If Staples—the world’s largest office products company—hadn’t trademarked the “easy” button, Michigan Saves probably could have. Through the years, they have tried to make the process of implementing energy-efficiency improvements as easy, affordable and smart as possible for everyone involved, including their authorized contractors.

Easy and affordable

How does Michigan Saves help make energy-efficiency work easy and affordable for contractors?

To start, if contractors meet the organization’s set standards, the process of joining the Michigan Saves network is quite simple. All contractors have to do is complete a short, online application, provide appropriate documentation and attend a free, one-hour, online training. Once the application is complete and documentation is submitted, review of the materials takes about one to two days.

In terms of affordability, Michigan Saves charges contractors only a small, one-time, nonrefundable application fee. It costs $50 to apply to become a Home Energy Loan Program authorized contractor, $50 to become a Business Energy Financing authorized contractor, or $75 to become authorized for both programs.

“This is extremely reasonable and easy,” says Theresa Randazzo, finance manager for Randazzo Mechanical Heating and Cooling. “If you think about all the other things contractors have to pay for and all the hoops we have to jump through, this is a very minimal expense to get started, and it’s a great business investment.”

The only other cost to authorized contractors is the 1.99% fee assessed on any loan, which is used to help Michigan Saves sustain its operations. This fee is less than what contractors pay if their customers use credit cards or many other forms of financing.

Smart

Becoming part of the Michigan Saves network is smart because it offers a convenient way for authorized contractors to stand out from their competitors. They can direct their customers to participating lenders that provide unsecured, low-interest, longer-term loans which customers can apply for right in their own homes or businesses, which adds tremendous value to any contractor’s list of services.

To streamline and simplify things, Michigan Saves has centralized its loan application and approval process. Customers merely have to call the Michigan Saves loan application center (or access it online) to submit the requested information, and they’ll get a decision within minutes. For homeowners, the center is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, so contractors can help them access it at any time.

“It’s a very straight-forward process,” says Michigan Saves customer service manager Todd Parker. “That makes it extremely easy for contractors to promote and for customers to use, especially when there’s an emergency. As anyone in Michigan knows, when the wind chill is fifteen below zero and your furnace dies, you can’t wait around for three or four days—or maybe even longer—to see if the bank will give you a home improvement loan.”

Responsive

As with any program, however, there is always room for improvement. So, Michigan Saves listens closely to their contractors and makes process improvements based on what they hear.

“We seek contractor feedback through lots of channels,” explains Parker. “We host webinars, conduct email surveys, make phone calls and have in-person meetings because we really want to hear what’s working and not working for our program partners.”

For example, early on, contractors told Michigan Saves that participating lender rates were too high to motivate most customers to make improvements, and they were right. When many lenders dropped their rates in the summer of 2014, demand for loans through Michigan Saves’ Home Energy Loan Program (HELP) increased substantially. The number of contractors participating in the program also increased (see exhibits).

In addition, contractors told Michigan Saves that their postproject reporting form—where information is gathered on the work completed during the project—was too complicated and took too long to complete. As a result, Michigan Saves streamlined the report, reduced the amount of information required and put the form online, changing what used to be a ten- to fifteen-minute task, or even longer for some, into about a three-minute task.

“That might not sound like a lot to some people,” Parker says. “But this made a huge difference for our contractors, especially those who do a high volume of work.”

Learning curve

Because every new program takes times to get used to, Michigan Saves works particularly hard to assist new contractors during the initial learning phase.

“Completing that first loan application can be challenging,” says Parker. “So we do everything we can to help. Typically, once a contractor completes a project, helps a customer through the loan process and makes the improvements, they settle in and really start to see the benefits of working with Michigan Saves.”

Randazzo agrees. “At first, I was a little unsure about whether I wanted to become an authorized contractor, but the application process went so smoothly, the cost was minimal and I’ve been able to help a lot of customers find affordable ways to make their homes comfortable and safe. The people at Michigan Saves have been very helpful and make my job a lot easier.”