Selling Energy Efficiency in a Politically Polarized World
I have two passions… energy conservation, and politics. I can see you rolling your eyes now 😊
Like it or not, we live in a politically polarized environment in the United States. Each presidential election in the past few decades has come down to extremely small margins. Many will have strong political viewpoints whether they voice them or not.
I am aware that energy efficiency, energy conservation, green energy, carbon neutral, climate change, performance contracting, and renewable energy all elicit visceral reactions. If you’re on the left, you will be a staunch advocate of carbon reduction to reduce the impending climate change if we do nothing. If you’re on the right, you will be concerned about economic suicide chasing new sources of energy. After walking the political tightrope all my professional career, I’ve concluded that you must be politically aware to be effective in a business that advocates for reducing energy consumption.
Politics, Energy & Core Energy
Why am I spending all this time talking about politics? I’m a business coach. Right?
I’m glad you asked.
I am a Core Energy™ coach who coaches business owners in the energy efficiency, renewable energy, and energy conservation industry. It is important to understand how energy is at play in selling to customers in this industry.
There are seven levels of energy… starting from the bottom and working up, Level 1 is Victim Energy; Level 2 is Conflict Energy; Level 3 is Acceptance Energy; Level 4 is Compassion Energy; Level 5 is Opportunity Energy; Level 6 is Synergy Energy; and Level 7 is Total Awareness. If you want to learn more about each level of energy, I recommend you watch my video entitled, “What is Core Energy?”.
Political people and political discussions are comprised almost 100% of Level 2 – Conflict Energy. When you bring up a political topic of any sort, the person on the other side of the discussion is trying to figure out if you are “friend” or “foe”. We’ve already discussed the notion that energy efficiency, conservation and renewable energy are political topics. Therefore, your prospective customers are trying to figure out if you are friend or foe.
In the “22 Immutable Laws of Marketing”, authored by Al Ries & Jack Trout, they say, “The single most wasteful thing you can do in marketing is try to change a mind.” This is very true when it comes to political thought in this politically sensitive industry.
If I had a chance to coach a politically minded person, we could have months to shift their political Level 2 energy to Level 3, Level 4 or Level 5. You do not have this luxury in a sales and marketing situation.
Profile Your Customer
Part of creating profiles of prospective customers is determining their political affiliation. Map out the county, school district, college, or hospital according to which president they voted for in the most recent presidential election. If the area is BLUE (Democratic), it makes sense that the entity within that area is also BLUE. Likewise, if RED (Republican). If the area is a rural area that was or is supported by fossil fuel exploration (natural gas, coal, oil, etc.), you can bet that many of its residents have aligned themselves on the right. If the area is urban or has an economy that relies primarily on tourism and its local ecology, many of its residents have aligned themselves on the left.
While general area political leanings are important, it’s also important to understand the political affiliation of each decision member on the board. In some cases, the board publishes their political affiliation. In some cases, states make political affiliation of individuals public, so you can easily find out. I encourage you to use Google and Social Media to better understand the political leanings of key decision makers.
Once you have done your homework, you will find that your group of decision makers is one of three political biases: 1) Strong Left; 2) Strong Right; or 3) Middle. In order to be strong left or right, the board of decision makers must have at least 80% of its decision makers favoring that political leaning. Otherwise, you will classify your board of decision makers as middle.
Left Leaning Board
If the group of decision makers leans left, you must use language that confirms their political bias. Using terms like climate-change, existential threat, global warming, environmental impact, social responsibility, ESG, (environmental, social, and governance), triple-bottom-line, and other terms that focus on environmental benefits of energy reduction. You will highlight the benefits your projects will provide in terms of tons of atmospheric CO2 reduction, trees saved or other metrics that resonate on the left. Understand that the environment is not all that those on the political left care about. They care about social good, equity, and many other factors that you cannot ignore.
Right Leaning Board
If the group of decision makers leans right, you must focus on financial performance of your project. Most on the right are skeptical of energy conservation projects. They believe they are being asked to support a project that makes you feel good but has no financial benefit. Focus on how the projects affects their finances. If there is a net cost of the project, then use words that highlight the value and non-financial benefits they will receive. “Non-financial” doesn’t mean environmental benefits. Once again, finances is not all those on the political right care about. They care about their local economy, the benefit to local contractors, and following a procurement process that ensures they are good stewards of their constituents’ investment.
With right or left leaning boards, you are first trying identify yourself as a political friend. That's why the pandering language is helpful. In Middle Boards, there is a completely different dynamic. For instance, in a board of county commissioners made up of three individuals, one may lean right, while the other two lean left. This is considered a Middle Board of decision makers.
There are two types of Middle Boards: 1) fighters; and 2) moderators.
In a fighter board, you will notice friction between members in public board meetings. Trust me, I’ve been to several board meetings where I thought a physical fight would break out.
If you encounter a fighter board, do not pick a side. It doesn’t matter if one side will approve your deal and the other won’t.
In a moderator board, each board member seeks to find middle-ground on political ideals to create progress for their institution.
In either situation, avoid political pandering in any form. Stay away from words or phrases that elicit political side-taking. State environmental benefits, and other benefits with equal weighting. If board members ask politically charged questions, respond with factual and politically neutral answers.
Your Politics Matter
We’ve covered the customer. What about you? All of us consider ourselves to be moderate or normal politically. Many people call themselves non-political. In some cases, it may be obvious, and we will side with conservatives or liberals. Some will claim they are fiscally conservative and socially liberal. The fact is that you have political views regardless of how strong those views may be. I would never ask you to compromise your political values. However, it is very important that you are objectively aware of your viewpoints and how they may be biasing your view of others.
In our current political environment, extreme political adherents believe that the other side is either ignorant or evil. If this is you, you’re not the best person to be in front of customers.
Like it or not, your prospective customers can do research on you and your company just as easily as you can do research on them. This means that they will judge you based on your social media posts, company website language, and political party affiliation. In most cases, you will not get the chance to sit in a board meeting if your key decision maker decides you have political ideals that clash with him/her or their board.
Picking a Side
Many energy efficiency companies have picked a political side. Picking a side is not necessarily a bad thing. It just means that you have eliminated half of your prospective clientele by making your offering political. You may have also eliminated half of the talent pool you have to choose from for quality employees.
One other key detriment to going political, is that some customers won’t take your seriously. They may see you as a political activist instead of a technical powerhouse, or a company that gets results. They may feel that you are pandering to their political sensitivities instead of offering genuine benefit to their organization.
Why do Politics Matter?
The key quality that I look for in any high-talent salesperson is EMPATHY. Empathy is defined as “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.” Political viewpoints reflect how your customers feel. When it comes to selling energy efficiency, renewable energy or energy conservation projects, politics is an element that cannot be avoided. By understanding your customer’s political viewpoints, you will better understand their motivation for buying or not buying your energy efficiency project.
Something else to understand about political viewpoints. You cannot educate your prospective client to a different way of thinking. You can enlighten your customer on the operation of a boiler, and why one is better than the other. However, you will not be able to convince your client that climate-change is real, when they believe that it is not. Trying will only create angst.
Politics isn’t Everything
This post was intended to highlight political landmines that may be affecting your ability to connect with your customers. The fact is that most people who have reached a position of leadership within an organization can temper their political motivations in favor of the organization they represent.
I mentioned before that politics live at Level 2 energy… I Win, You Lose. There is one more thing you need to understand about Level 2 energy. Level 1 and Level 2 energies are considered “reactionary”. This means that they often emerge as reactions to the other side. You may be having a perfectly civil conversation with a decision maker… and then mention the words “climate change”. If they believe that “climate change” is a hoax, they will react at Level 2.
What about me?
I’ve been working in the energy efficiency industry for all my professional career. I have stepped into the landmines just like anyone else. I suppose that’s how I learned enough to publish this blog post. I also mentioned that I am passionate about energy efficiency and politics. Surely, I have a political view about energy efficiency. I do.
First, I am registered as “unaffiliated”. This means I do not belong to either political party. I tend to see beneficial beliefs on both sides. I also see detrimental beliefs on both sides. I tend to favor liberty and so you could call me a libertarian. However, I also believe that government has a clear and positive role to play in society.
As far as climate change goes, I believe that CO2 concentrations negatively impacting our ability to breath clean air, is a more present danger, than whether CO2 is contributing to warming of the atmosphere. While I believe the data that the atmosphere is warming, I believe there are multiple causes that are not all related to CO2 levels. I’m an engineer. As such, I tend to look at the data and avoid political rhetoric or popular opinion. I believe that political polarization has prevented us from fully understanding this critical challenge. That said, I am a staunch environmentalist and believe we must care for our environment to the best of our ability. I believe that responsible exploration and extraction of fossil fuels has a beneficial role to play in our energy needs. I believe in only using what you need and no more which makes me a conservationist.
You can see many political writings on the internet that I’ve made on this topic after I sold my business and didn’t have as much to lose. If I were to have stated these political opinions in my previous role as the owner of an Energy Services Company (ESCo), I would have been judged unfavorably by both sides.
I hope that this blog post has given you food for thought as a professional in a politically polarizing industry. Regardless of which political side you reside, energy efficiency, renewable energy and energy conservation are noble professions, and you should be proud of the benefit you are providing to your customers and the world.
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If you want to learn more about how I coach my business owner clients, please visit my website at www.mmbizcoach.com.