The last time I travelled to the US, in Sep, I had asked for the cheapest flight possible, and I got my wish – a relatively cheap round trip on Kuwait Airways.
Fast forward to Nov 15, and I had already changed my decision from booking on the cheapest possible flight to booking on an airline that does not give me sleepless nights literally.
This time I could say I got more than my wish – not a too-expensive return flight, this time with British Airways. If I had wished for a different experience for the slightly higher amount I was willing to pay, you could say I got that wish too.
And what a difference!
My KU flight was a real pain – the aircraft smelt bad, they literally treated their passengers as if we were cargo, none of the TVs in the aircraft (on any of the KU aircraft I travelled throughout the trip) worked. Worse, the only TV that hung in the aircraft had some Arabic comedies going on – this really was rubbing salt on the wound, watching some real random stuff when watching nothing would have been a much better alternative. The crew rarely bothered to explain anything during stopovers, so much that we were not even sure whether we were to deplane or sit in the plane during one of these. Continuing with their cavalier attitude, the ground staff at Kuwait treated most passengers with disdain, shouting their orders in Arabic. Even the gates did not display the flights departing properly, and in the resulting confusion a person going to Islamabad (the subsequent flight) almost got into the flight carrying me back to Chennai! Just imagine the plight of the guy had he landed in Chennai instead of in Islamabad – at least he would have been happy he had not landed in Ahmedabad (Oh ok, my anti-Modi colours is showing).
Now, on to BA. What a pleasure! The moment I entered the Chennai airport, someone literally took my hand and guided me to the counter where I could have my boarding card done. The lady at the counter not only answered all the questions I had about the trip, but ensured that she also provided me with the immigration form to be filled for my arrival at San Francisco. The flight was smooth, the A/V system had a decent collection of movies and songs, and it allowed me to listen to a vintage collection of Bob Dylan after a long time (14 songs including classics Blowin’ in the Wind, Tambourine Man, Forever Young (a really cool version that you would have unlikely heard), Times are a-changing, Gotta serve somebody…).
I had two great sleeps during both legs of the flight – Chennai to Lon and Lon to SFO. Food was quite OK, and for the first time in my life I also drank a full glass of red wine (and that made sleep much better you could say). BA also put me in the middle of two pretty looking women for the Lon-SFO leg, but now I am getting into spicy territory.
The BA 287 flight actually landed 1 hour behind schedule at SFO airport, but you could safely say I was hardly complaining.
Was I OK with the extra money I had paid for the BA flight? Absolutely! (of course, no one is perfect – there are some who appear not to be very happy with BA service; for those of you who are curious, here are the ratings for Kuwait Airways)
If you are flummoxed what this extensive eulogy of BA is doing in a renewable energy blog, hang on!
It was just a few days back when I had a brief, in-the-hallway discussion with SunEdison’s Pashu when I was at their office. He lamented how high quality solar companies were forced to offer their services at ridiculously low costs in order to compete with many other solar companies cutting corners (at many places, I presume). It doesnt take a genius to figure out that under these circumstances, good companies will be forced out of the market and most installations will start suffering performance issues owing to lack of quality. Who is the ultimate sufferer? The end users and the Indian solar industry.
We do not want this to happen.
What could be done?
Why not take a leaf out of BA and ensure that good solar developers can differentiate themselves from bad, as well as BA could from KU?
A good way to start for the solar industry CEOs would be a detailed read of The Experience Economy (which just coincidentally I was re-reading it during flight).
Beyond this simple prescription, I thought I’d share some thoughts in this regard on how solar energy companies could innovate with the aim of an creating an experience around their solutions. While I might not be qualified enough to right away provide a complete blueprint, let’s say I am willing to give it a try:
1. Firstly, don’t try to please everyone. The fact is, some people are willing to pay for a superior service / experience, some others not. It is a costly process to try teaching horses to sing, and it will most likely to end in failure anyway. This does not mean you go only for large customers, I have seen residences paying over 2.5 lacs/kW for a 3 kW system on their rooftops when some in the industry were offering a similar, commodity system at Rs 1.5 lacs/kW.
2. Realize that solar power plant is a service, not a product. Similar to a long distance flight, a solar power plant is indeed a service! The folks who are putting up a solar power plant are wanting a service for 25 years, much more than a 20 hour flight. A hint: Would it be useful if solar power systems companies could tie up with electronics/electricals majors/retail leaders to offer high efficiency items at lower prices over a 10 year period? Lower energy usage at lower capital costs.
3. Internalize that experience can make a difference. Surely, if a 20-hour service provider BA can offer experience as a differentiator, so could companies offering a 25 year long service! How about having a convention every six months in the top 5 major cities for large rooftop customers where they meet with your team and other industry experts to understand how best they can benefit from their systems? How about a support call center that calls them once a week first few weeks and then once a fortnight to check out on things as well as share tips?
4. Experience Creation will require a comprehensive system. If you thought BA simply recruited bright guys who were outgoing and they simply went out and wow-ed the customers, you are being very simplistic. My earlier stint was in Europe dealing exclusively with the airline and hospitality industry, and I have seen the rigorous training program they put their people through. Many of the top airlines have departments and staff exclusively focussed on creating this experience. Being remarkable takes time and hard work, but I guess it is worth it. How about the solar CEOs actually meeting up with the CEOs of the top hotels in their city to understand how they create experiences in their hotels?
5. Create Business Class and Club Class. OK, you might not want to create a First Class because that might be too exclusive and too unaffordable. But how about Business Class service for those customers who are willing to pay the extra buck just to get a fast track service and some exclusive time? During my last visit to the US, I visited a 9 MW rooftop solar power plant at New Jersey. It had cost them $42 million (that’s almost $5 million/MW), and this was installed only about a couple of years back. The plant is working tick-tock, with hardly anyone in the company being dedicated for its maintenance. Looks like the company was willing to pay for being treated business class. How about a business class service where a technician will visit them once every two weeks and take a complete look at their installation and suggest modifications? Or a service where the top engineer from the client firm is invited to for a full day interaction with the solar company’s expert team (breakfast, lunch and dinner included of course) every month during the first year?
6. Create a Useful and Unforgettable Experience around Your Product – how about arranging an engaging trip to your customers, to some of the top solar panel installations your company had already done? Instead of making it just a site tour, make this a one day, interactive engaging tour, with technical & operations guys from your company providing detailed analytics of the site and what the customer could take away from the installation. You get the idea. You could offer such a site tour annually, for medium and large customers (your customers might even be willing to pay for it!)
7. Use Internet and Mobile Technologies to Provide Superior Service – With India already having the world’s second largest mobile user base, and set to become the world’s second largest Internet user by number of users by 2014, and with the plethora of open source tools available for both Internet and mobile apps, connecting with the customer meaningfully to offer, scalable high quality customer service should not be too difficult. This could be especially important for medium and large customers.
8. Create an Ecosystem, not Just a Standalone Product – Last one month, I and my team had been doing some research on green buildings, and guess what? Green buildings are supposed to be growing at high double digits for the next 10 years. Double digit growths for the next decade! This sector will probably see the largest growths within the cleantech/sustainability domain in the next one decade. How can solar developers synergise their offerings with this growth? What types of partnerships can they form to provide a more comprehensive “green building” solution? Imagine a solar developer offering his solution as part of a comprehensive “Make your building go absolutely green” package as against one who offers to install a solar power system on your rooftop. No prizes for guessing whose offer is more appetizing (and also who makes more money in the process!)
9. Make your Solar Power System Talk of the Town – Why are diamonds, with zero intrinsic value, worth millions of dollars to a customer? One, it has a resale value of course, so it is a good investment, but then the resale value itself exists owing only to a non-intrinsic value. What is this value. We all know it as the “show-off value”, so let’s indeed call it the show-off value. Once you have this show-off value built into your product, you can command a premium. Marketing 101, are you saying? Sure, so why don’t solar power guys use something as fundamental as this? Why cant solar power plant owners wish to have a SunEdison brand or a Tata Power Solar brand? Today they don’t, but surely these companies can make their brands desirable? Tip: Why cant a top solar company run a “My Sun Shines Brighter” campaign, and give 100 cool looking mementoes to each large customer (and perhaps 10-15 to small ones) that the company folks can keep on their tables? Each memento says “My Sun Shines Brighter”, and it is not just words. The company should be able to prove how their solar power systems can outperform the market average. Make sure you give cool stuff like T-shirts and caps and other wearable/seeable stuff with the “My Sun Shines Brighter” phrase. You get the idea. Creating cool, desirable brands need not be the exclusive domain of iPods and Nakshatras.
10. Offer a Unique Product Extension – Talking of iPods, did I tell you about the Nike+iPod effect on me? During my last trip to the US, I was keen on buying an iPod that could be attached to my running shoe and that would show details of my run (time taken, pace, number of steps etc). My interest was not in the Nike shoes at all. I already had decent running shoes, I just wanted a good sensor that would record my running accurately, and I realised iPod had just such a product. The iPod in itself cost me only about $20. But for this to work, I had to buy a Nike pair that cost $120. Tail wagging the head? You could say that, but you could also look at how beautifully Nike had created an extension that made a non-consumer of their product a consumer. With something like solar power, there surely ought to be cool extensions such as these that are just out of the radar right now. For instance, could your company develop a really simple but cool energy monitoring system for the entire building (perhaps costing Rs 20,000) but that comes integrated with your solar power system (costing Rs 10 lacs)? Could the tail start wagging the head once more? Who knows!
None of what I had suggested above would be new to you. You would have definitely seen it being used as a best of breed practice in some industry. How about cross pollinating these – or even better ideas from elsewhere – into the solar power sector?
Surely, if a commodity such as coffee could be converted into a Starbucks experience, what can’t be. I still hate the taste of Starbucks coffee, nothing beats my mom’s filter version, but I find the hospitality and environment in their shops convivial enough to blow the $10 many times while I am in the US.
If an experience could make a cheapskate like me splurge a few tens of dollars, it will not surprise me if solar companies creating experiences are able to rake in a few tens of million.
All the best.
PS: I would love to work with companies that wish to create such experiences around their solar power solutions. Do let me know if you are interested ( narsi at eai dot in). I have done my sales for the day.