Derek Hettenbach: life as an independent solar consultant 

Derek Hattenbach is an independent consultant based in Banbury. He provides tailored solar and renewable solutions to his clients, working with a number of different installation companies and suppliers to fit the systems to the job.  

Derek Hattenbach is an independent solar consultant based in Banbury and shares his journey, experience, and offers advice to REI readers.

Priding himself on the personal touch, Derek shares his journey and experience, and offers advice to anyone who feels they have been undercut by a dodgy Facebook ad recently. 

What was your path to becoming an independent consultant? 

I started in renewable energy about 13 years ago, at the time the government Feed- In Tariff was being introduced to kickstart an industry that, although up and running, needed support to meet commitments in alignment with international agreements. This carrot and stick approach started the industry that we know today, and I realised that this opportunity could create not only an income, but also a benefit for homeowners.  

I began training to become a surveyor for solar panel installations, advising homeowners of the benefits and explaining how the financial model would work for them. As a natural progression, I worked not only as a sales representative, but also as a consultant to make sure the customer fully understood all aspects, benefits, pros and cons of a potential installation. 

The industry, at that time, began to attract a less than desirable reputation because of the actions of some disreputable companies not providing the correct services to their customers and due to sharp practices of sales staff. I made the decision to only work with a company which had an impeccable reputation for honesty and quality of service. 

Unfortunately, because of rapid expansion, that company began to experience problems with maintaining their high standards, as volume meant customer service suffered. Rather than continue working directly with them, I decided to take control of the presentations and offerings to customers, as an independent consultant, to maintain the integrity of the process.  

I began to build a network of trusted installers to complete the work my customers required. 

I was therefore able to work in the best interests of the homeowner or business owner, able to find the right installation company to do their work, rather than only working on behalf of a single business which may not be the best installation company for that style of solar panel system. 

I have been independent for just over six years now and have working arrangements with several installation companies, so I’m able to offer a number of options for consideration, tailored to the individual requirements of the homeowners and commercial property owners alike.  

This works to the benefit of each of my clients as there is no bias towards any one company and means there are always several different propositions to consider. I work almost exclusively by recommendation and personal introductions. Referrals are the strongest form of connection in business. 

What are your thoughts on the future for renewables? 

The future of renewables is very much in the control of the Government and the organisations responsible for the upkeep of infrastructure and the utility grids in this country. The infrastructure has been underfunded for many years, and integrating new technologies with a crumbling and outdated connection system is unlikely to be successful. 

Planning departments and distribution network operators do not seem to be ahead of the curve, rather they are being left behind by technological advances and acceptance of new technologies designed to benefit consumers. Without a change of attitude, whether voluntary or by government instruction, we will not be able to fully take advantage of existing potential. 

There seems to be a fluid attitude in government of what is the right direction to take for the future of energy supply. This constant uncertainty benefits no one, and what is clear is that policy from the highest level needs to concentrate on upgrading, maintaining and building the framework upon which a viable and renewable-based and self-sufficient energy grid can be built to give us all energy independence. 

Net zero targets cannot be met through indecision, U turn or party-political posturing. Target dates are irrelevant if the goal posts are constantly changing. Consensus across all spectrums is needed. I’m not sure that can be achieved in the current world economic climate where energy supply is being weaponized. 

What does an average week look like for you? 

There is no average week; every week and every day is a different challenge, prospect and opportunity. Networking is an important part of my business life and I network extensively. Enquiries and requests for assistance can come in at any time so the online diary is constantly being updated. Where possible, I like to leave at least two hours daily to be available for consultation, but I can be very flexible around appointments. 

Personal time is also a priority as I am well aware of the burnout risks of running your own business. 

Tell us about your customer’s journey 

I start with a relaxed, no-pressure consultation to establish the customer’s requirements through a fact-finding discussion of the current situation they’re in. This consultation is to answer questions about the process, the industry, the pros and the cons, the installation partners, and, in a lot of cases, to dispel the myths that have grown larger over time that customers find on Dr Google! 

Unless I fully understand their current circumstances, I have no information to be able to suggest possible solutions. It is never an ‘on the day’ pressure sales approach. It is a large investment needing a qualified decision, so my job is to set out the facts and allow the customer to decide without resorting to the tactics some use. 

People rarely enquire in situations where everything is going smoothly, and when everything financial in their lives is in order. There is normally a problem or a difficulty which is causing them pain for which they are looking for a solution. As a consultant, you need to understand what it is that is causing them this discomfort. 

It can be quite personal to discuss, and a ‘sales’ approach will never truly get to the heart of this. Having understood and clarified their situation, and the problems they have identified, the next step is to discuss the two possible outcomes that may occur: with or without solar as a remedy to their pain.  

If they want to understand the benefits, they should compare that to the alternative path of doing nothing, delaying or considering something else to solve the difficulty they are in. If they continue on the same course that they are on now, what are the implications of doing so and how does it affect the problems they have expressed in the future?  

Is the problem they have identified going to get better over time, or worse over time? Is continuing as they are viable, or does some solution or action need to be found? 

A process that requires honesty and trust

It is only by understanding their situation, problems and the implications of doing nothing that you can discuss the potential for assisting them. This is about showing the potential benefits of solar and battery storage to fulfil their needs and protect them from energy price inflation.  

It is the Goldilocks approach: find the solution that is just right for their personal needs. I don’t specify a system inappropriate to their exact needs and anticipated future consumption or upsell systems that are too large. 

This process requires honesty and trust from all parties, a straightforward explanation of the facts and figures, and a genuine desire to allow the customer to make the decision that is best for their circumstances.  

The last thing you need, having been open and honest, is a salesperson trying to force you into an immediate decision and using every trick in the book to try to get a signature from you without allowing you the time to make a qualified decision. A forced contract is a cancelled contract. 

Working with an independent consultant like me, instead of a supplier, means that there is no bias towards any single individual company and more options become available to the customer. I work for the client’s benefit, with their requirements and best interests in mind, and find the right trusted installer for them. 

What is your favourite part of the job? 

The satisfaction is in seeing a job that I have specified and priced and placed with the installer of the customer’s choice completed right first time every time. I enjoy seeing the results coming through over the course of time in exactly the way both myself and the customer anticipated. 

OPINION: Consultant Derek Hattenbach shares his biggest concern in the solar industry right now. 

“I have spent years finding the right installing partners, the client is unlikely to find one by clicking on a Facebook link.” 

Derek is passionate about sharing his understanding of the sales tactics being used to advertise solar solutions on social. Here’s a quick guide to help you communicate your value to potential customers when they compare your price to the prices they’ve seen online. 

Were you tempted by, or did you click the button on a Sponsored Facebook Ad about Solar? Let me save you some time and dissect the clickbait used to trick you into a sales process. 

  • There is no “secret your electricity supplier is keeping from you”. 
  • There is nothing the “Government is avoiding telling you”. 
  • Your postcode alone doesn’t determine if you can have solar, so it does not need checking. The individual property and its characteristics are what matters more. All solar panels available in Europe are designed for the European and UK market by default. 
  • “No upfront cost” normally means a no deposit loan. 
  • No-one is “Paying You” to go solar. 
  • There is no “Special Price”. They will quote for what they think they can get away with. 
  • A call to “my manager” is a drop-selling tactic not a true offer. 
  • Beware the price tag “from” implying a lower price than the actual price. 
  • You will not see real pricing as they want to have a rep visit you to close a deal on the day. 
  • There is no “New Technology” system you need to check for eligibility on. These Ads are data mining, a hook to get your contact details, not to give you information. Your contact details become data to be sold to multiple solar installers. 
  • “Compare Prices” means your details are automatically shared and then sold to the market. 
  • The “Package” is what they want to sell, not necessarily the best equipment level for you. 
  • The price will be a high starting point as they have high lead costs to cover. 
  • If they can suddenly find a cost reduction for a quick decision beware! 
  • A phone call to offer a lower price because of a rescheduled installation is a last resort ploy. 

If a customer really want the facts about a potential solar installation, and what it could do for them, they would do well to cut out the data mining and frustration of dealing with multiple pushy salespeople by going direct to someone who will treat them as an individual, and give them sound advice and real pricing. 

Are you and your customers experiencing the same frustrations with the proliferation of click-bait, social media adverts undermining the integrity of the industry? Share your experience with Jess, Community Content Lead for REI: jessica@renewableenergyinstaller.co.uk 

Image credits: Derek Hettenbach