Lead with Problems, End with a Sale: Raising the “Decision Intelligence” of Sanitation Customers in Ethiopia

By Monte Achenbach, Chief of Party, USAID Transform WASH, PSI Ethiopia

We’ve all heard of IQ, a measure of intelligence, and even EQ for emotional intelligence.  But have you heard about DQ, or “decision intelligence?”  In business terms, DQ is a customer’s capacity to make smart decisions about purchases.  For business operators to become good sellers, the capacity to strengthen a customer’s DQ is a critical skill.  At USAID Transform WASH (T/WASH), we’re helping business partners across the country strive for excellence in both the quality of the WASH products and services they offer customers and in how they use the DQ Sales® approach to convince customers to buy them.

The DQ Sales® approach was developed and is championed by T/WASH’s sales training partner, Whitten & Roy Partnership (WRP), a global sales consultancy that works with Fortune 500 companies and development NGOs alike.  Honed through years of experience working with sales teams to improve results, WRP’s methodology centers on increasing customers’ DQ by engaging in conversations about their problems.  What health issues are you facing?  What is the status of your toilet, and what problems is it causing for you and your family?  Inevitably, people will say that their kids get sick once or twice a year, particularly with bouts of diarrhea that require expensive health clinic visits.  They complain of the smell and flies in their toilets.  Then the seller helps customers calculate the financial costs of those problems.

T/WASH embraced these sales techniques as part of our strategy to enhance a business model focused on simple, affordable upgrades to existing toilets.  The model requires door-to-door household visits by trained masons and flexible installation packages for a range of latrine types.  To be successful, masons offering quality installation services also need to become motivated sellers and good planners, better prepared for households who say, “No.”

Results Formula for Motivated DQ Selling

The relative strengths of the formula’s components have varying impact on results, as the sliding fulcrum indicates.  The poorer a salesperson’s attitude, the stronger the execution must be to get the same results.  While competence at selling is indispensable across the board, even the most skilled seller will fail to get good results without positive attitude and excellent execution.  We started by strengthening the A – C – E of our own team so that they could successfully train our business partners to do the same.


Attitude is key to optimizing results, and it can range widely from a debilitating sense of impossibility to one of unbounded possibility.  Between those poles are factors like whether a job feels like an obligation versus an opportunity.  This is the difference between being reactive and taking charge.  Attitude improves when sellers recognize where they are on this spectrum at any given moment and think through how to elevate their attitude by taking action.  It helps to identify a “deepest desire” behind a job (e.g., “giving my kids the best possible future” or “building a beautiful home”) and use that to motivate daily work.


A set of selling skills, in many cases new to a businessperson, must be developed to excel at the job and improve customers’ DQ.  These include the ability to engage in informal conversations with customers, share examples of neighbors who recently purchased toilets, present new information, and ask open-ended questions that encourage them to share their own stories and problems.  Once customers have identified their pain points, the seller can pose relevant solutions and show how money can be saved over time.


Asking sellers to set their own goals and expand their capacity to achieve them through excellent planning and execution helps them stay encouraged. A few simple calculations can make the difference between demotivation and steady achievement, and attention to simple, focused data can ensure that sellers stay on track and exercise the right amount and type of effort.  First, they set an earnings goal for a month.  Then they estimate a conversion rate (on average, X% of households reached will purchase a product/service).  From that figure and profit margin per unit sold, it’s easy to calculate how many households need to be reached to achieve their earnings goals…and how many days and hours of work will be required each week to get there.  With that level of planning and setting of expectations, the households who say, “No, thanks!” become less discouraging, and practice and experience will only improve the conversion rate and earning potential month-by-month.

DQ Results

The development of T/WASH’s “deskilled” business model — door-to-door sales by mason/installers (MIs) of relatively simple, inexpensive toilet upgrades — and the addition of DQ, problem-led sales techniques have led to a rapid increase in our number of business partners and their toilet product sales.  To achieve this, the team has used WRP’s Results Formula to concentrate monitoring of partner performance on a few key indicators, such as number of sales presentations per week and sales conversation rate. This made it easy to identify whether and which improvements in attitude, competence, and execution were likely to strengthen sellers’ success with DQ Sales®.  

Here are some of the key achievements of the program since early 2021, when T/WASH refocused on this MI-led business model and began offering DQ Sales® training: 

  • Among all T/WASH construction business partners, MIs have become the largest share at 60% (290 out of 480).
  • Overall, business partner sales increased by 75% from quarter four of 2021 to quarter two of 2022.
  • Sales by MIs trained in the DQ approach now comprise about 22% of total sales (in early 2021, it was just five percent), with this figure substantially undercounting MI sales of installation services to households who have purchased products directly from retailers.
  • The average conversion rate (percentage of households that purchased following an MI sales presentation) stands at a healthy 26%.

This is the kind of success that we want to sustain and scale.  As a pilot, we customized training for Ethiopia’s Health Extension Program that incorporated elements of the DQ Sales® approach into their SBCC activities.  We’re also exploring the possibility of developing similar training programs that can be added to the national TVET (technical and vocational college) curriculum and other business capacity building programs, which have paid scant attention to selling skills as a business necessity for building consumer demand and profitability. 

So clearly, it takes neither high IQ nor EQ to see that DQ gets results!

About Transform WASH

USAID Transform WASH aims to improve water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) outcomes in Ethiopia by increasing market access to and sustained use of a broader spectrum of affordable WASH products and services, with a substantial focus on sanitation.
Transform WASH achieves this by transforming the market for low-cost quality WASH products and services: stimulating demand at the community level, strengthening supply chains, and improving the enabling environment for a vibrant private market.

USAID Transform WASH is a USAID-funded activity implemented by PSI in collaboration with SNV, Plan International, and IRC WASH. The consortium is working closely with government agencies, including the Ministry of Health, the Ministry of Water, Irrigation and Electricity, the One WASH National Program, and regional and sub-regional governments.

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