Why sales isn’t a dirty word in the public and third sector

From our experience, many working in the realm of social good don’t equate what they do with ‘selling’ or ‘sales’. Moreover, these terms are often considered rather dirty ones in the sector’s dictionary. As a result, many public and third sector workers, from execs and CEOs to Account and Project Managers, are failing to consciously develop a skillset which is crucial to their work, especially as the public and third sector landscape increasingly changes, with more and more organisations for ‘social good’ such as social enterprises, mutuals, public sector subsidiaries and health and social care start-ups, hitting the scene and receiving innovation funding.

The UK heathtech sector alone – which employs more than 121,000 people across 3,500 companies – has enjoyed a growth of around 5% in recent years due to the thriving community of digital startups (source: startups.co.uk, July 2019). That’s not to mention the many social care startups, such as Lifted and Cera, raising billions of pounds to fund innovation projects across the country. These are just a few examples of how the sector is changing and innovating.

Being able to build trusted relationships with customers, philanthropic capital funders, institutional funders and delivery partners is as critical to these organisations as it is for those in the private sector. In fact, it’s even more so, considering the complex stakeholder environment they operate in.

In fact, sales and business development skills are at the core of what many working across all public and third sector organisations do. This applies to senior client directors and CEOs of “social good” startups, third sector organisations and public sector organisations; account managers; project managers and project directors/executives; communications managers/directors; anyone working in the public or third sector involved in the ‘selling’ of services, either internally or externally; and various others.

Let’s be real – most of us, at some point, have thought to ourselves: ‘how on earth am I supposed to sell that? I’m not a salesperson!’

The truth of the matter is – there is nothing dirty about the word sales. Regardless of our position, all of us ‘sell’, whether internally or externally, in some way or another at work. Indeed, sales is a part of life!

It may be helpful to frame the term ‘sales’ in a different light. Instead, think of it as becoming ‘a trusted advisor’ to your colleagues, clients and partners.

And don’t forget: being a ‘salesperson’ doesn’t necessarily mean you are selling something physical, like a t-shirt, for example. Rather, selling is simply working with someone to help them make a decision or take action. That is something all of us working towards ‘social good’ do regularly.

How then can those of us in ‘social good’ organisations work towards becoming ‘trusted advisors’? Here are a few tips…

1. Be generous

In David Maister’s business bible ‘The Trusted Advisor’, he reminds readers to be ‘generous with your knowledge’. In other words, don’t hoard your insights. Share them!

One of the best ways to build the trust of your clients, colleagues and partners is by allowing them to benefit from your knowledge – because, let’s face it, while you may be an expert in your area, it’s very unlikely you’ve got any magic secrets that other organisations don’t have, therefore making it useless not to broadcast at least some of your know-how.

Ways you can be generous with your knowledge include:

  • Writing and posting blogs on popular social platforms such as LinkedIn. You can check out our blog here: https://alexp111.sg-host.com/blog/
  • Issuing a regular newsletter outlining industry insights, news and other interesting stuff you and your organisation has been up to
  • Dropping key colleagues, clients or partners regular emails (or going old-school and picking up the phone or even inviting them for a coffee – post Covid-19, that is!) to update them personally on things you know they might find interesting (sans the sale pitch)
  • Compiling white papers and reports based on your knowledge

2. Listen, really

Are you really listening to what your client needs and wants? In fact, are you really listening to anyone or simply waiting for your turn to talk? Listening can be a really acquired skill. Here are some methods to help ensure that you are properly listening to what is being said:

  • Focusing on the ‘why’s’. It’s important to ask questions that really get to the core of why the client is asking you what they’re asking you, and why they think like they do. Open-ended questions are always a good place to start.
  • Listen to what isn’t being said. Examine the tone of the person you are speaking to. Are there issues they are rushing over or actively avoiding?
  • Don’t be a sentence-grabber. them. Finish!
  • Allow your mind to create a mental model of the information being communicated. This will help you stay focused. When listening, avoid planning in your head what you are going to say next, as it’s impossible to truly listen while doing so.
  • Give the speaker regular feedback, but only when they’ve paused. Interrupting is never a good look!
  • Try this exercise (source: Forbes): For at least one week, at the end of every conversation in which information is exchanged, conclude with a summary statement. In conversations that result in agreements about future obligations or activities, summarising will not only ensure accurate follow-through, it will feel perfectly natural. In conversations that do not include agreements, if summarizing feels awkward just explain that you are doing it as an exercise.

3. Reliability and availability matters

Three minutes late is still late. If you’ve got a Zoom call or a coffee catch-up scheduled, be on the call or waiting at the cafe on the dot (the latter scenario obviously referring to a distant future!). The small things add up and by being continually reliable, you’ll build trust over time.

In terms of availability, ‘overcommunicating’ is always better than radio silence. Keep all parties updated regularly on the progress of any outstanding work or projects. As Harvard Online states, “You build trust by doing what you say you’ll do. So create opportunities to deliver on your promises.”

4. Admit you don’t know it all

It may seem counterintuitive, but admitting you don’t know everything will actually build your credibility.

It’s simply impossible to know everything about your business or even your speciality. Pretending you do will lead to mistakes being made and trust being lost in your ability. You’ll also waste the talent of those around you and likely alienate yourself too.

Admitting that you don’t know the answers, but assuring your client you will find them out, perhaps by enlisting the expertise of others who may be more knowledgeable in that particular area than you, is a key to becoming a trusted advisor in any field.

As Ernest Hemingway wrote, “There is nothing noble in being superior to your fellow man; true nobility is being superior to your former self.” We concur!

We are currently offering a new training programme – Selling Social Good: Sales Skills for Charities, the Public Sector and other “social good” organisations – in partnership with global trainers Miradorus.

In this comprehensive one-day training session, participants will come to understand the highly relevant concept of ‘consultative selling’ (that is, selling services, many of which are intangible and thereby trickier to tackle) and how to practically apply it to their everyday.


Lee Tobin, Marketing Expert

Lee is a professional storyteller. She uses a storybook approach to emotively communicate your organisation’s core messages to your target audience. She especially loves social media and believes that comms should always be bold.