Travis Eichelberger, CEO of True Solar, recently joined Best Company’s WOMM podcast to talk about honesty and authenticity in the solar industry and how to find both personal and professional fulfillment in an industry that is a win for everyone.
Travis starts out by detailing a bit about his background and the experiences that led him to become a solar professional. After receiving an MBA from the University of Iowa, Travis took a position as an operations manager at a solar company. He describes what a positive experience that was:
“Honestly, it [was] the first job that I actually loved. What I found is that every day, when I left, whether I had a good day or a bad day, I came home knowing that we did something good and that we made a difference. And honestly, for the first time, I was proud to tell people what I did for a living.
“At that time in the industry, it was still really, really new. People didn't know what solar was. The technology was new. It was a good return on investment, but not as good as it is today. So a lot of people just wanted to learn about it and not necessarily purchase the actual product. [But], over the course of the last seven years, there have been massive advancements in technology, which has made it really, really fun.”
Travis goes on to explain how he used the knowledge he gained working in solar operations to eventually become a solar CEO:
“When I started [at the company], I started as the operations manager. So I worked with the installation crews and the electricians and was able to learn very intimately the actual installation process itself—more so than most executives. By the end of my tenure with that company, I took over as president of the company and I'm now the owner and CEO of True Solar.”
As the podcast continues, Travis goes into more detail on what sets the solar industry apart from other home service industries and why he has found more fulfillment in solar than in previous industries:
“I think the benefit [of solar] to the consumers is the largest thing. Like I said, when I got into the industry, I knew that it was a good thing and that people said it was good for the environment and maybe would save you some money and so forth.
“But once I actually saw for myself what it would do for customers, by taking away their electricity bill on any given month, and also the lasting impact that it had over the course of the life of the system (20 to 30 years), I realized kind of how powerful that is, especially compared to some of my other employment opportunities.
“When I was in the telemarketing space, I remember at one point I was 18 and we were offering dialup internet to customers that specifically already had high-speed internet, so you can imagine how unfulfilled I felt at that point, and [I] almost went home not feeling good at all.
“So to be able to be in a situation where I can provide true value to customers, both financially and to be able to help out the environment for years to come, that was surprising how much that took over my life, and how I felt about the industry and about my job as a whole. And it's been a blessing ever since.”
Travis then jumps into talking specifically about his company, True Solar, and how its mission came to be. He starts out by saying that as he gained experience in the solar industry, he found that there were certain things he and his colleagues wished would change about how things were done. Unfortunately, it was hard to effect change in both big and small companies for different reasons.
Thus, True Solar was born. As Travis puts it, “[True Solar’s] goal is to be a local solar company that isn't chasing revenue targets and isn't chasing growth targets. We don't want to take over the world. We simply want to do a very, very good job with solar and provide an amazing customer experience to everybody that chooses to do business with us.”
Travis goes on to detail the core principles that act as True Solar’s guiding star and help keep the company on track in both day-to-day interactions and overarching strategy discussions:
“First and foremost, honesty is a big, big principle [for us]. I myself have been involved in sales for a long time. I've seen the right and wrong ways of doing things. Unfortunately in the solar industry, it's so new that most consumers don't understand how it works and how the financials work for solar. So it's easy for them to be presented with and to accept incorrect information.
“We want to be able to educate our customers on that, on how it actually works, the money that they can save, and honestly whether or not it's a good investment for them. If that means that by us being honest, we're going to potentially lose a sale, or a customer might decide that solar isn't for them, that's what we're going to do each and every time because we want customers to be happy and satisfied with the project.”
Pride in the work
“Additionally, in regards to taking pride in our work, our saying is that if you can't be proud of what you're about to do, don't do it. I've seen the power of what people can do when they take pride in their work, and it is extremely powerful, and that's the fulfilling feeling that I was talking about for myself.
“I want everybody at True Solar to feel fulfilled and to be proud of what they do because I know if we do that, we can accomplish some great things and really produce a great product for our customer.”
“Then lastly, the big principle is learning, and actually, this is why it's authentic: my grandpa, he always had a saying that ‘school is always open.’ And what he meant by that is that you always have to be open to learning new things, and you always have to be able to accept change and to find ways of doing things better.
“As focused as we are on the customer experience, we have to be humble enough to be able to say, ‘Hey, we have a shortcoming, we have a failure at this point in the process, or maybe we're not doing this very well right now.’ And be humble enough to identify that and immediately work to learn how to overcome that and to put a new process into place.
“So if you're not constantly improving, honestly in my opinion, you're falling backward and you're taking a step back. So we always have to be moving forward and those principles are really what guide us.
“If we come to a decision throughout the day that we need to make and we're not sure which route to go, we run through our principles and we say, ‘Okay, how does this align with how we want the business to be?’ We use those principles to make decisions on a day-to-day basis.”
Travis then switches gears to address some common questions that solar customers have and how he would answer them, incorporating that principle of honesty that is central to True Solar’s mission:
Is solar free?
“Speaking of honesty, one of the things that a lot of solar companies portray the federal tax credits and the incentives as is that the government will pay you to go solar, which is technically true in a very small way, but that's highly misleading, if you will.
“So that's a big question that we talk customers through, but there's a lot of different financing options and creative options to make it really, really affordable for customers.”
How durable are solar panels?
“[In Iowa], we get hail here. We get the sun. We get snow. The solar panels are actually rated per golf ball size and for hail up to 90 miles an hour. So honestly, the only repair that I can remember in my career is when a customer backed his tractor into his ground-mounted solar array, and then we had to, of course, fix what the tractor literally ran over.
“But outside of that, [solar panels] can handle the worst that mother nature has to offer.”
Do solar panels require maintenance?
“The great part about solar is there's no moving parts. So because there's no moving parts, it truly is a set-it-up-and-forget-it type of technology. If by chance there are any issues, manufacturers provide warranties of up to 25 years.
“We also stand behind our work and provide a workmanship warranty as well, so there's minimal risk to the consumer.”
Travis is then asked to detail the process that his company takes or that solar companies, in general, should take to build trust throughout the customer’s journey. He mentions that really what it boils down to is educating the customer and being transparent and communicative throughout:
“First and foremost, it has to start with education. I've been in a lot of sales organizations where the salesperson starts and they're handed a script and they go meet with customers, read down the script, and that's about the extent. Our solar consultants are very, very highly trained in regard to how solar actually works.
“They know how it's installed, they know how the electricity works. They know some of the basic technical functions of it. So they can actually explain to the customer how the technology is going to work and what it is that we're going to be able to put up on their roof.
“They also talk to them heavily about the financial savings to make sure that they understand what it can or can't do from a financial perspective.
“That education-first approach and no-pressure approach during that initial consultation is extremely, extremely important to us because the customer has to be comfortable with making an investment like this.
“The second part is once a customer chooses True Solar, communication is absolutely vital. We pride ourselves on providing updates every single step of the way. Our goal is to make sure that every customer knows exactly where their project sits at, all of the different turning points throughout the process, and all the different steps that it takes.
“So if a customer ever doesn't know what's going on or doesn't know where their project sits, that's a failure on our part. You don't want to sign a contract with somebody and then you don't hear from them for a week. You want to be able to know that your project's moving forward and that you're in good hands.”
Travis closes his time on the podcast by mentioning what he personally is most excited about this year and for the future of solar:
“I'd say the biggest [point of excitement] would be the technological advancements. Compared to when I started again just seven years ago, the amount of power that a solar panel can produce has literally doubled just in that short amount of time.
“Also, batteries have become a more viable option rather than gas or diesel generators, and that can be a big thing. I can actually tell you that I have batteries at my home and with young children being able to have the lights on during a really bad storm, that pays for itself in terms of the investment for the battery system.
“But, seeing how the technology is advancing so quickly and providing different opportunities and different functionalities that customers can now opt into, I'm beyond excited to see where that's going to go, even just in another five years. If it can continue to go at the pace that it has been, we're truly in for a treat in regards to the technology that will be available.”
If you would like to reach out to Travis and the team at True Solar, you can schedule a free, no-pressure consultation at TrueSolarIowa.com.
Travis’ professional background includes work in project management, operations, finance, and analytics. He received his MBA from the University of Iowa in 2018 and is the current CEO of True Solar.
Personally, he has a 5-year-old son and a 1-year-old daughter, as well as three large dogs.