This company is redefining sales tactics for the base of the pyramid

Villagers attend a latrines sales presentation in Cambodia. Photo by: Jennifer Wang / Whitten & Roy Partnership

SAN FRANCISCO — Scott Roy, co-founder of an international sales consultancy, was doing research for a potential client in Cambodia when he heard about a sales tactic he found appalling.

A team tasked with selling toilets to families would roll into villages with a set of latrine components. In order to close the sale, one person made up a threat, warning that government inspectors would fine the family if they did not have a toilet, Roy said. Toilets are just one of the products and services that can deliver real benefits for rural households in low- and middle-income countries, but all too often organizations overlook the importance of the sales approach.

“We hate the word beneficiaries. They’re customers who happen to be at the base of the pyramid and we should market to them in the same way we market to anybody.”

— John Stone, founder, Stone Family Foundation

Many people think sales is about talking someone into buying an item they do not want or need, but those strategies are neither ethical nor effective, say Scott Roy and Roy Whitten, founders of the international sales consultancy Whitten & Roy Partnership.

They have seen worst case scenarios. But they have also seen how sales done right can help organizations that seek to improve the lives of the poor get their products and services to the last mile. That is why they are working with clients in the international development community on an important shift from product-led pitching to problem-led selling.

In the 10 years since WRP launched, it has gone from focusing on global brands to generating 90% of its revenues from working with socially minded businesses, social enterprises, and NGOs that serve the base of the pyramid.

That evolution was inspired by the work Roy and Whitten did with iDE Cambodia a decade ago.

Michael Roberts, country director at iDE Cambodia, met Roy when he was in the country as a volunteer, and asked how the WRP model of transformational sales consultation might apply to his work with farmers.

“We wanted to introduce an idea that selling is not just what you can take from somebody, but what you can bring to somebody,” he said.

The training from WRP led to a 40% increase in sales, and iDE Cambodia expanded from agriculture to rural sanitation, working with WRP on a project to get people to invest in latrines in their own homes. John Stone, founder of the Stone Family Foundation, supported this effort, and became the first funder to cover the cost of services that WRP provided.  

“We hate the word beneficiaries,” he said. “They’re customers who happen to be at the base of the pyramid and we should market to them in the same way we market to anybody.”

In the past, many NGOs preferred to use words such as demand creation instead of marketing, but that is starting to change given the growing recognition that people will pay for solutions to their problems, Stone said.

The Stone Family Foundation supported Jibu, a business that is working to make clean drinking water more accessible in Uganda, Rwanda, and Kenya, to work with WRP.

Galen Welsch, co-founder of Jibu, said problem-led selling is critical for the success of sales teams. But he added that, regardless of the strengths of an individual sales person’s approach, there are many operational components of running a sales team that need to be contextualized to emerging markets. WRP works collaboratively with its clients to design a strategy that takes contextual factors into account, including cultural considerations, literacy, and gender issues.

Typically, clients who work with WRP go through one week of discovery, one or two weeks of in- country design, two weeks of face-to-face training, then several months where WRP is embedded with the organization, before wrapping up with rediscovery.

The WRP approach

Jim Taylor, co-founder of Proximity Designs, which helps rural families in Myanmar, said one thing that stands out about the WRP approach is its manager training: “Their theory is, ‘if you don’t get complete involvement with the sales managers, the sales representatives will never be successful,’” he said.

Taylor added that while there is a number of other sales techniques out there, WRP keeps it simple, with frameworks such as CLEAR — Connect, Learn, Educate, Ask, and Resolve — and RACE — Result = Attitude + Competency + Execution.

Whether they are working to bring on a new client, or advising clients on how to sell, the approach Whitten and Roy take centers on four questions that help customers make the best possible decisions:

What is the problem you are trying to solve?
What is the cost of leaving that problem unsolved?
What is the best solution to address that problem?
What is the value to your business of that solution?

“The purpose of a sales conversation is no longer convincing your customer to buy, but rather to increase the decision intelligence of the customer, so they make the best possible buying decision for themselves,” Roy said.

Roy and Whitten see three areas as essential for sales results — attitude, competence, and execution.

They train people in each of these areas. For example, WRP teaches clients from Paga in Nigeria, to Sistema Biobolsa in Mexico, to Ruma in Indonesia a practice called split attention, which Whitten developed during his doctoral studies, and helps with present moment awareness.

“We’re on a mission to change the way people see selling, to stop it from being a manipulative thing, and turn it into something that is an honorable profession that gets things into the hands of people who need it,” Whitten said.

Flourish, a fund that spun out of Omidyar Network’s financial inclusion initiative, recently put together a series of case studies on ways WRP has transformed the sales of several of its portfolio companies.

“We don’t have portfolio companies coming to us saying, ‘We need help with our sales,’” said Lisa Mikkelsen, head of global human capital at Flourish. “Because they don’t know what they don’t know.”

But Flourish has introduced WRP to more than a dozen of its portfolio companies, and these case studies note a 215% median increase in sales growth.

“Unless the C-Suite comes from a sales background, they don’t think of it as a similar leverage point as with product or risk or technology,” Mikkelsen said.

She recommends WRP not only to her portfolio companies but also to other investors. But WRP is not a solution for everyone. As the Flourish report notes, its services are most beneficial for newer sales representatives, geographically centralized sales, and sales problems resulting from things like hiring, sales training, and tools.

WRP teaches its clients to go from using hard sales tactics to seeking to understand the problems that customers face then working with them in a consultative manner to address it.

Roberts of iDE Cambodia calls this “human-centered sales.”

“In our programs, the change we wanted to see was the purchase of a product that would enrich lives,” he said. “The purchase was the behavior we were trying to encourage. But whether it’s washing your hands or not cutting down the forest, there are behaviors we try to influence, and these same approaches and ways of thinking apply,” Roberts said.

About the author

  • Catherine Cheney

    Catherine Cheney is a Senior Reporter for Devex. She covers the West Coast of the U.S., focusing on the role of technology, innovation, and philanthropy in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. And she frequently represents Devex as a speaker and moderator. Prior to joining Devex, Catherine earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Yale University, worked as a web producer for POLITICO and reporter for World Politics Review, and helped to launch NationSwell. Catherine has reported domestically and internationally for outlets including The Atlantic and the Washington Post. Outside of her own reporting, Catherine also supports other journalists to cover what is working, through her work with the Solutions Journalism Network.

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