works? Effective trade ally support from program administrators

Earlier we touched upon the fact that in many mature DSM programs across the country, successful trade allies have incorporated utility rebate programs into their value propositions to utility customers. That they value the rebate programs and have accepted them as part of how the sales process works. In addition, our research shows that trade allies no longer view program administration as a burden. This means the programs that have invested the time to review the processes, applications, and support materials with the trade ally and the trade allies now understand the value of the administration.  This time investment is likely to have improved the trade ally’s opinion of the program.

A large majority—87%—of respondents feel that the utility rebate offers are not too complex to sell to the customer. Utility-branded rebate charts are the most valuable utility-branded collateral material for trade ally sales efforts and consistent engagement with program sales and technical experts is critical, even for the most active and seasoned trade allies.

Understanding your market

These are some of the high-level trends seen with the trade allies surveyed.  As programs mature, program administrators must help trade allies sell energy efficiency to diverse groups of customers. This is crucial to program success and the success of the trade allies. Insight from these important market actors ensures that program administrators are anticipating national trends (technologies, sales tactics) to better inform trade ally management within specific utility territories and programs.

Partnering with trade allies

Making it easier for trade allies to sell energy efficiency has many benefits for both the trade ally, utility, and the program administrator. Providing program support, sales coaching, and technical coaching through regular contact with an outreach professional can give trade allies the tools to be effective ambassadors for DSM programs. Defining and implementing a structured trade ally training program to meet their changing business needs allows the utility to position itself as a business partner and a trusted advisor. An advisor has more clout and staying power than a rebate house or program manager. Your DSM program will benefit from partnering with the trade allies in both the short- and long-term.

Anecdotal evidence shows that trade allies welcome training opportunities – both in terms of business skills, sales skills, and technical content. Developing a trade ally training strategy that helps them develop their business and improve their technical expertise can reap significant benefits if you commit to a long-term training strategy. While developing a positive trade ally engagement strategy is key to developing your partnership, it is not enough to simply have outward bound engagement. Taking the time to ask your trade allies what they want and need can increase their participation and improve results for both the trade ally and the utility.  Such a feedback loop can provide a solid foundation from which to build a genuine partnership if managed correctly.

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