Guest Articles

September 26

Scott A. Roy

The Sales Mistakes That Are Holding Back Africa’s Solar Enterprises – And How to Fix Them

Selling to the base of the pyramid is tough, regardless of the product – and despite the sector’s growth, solar energy products are no exception. Solar enterprises face abundant and ongoing challenges, including affordability, nightmarish logistics and security, payment default, money mishandling, shallow talent pools, high churn and low agent productivity, and ineffective line management. And of course, there is pressure from above to hit aggressive sales targets, which are often missed.

Given these challenges, it makes sense that company leaders should focus on making their sales departments as effective as possible. However, at our sales consultancy, Whitten & Roy Partnership, we find that the overwhelmingly majority of solar companies put more focus on the product and its technical capability, rather than investing in the people who sell it.

The myth that a product should nearly sell itself sets into motion an approach to selling that is rooted in building a better mousetrap, not in building people. Solar products with new or additional features may gain a competitive edge temporarily, but they are not the reason why companies generate and sustain growing sales. Yes, having a good, reliable product with responsive service to back it up are important. But companies make sales by engaging their customers – and their success is driven by how effective their salespeople and managers are in the field.

It has been our experience that ineffective customer engagement is absolutely central to the sales and retention problems faced by solar companies. Its impact is felt both in terms of customers who should have bought but didn’t – and buyers who fail to complete payments. In most instances, these companies’ sales approaches work for the “low hanging fruit,” but then they struggle to penetrate the next layer of the market. This results in hundreds of millions of people in sub-Saharan Africa still lighting their homes with batteries, candles and kerosene – and a sector that continues to generate disappointing performance.


External vs. Internal Customer Engagement

Over 90% of Whitten & Roy Partnership’s work is in emerging markets, where businesses are selling life-changing products to the poor. We help transform the way they sell and manage, generating better results and building more capable companies. Although we are sector agnostic, one of the larger segments we work in is solar. In fact, we have advised most of the companies that make up the majority of sales across Africa, including clients like Off-Grid Electric (now Zola), Greenlight Planet, M-KOPA, Barefoot Power, Orb Energy and others. Thanks to this experience, we possess a unique 360-degree overview of the solar market, with all its opportunities and challenges.

Based on this perspective, we believe there are two kinds of customer engagement upon which solar companies must place their attention: external and internal. External customer engagement is how well salespeople connect, define problems, confidently offer their solutions, and close sales. Internal customer engagement is how solar company managers treat their sales agents. We see sales agents as primary “customers” of the company who, when managed, trained and influenced correctly, will engage well with external customers. Companies must take very different approaches when engaging these two different types of customers.

External customers require much more engagement than a simple transactional pitch or a product demonstration. This is because they are being sold a product that necessitates behaviour change, both in terms of the product itself and the requirement that clients make consistent payments. Because of the depth of commitment that is required to make the commonly used “pay-as-you-go” payment model work, a consultative, problem-led buying experience is well-suited to the task.

Effective behaviour change-based selling requires sales teams to do the exact opposite of what most people think should be done. Rather than pitching the product based on its features and benefits, sales teams must listen to customers describe the lighting and power problems they have in great detail, and what it is costing them to have these problems. This selling method transforms a decision to buy solar from “nice to have some day” to “must have now.”


The Key to Creating an Effective Sales Team

A consultative, problem-led approach takes a little bit more time, but the result of higher sales and greater commitment to payment terms is worth it. However, simply telling agents to switch to this method doesn’t work – they must be trained to use it and then managed accordingly, so they break the automatic bad habit of pitching products. That’s where the management of these “internal customers” comes into play.

Sales agents are critical to their operation because they sell products to external customers. The more effectively company leaders and managers engage, train, manage and lead these agents, the greater their sales and loyalty will be – and the greater service they will provide to external customers. This example from one of our African solar clients illustrates the issue: Their self-proclaimed “great” five-day sales school consisted mainly of technical training – only four hours of the 40-hour training program were dedicated to the human-to-human selling experience that’s crucial to a solar company’s success.

But we don’t want to single any company out: Indeed, we have observed very poor management practices almost universally. Generally speaking, recruiting practices are weak, team sizes are too large, territory management is too lax and disorganised, and there is not an ethos of actively developing salespeople into  better performers. In fact, what we see is downward pressure from managers to get results, with very little support to show agents how to do it. We couldn’t begin to count the number of times we’ve been told: “Once they have proven themselves then we will train them.”


How to Manage the Managers

In defence of most sales managers, we have found that few have been trained how to lead and manage others. They may know procedures and processes, but they don’t know how to deal with people and relationships – and most certainly don’t know how to truly empower a person to be their best. Our key advice is to train managers to treat these internal customers the same way their own managers want agents to treat the company’s external customers.

We often find that the better salespeople have been promoted to management with the operating assumption that they should naturally be able to manage salespeople. After all, if they are good salespeople themselves, the logic follows that they should be good sales managers who can teach people what they know. Right?

Wrong. The qualities that make a good salesperson (strong sense of self, discipline, no excuses) stand in contrast to what make a good sales manager – who needs to work with a wide range of personalities and problems, and deal with lots of excuses. Before becoming a manager, these salespeople were just responsible for themselves. Now they are responsible for a team of people, all with different personalities, all at different developmental stages, and all performing differently. This experience is completely foreign to a top sales performer, who now must navigate the very challenging terrain of people management. Instead of the cushy job it appeared to be, it’s actually an overwhelming experience for most people.

We believe the people and organisations we work with were doing the best they knew how to do at the time we started with them. But when they experienced what is possible – and began to understand the things “they didn’t know that they didn’t know” – the lights came on for most people, and they really want to learn how to foster this kind of engagement both with their internal and external customers.

A word of caution, though: It takes time to build the human systems of a sales organization, and the individual capacities of sales managers and salespeople – indeed, it often takes longer than investors and owners want to believe. But unfortunately, the pressure to move fast and accelerate sales can take its toll on the very sales machines these companies are trying to build, and can actually undermine their efforts to establish a flourishing business.

That’s why we encourage leaders take the time to think about the quality of engagement they want to build in their organisation – for both their internal and external customers – and then objectively assess the quality of engagement they are currently providing. Our message is: Find these gaps, fill them, and discover new levels of sales performance.


Scott A. Roy is CEO and Co-Founder of Whitten & Roy Partnership.


Main photo: The article’s author Scott Roy with salespeople from client Barefoot Power during a discovery session on-site in Uganda.

Homepage photo courtesy of H6 Partners.




Energy, Social Enterprise
Base of the Pyramid, business development, energy access, social enterprise