Guest Articles

October 1

Scott A. Roy

Developing Social Entrepreneurs into Sales Leaders: Effective Practices to Adopt – And Common Mistakes to Avoid

The concept of using business to make a social impact attracts many talented entrepreneurs who want to make their living by doing work that aligns with their highest values. But succeeding in this space requires them to exert strong executive leadership in multiple business functions. One such area is sales, which is often a weak point for social entrepreneurs. Many simply don’t have career experience in sales – the revenue generator for any company – yet they must make important strategic and operational decisions that affect this key area.

As co-founder and CEO of Whitten & Roy Partnership, my team and I have supported the efforts of hundreds of social entrepreneurs all over the world to build or transform the sales “engine” in their ventures, and to master the art and science of selling. We strongly believe that it is essential for social entrepreneurs to be executive sales leaders. Otherwise, mistakes that cost precious time, money and other resources are easy to make.

Below, I’ll discuss some sales development practices – and common mistakes – that social entrepreneurs in emerging markets need to understand to optimize their own sales efforts and maximize their business success.


Recruiting the Right Salespeople: The Downside of Prior Experience

Most organizations we’ve encountered try to recruit people with prior sales experience, but we disagree with this strategy. There is a very high chance that these people will not have been well-trained by their previous employer, and there is a good chance that they will have developed bad habits that will infiltrate and damage a company’s sales culture. The greatest risk to an enterprise is that they will sell in ways that damage its brand.

Even if they were properly trained, it’s likely that they were selling fast-moving consumer goods like cigarettes, SIM cards, soda, etc. Selling these kinds of products is very different from selling ones that require behavior change, such as clean cookstoves, water filters or high-quality agricultural inputs. Rather than a fast, snappy sales pitch, those products require a more consultative conversation that changes customers’ life-long behavior.


The Challenge of Building Effective Sales Management

Along the same lines of hiring experienced sellers, hiring experienced sales management has its risks. We’ve seen too many social ventures hire experienced sales managers, turn their attention to other urgent company matters, and assume the manager has the knowledge and ability to build an effective sales department. Only later do they find out the individual lacked the ability to do so.

Another crucial – and common – mistake in sales management is promoting the top sales performer to sales manager. It’s a reasonable theory: A top performer should be able to develop other sellers into top performers. But upon closer inspection, the characteristics for being a top sales performer often don’t match the qualities that are required to be an effective sales manager. Empathy, patience and an ability to set one’s ego aside are not necessarily common traits among top salespeople, and developing these skills may not be easy for them to do.

Regardless of who an enterprise appoints as sales manager, its leaders need to stay close to the sales department to build the right sales management practices. We advise most companies to set up their sales managers to be field-oriented, working alongside their staff and customers instead of sitting at a desk trying to manage by app and texting. Effective sales managers ride with their people, help them focus on the tasks they need to prioritize to achieve optimal results, and continually coach them on how to improve. They meet with their team frequently – both in group settings and one-on-one – and are encouraging supporters, not authoritarian rulers.


Tips for Setting Goals and Sales Targets

The third major area that can be quite challenging for leaders of social ventures is the process of setting goals and targets for their sales teams. Targets are almost always set by leadership, then divided and subdivided to arrive at a number that is then given to each salesperson. While this approach is logical, we believe it’s the exact opposite of what the leader should do – especially if the agents are earning their pay through straight commission or a low base wage plus commission. Top-down goal setting can easily set a tone of obligation and fear in a sales force, and can even lead to disbelief and discouragement if they feel pressured to achieve sales numbers that they perceive as unrealistic. This is exactly the opposite of the positive and confident tone that a sales team needs to maintain to maximize the likelihood of a successful sales encounter.

Instead, social entrepreneurs should consider installing a bottom-up target setting process that engages salespeople through a focus on their personal goals – i.e., how much money they want to make so they can achieve a certain lifestyle or fulfill an important purpose in their life. One key to this approach is that the sales manager needs to be involved in this process, to ensure that they have a solid understanding of each salesperson’s purpose and goals, and to avoid the risk of the salesperson aiming too low. If this process is done well, it will tap into the salesperson’s intrinsic motivation, lighting a fire inside them and providing an authentic and consistent impetus to do their best work.


How Social Entrepreneurs Can Develop Their Sales Leadership

So how can a social entrepreneur develop their sales leadership? There are plenty of entrepreneurs who have figured this out – trial and error works if you stick with it over time. There are also many inexpensive and immediately accessible resources out there, in the form of books, podcasts and videos that contain great sales wisdom. Additionally, there are technical assistance options offered by firms like ours that provide enterprises with direct support to accelerate learning.

For our first 12 years of operation, Whitten & Roy Partnership worked exclusively with individual companies to help them transform their sales performance. But recently, we’ve also democratized access to our services to make them more affordable for small companies, primarily because of COVID-19. We form cohorts of between three and six smaller companies at a time, and conduct both group activities and individual coaching and consulting over about six months.

A recent example of this approach is our work with USAID and the ResilientAfrica Network, focusing on workforce development in the West Africa solar sector. We selected seven companies from six different French-speaking West African countries, and worked with their top managers to transform their sales processes and management practices. Our efforts have focused on improving these companies’ customer engagement, enabling their products to penetrate more deeply into their target communities to better serve their energy needs.

Quite frankly, we have been elated by the impact this approach is having. The key difference is that we are working through the entrepreneurs we are mentoring – and they, in turn, become the change agents within their own organizations. The result is that these entrepreneurs have accelerated the development of their executive sales leadership.

There’s a clear focus on the bottom line that motivates these efforts. Sales is usually a critical component of the success of a social enterprise: Without effective revenue generation, social ventures struggle as they wait for grants and impact investment. In contrast, social entrepreneurs who develop strong sales leadership build healthy and vibrant sales cultures that prepare their organizations for scale and enable them to accomplish their social – and business – missions.


Scott A. Roy is the CEO and co-founder of international sales consultancy Whitten & Roy Partnership. His latest book, “Sell Well, Do Good,” written together with W. Roy Whitten, PhD, is available to order through Amazon.


Photo courtesy of Whitten & Roy Partnership.



Social Enterprise
business development, social enterprise