More and more purpose-driven social enterprises are trying their hand at distributing life-changing products by having the poor pay for them. To attract customers, they usually start with mild marketing campaigns such as promotional events and passive distribution. When these attempts fail to get the job done—as they often do—they revert to active selling. Many do so with great reluctance and disdain.

Why? We think it’s largely because of selling’s “dark” reputation. Many people see selling as a dark art that requires false promises, arm-twisting, and aggressive tactics. Therefore, to succeed at selling, one must be slick, insincere, and manipulative—characteristics completely misaligned with mission-driven work.

But selling per se isn’t the culprit here. It’s what happens when people believe that selling is a disreputable practice that must be tolerated only as a last resort. If you believe selling is a dark art, full of shady practices, then that’s what you will create. If you think it’s about convincing people to buy stuff against their will, then that’s what you’ll build.

As sales consultants helping social enterprises in the developing world, we think differently. We think selling can be done with ethical pride and high morals. But we often find that our work must begin by turning what people believe about selling on its head. Here are three myths you must break if your organization is going to be good at selling.

Myth 1: “You gotta be good at pitching.”

Many salespeople simply tell potential customer what they think their problems are in a quick summary, and then move right into describing a product’s features, benefits, and price. When they finally stop talking, what they often hear back in response is an objection, such as: “I need to think about it,” “I need to ask my spouse,” “I don’t need it,” or “I can’t afford it.” An overabundance of objections—especially the financial objection—is a sure sign of poor selling at the beginning of the sales conversation. Sellers are pitching when they should be listening.

A sales presentation in rural Cambodia for latrines. (Photo courtesy of Whitten & Roy Partnership)

If you want to transform selling in your organization, the most effective practice you can adopt is listening, not pitching. Your salespeople, whoever they are, must be willing to listen deeply to a customer’s problem, well past the point of knowing that you can solve it. You must listen to the point where the customer actually understands the problem and its implications and consequences. This problem-led approach is important whether you are selling to a group or in a one-on-one setting, and it is even more important when selling products that require behavior change.

Many people are entrenched in lifelong habits and behaviors that they have come to accept even if they don’t need to. A woman in India, for example, may find it hard to imagine cooking any other way than over a wood fire. However, when someone takes the time to have a deeper conversation about the difficulty in gathering or paying for wood, and the poor eyesight and lung problems that come from inhaling smoke, potential customers notice their dissatisfaction with the status quo, which moves them to consider change. This process is important and requires that salespeople be patient, listen carefully, and take time with each prospect.

Myth 2: “You must discount or offer incentives to customers to get them to ‘Buy Now!’”

“This month we are waiving the installation fee.”

“We’re offering the first month free if you buy today.”

“If you buy from us today you get a set of steak knives.”

Organizations often opt to offer discounts and incentives when they need to get sales moving. But such “specials” are costly, and after the incentive is removed, sales levels tend to revert.

A price-reduction strategy designed to entice buyers fails to recognize that the motivation to buy lives within the customer. To begin, the potential buyer must understand their problem deeply enough that they would want to do something about it (as we saw in the Myth #1 explanation). But the urgency to buy comes from understanding what it is costing to have the problem.

For example, if potential customers are living off the grid in Kenya and using kerosene to provide light, they are incurring both direct and indirect financial costs to do so. Direct costs are the expenses incurred for things like kerosene, candles, batteries, and flashlights. Indirect costs include the time to buy the consumable product, poorer school performance by children who can’t do homework by candlelight, and health threats such as fire or smoke inhalation. Customers may feel urgency to buy a solar-powered lighting system once they realize how much money they are losing by using kerosene—in real terms over a time period, such as two to three years. In other words, the best way to help prospects develop urgency to buy now is to help them actually calculate what it is costing them to continue doing what they have been doing. If the number is big enough, they will want to change.

Myth 3: “You have to hire experienced salespeople.”

This is a reasonable notion, particularly if the person doing the hiring doesn’t have a lot of sales experience. However, as illogical as it might sound, we prefer hiring people with no sales experience, instead hiring for attitude, and then teaching them the right sales process.

Experienced salespeople can do well, but they can also come with baggage in the form of bad habits, manipulative methods, and poor selling skills. And especially in the behavioral change space, organizations need salespeople who can have a good, problem-led conversation (as outlined above) with a potential buyer. Social enterprises don’t need a fast talking, fast moving consumer goods salesperson who has sold beer, cigarettes, and SIM cards,.

Hire people who have a good attitude and the basic foundational capabilities important for the type of selling they will do—good listening skills, honesty and integrity, authenticity, willingness to work hard, and a meaningful purpose for needing to work. Find out what challenges they’ve faced and how they dealt with them so you can gauge character.

A sales presentation in rural Nepal for the WASH programme. (Photo by Scott Roy)

Obviously, you will have to provide training, and take the risk that your new hires may not prove to like the job or be good at it. But building a successful sales organization requires this level of commitment.

A “people” system

Developing an effective sales function in a social enterprise is a daunting task that requires steady effort and patience. After all, you’re building a people-based system, and emotional highs and lows tend to be more prominent in sales than in other jobs. Low points generate stress, which often translates into tension between managers and salespeople. Misunderstandings, fear, discouragement, and despondency are common experiences, and unless you handle them promptly and effectively, sales teams can often end up with poor sales results, low morale, and high turnover.

A social enterprise sales function can and should be a source of organizational pride. If you build it thoughtfully and consistently, you will have created a reliable growth engine for your mission-driven business about as far from the dark arts as one could imagine. 

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