Recently, I had an interesting debate on LinkedIn about customer use cases. I believe published use cases should always have some form of meaningful results. Yeah, that ROI thing.
Not everyone agreed - but to me, selecting "the right software" isn't enough to justify PR fanfare. How is it the right software if there isn't a result?
Zoho Analytics has drastically reduced the time gap from signing a deal to completing an installation from 80 days to under 50 days. This is because we were able to capture the turnaround time in each stage of the project, identify issues, and solve them. This is very impactful, especially for our customers who want to have their project completed as quickly as possible. We are now happy to provide that level of service, and this has helped lead to record growth for us in the last 5 years. - John Sheldon, Renu Energy Solutions
Yeah, that's a result. But that opens up another pesky question: how did you get there? At Zoholics New Jersey, amidst spirited discussions about generative AI, I sat down with customers like John Sheldon, Business Intelligence Manager, Renu Energy Solutions.
The solar industry rollercoaster ride - how do you excel?
The solar industry is definitely in growth mode, but it's still a rollercoaster ride. Many companies that tried to build a sustainable solar business wound up getting burned (pun intended). So, Mr. Sheldon, what's the secret to winning in the solar game? He responded:
Well, I've been in this industry since 2007. It's been quite the ride. Back then, it was more of a hobby for a lot of people. It really wasn't an industry... People were doubting it the whole time: 'It doesn't work. It's not reliable.' We had string inverters. So if one got shaded, the whole thing went out. But now, it's very practical. It really can be used in multiple different ways. The addition of battery storage has really increased that adoption.
Why has battery storage had such a big impact? Sheldon:
Taking it overnight. That's always been an issue. As the sun goes down, what do you do? Now, when you use your batteries, you have them every single night, then the sun comes out, and recharges on a micro-grid circle.
Managing energy in peak hours is another win:
The utilities are charging for different times of day. So if you're using power in the middle of the day, or during the peak time, it's more expensive than off-peak. Battery technology allows you to save your energy during these cheap times, and use your battery during the expensive times from the grid. That's helped the economics a lot.
But advances brought opportunistic providers into the mix. Sheldon thinks Renu Energy Solutions, based in North Carolina, can stand out against those:
Not everybody's business model is doing the best thing for the customer. Some are doing the best thing for the company... Those are the stories that most people hear about. You don't really hear about the stories of: 'I've had a great installation, a great experience and saved all kinds of money.' Those stories don't get pushed out as much as I wish they would.
Energy grid outages, however unpleasant, also primed interest in backup batter power. If solar hasn't fully arrived yet, it's pretty darn close:
It's combination of a lot of things to be honest. It's technologies picking up speed, becoming more practical, having more meaningful use. It's education. It's incentives from the government. It's awareness of severe climate change; it's electric vehicles, utility rates going up - all that stuff put into a blender.
But a surge in demand creates new problems.
I think we're at the point now, where it's like, "How do you handle mass adoption?' That's where Zoho helped us a ton, because we have so many customers with so many different needs, and so many different use cases. How do you manage all that, so that no one gets a big box of disappointment?
Moving beyond spreadsheets - the impact of Zoho Analytics
Sheldon talked about managing 100 simultaneous projects. Have fun doing that in Excel! For a while, that's exactly what Sheldon's team tried to do:
We were on paper; we were on Excel docs. It closed off access... We use Google Sheets now, because at least you have access, but we're a lot less dependent on that type of reporting, and moreso relying on the reports in Zoho Analytics.
It doesn't stop there: Renu Energy Solutions' eleven different departments each rely on Zoho Analytics dashboards.
Each department member has their own dashboard, with their own projects that fall within their purview. That allows them to stay on task, and not get overwhelmed. Because that overwhelm is when people started to get stressed out... So we've made it really easy for people to manage their day-to-day job; their reports come to them every day.
So they know, 'Okay, here's what's current.' It gets updated every hour throughout the day as well. So as they close things, the manager of the department can see. That's helping us get into a really good rhythm.
Competing in solar means being good to your people, but don't overstaff either. Sheldon thinks they've found the right mix:
You've got to use the technology - let's embrace it, put the technology at the center of our process, and then put people around it.
How about that turnaround time, now cut to 45 days? Sheldon says it comes down to users understanding the workflows, and making sure batons are always passed. Where possible, handoffs are automated. It's all about the "speed to install":
Each milestone, from contract signing to site survey, where we get an engineer on site: how many days go between those? We put that on a trendline. So we get a graph, and it's got the day the contract was signed. And then it has the number of days between each task, up through installation.
All those steps are visualized within Zoho Analytics; Sheldon gave me a hands-on tour. But it doesn't stop there either: they want to get that turnaround time under 30 days.
The wrap - using analytics to address workflow gaps
Getting down to a thirty day turnaround won't be easy. Solar installations involve third parties with their own hard-to-control timetables, like inspectors and homeowners' associations. But as Sheldon says, this aggressive goal keeps the team sharp:
It tells a great story. It helps us explain, 'Guys look at this - we're either trending up or trending down, more time, less time.' So where we start to see those bottlenecks is where we throw resources at it.
Zoho Analytics is vital for spotting these bottlenecks:
One of them was with engineering. We had a lot of projects backing up, and engineering, needing permits and plan sets, all those diagrams and all that material they need to create a permit for an electrical installation. It was backing up, hundreds of projects. Because we could see that on these trend lines, we thought, 'What can help us'?
One of the technologies we looked at was drone software. Our site surveyor could go out there, fly the drone, and it does a lawnmower pattern across the roofline, taking photos of different parts, and then it creates the engineering drawing and sends that to the engineer. So it already maps a whole bunch of stuff, which then allowed our engineering team to catch up on a lot of those projects. It's now within a healthy number.
Sheldon's team has been able to secure new business with analytics - by instilling trust in big industry partners. How? Via the amount of visibility Renu Energy Solutions has over its installations:
A lot of times now, we're in a position of: 'Why should we bring you onto our fleet'? Once we show them how Zoho has helped us scale, we become more desirable to them... They want our account. They want to work on special pricing agreements, things like that.
Though this use case focused on Zoho Analytics, Renu Energy Solutions makes heavy use of two other Zoho products, CRM and Projects. Could Zoho One be an option in the future, as Renu Energy Solutions looks to automate further, and raise its service game even higher? Perhaps. Sheldon can definitely see a role for other Zoho solutions, such as SalesIQ and Inventory.
The CRM and Projects-based automations Sheldon told me about sound pretty effective - including notifications that five star reviews have been posted, so that those involved in these labor-intensive projects can be recognized. Sheldon knows their success is based on recruiting - and retaining - top talent in key roles. But surrounding that talent with automation is crucial:
Those workflows are a huge value for me, because it keeps my headcount down. I didn't have to hire two more inside salespeople, because the workflow basically acted like an employee. If a new lead came in, it would update these different records. The lead source equals a type of communication they will get from the email template, so it can automatically send them a welcome email.
Getting the talent and automation mix right is never easy - nor is tying analytics to business results. But it's always good to hear from companies that are notching these kinds of wins along the way.