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The proximity to customers creates trust © Stiftung Solarenergie

The real gold of a solar business: Customer's trust

Tips to build a sustainable solar business (2).


The value of any company lies in the strength of the relationship to its customers. Even though this principle is more than obvious, it is also more than evident that solar energy companies in developing countries often act completely different: in order to make a fast deal, cheap products from China are being sold. Still on the pretext that people in rural areas are poor and cannot afford expensive products. The set-up of a customer service doesn’t take place; it is not the goal. On the contrary, the marketing manager of a well-known manufacturer of solar lamps stresses: "We want to see the customers only once. We sell off the shelf, for only then we can achieve great sales figures."

Dangerous principle: Selling off the shelf
Selling off the shelf is certainly a principle that fascinates financial investors and "social funds". It guarantees quick high sales figures - and thereby an apparent fast company's success, at least on paper.
What fascinates financial investors and "social funds" is unfortunately not suitable for building-up a solid company. More than that: a sustainable social impact cannot be achieved this way. 
Who wants to build a stable and healthy company will rather follow a different goal, which can be described like this: do not try to sell one product to as many customers as possible. Instead, try to sell as many products as possible to one customer – over a long time and across different product lines.
To achieve this goal, we need a strong and sustainable customer relationship - this is just the opposite of "selling off the shelf".

Customer trust: the gold of a company
A long-term customer relationship is not based solely on the quality of the products sold, but even more on the quality of service and customer trust in the reliability of the company. Trust needs to grow - and it grows just after the first sale process:

  • when a product doesn’t work and needs to be repaired,
  • when the customer requires a re-training in the use of a product,
  • when the customer wishes to exchange or replace products,
  • when the customer wants to buy advanced products and needs thereto support.

Experiences have shown that precisely the people in rural areas of developing countries reward these services with loyalty and trust. A solar product doesn’t need to be cheap in the first place - because the customers know very well: who buys cheap, pays twice. While this may be good for the business of the solar energy company, this is bad for the people in rural areas.
Customer surveys show repeatedly that in first place the customer proximity influences the buying decision: who has a service station close to the customer is more trusted than someone who operates out from the capital. But it is also an attitude, an approach of the entrepreneur, which turns the purely physical proximity into a real tangible one.

Required: a strong entrepreneurial personality
It requires a strong entrepreneurial personality to resist the temptations of the apparently rapid success of a selling off the shelf. And it requires a strong corporate culture, when all employees look after the customer needs, and when the customers’ wishes are their top priority.
But only a strong corporate culture built on customer trust is able to have sustainable success. A customer relationship of trust is the basis for sustainable economic success for every solar company in off-grid regions. (hs)