When I tell people that I’m the general manager of solar and storage at Mosaic, and that I’ve worked in the solar industry for nearly 15 years, many people assume that I studied electrical engineering. They’re always surprised when I tell them that I have a master’s degree in philosophy. This usually leads to fun discussion about the countless ways my philosophy background has actually been incredibly useful to my work in sales and management, especially in the solar industry. I thought I’d share some of the key lessons I’ve taken from history’s greatest thinkers in my approach to selling solar.
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What can philosophy possibly have to do with sales? To oversimplify things, Western philosophy is not so much about what you think but how you think, meaning, critical reasoning, rhetoric and decision making. For me, sales is all about helping people find their way to good decision making, but—and this is the important part—allowing them to do it in a way that matches their values, their pace and their process.
As a good philosopher-salesperson, you want to spend more time listening than talking. When I started out in residential sales and was going on house calls, I would always remind myself to enter a house call like Socrates would, with the assumption that I “know nothing.” That leads me to my first lesson:
In fact, ask more questions than the number of claims you make. I used to tell my sales teams, on sales calls, whoever asks the most questions wins. As Plato wrote, “Knowledge which is acquired under compulsion has no hold on the mind.” Meaning, if you go in telling prospective customers what to think, you’ve already lost. Their guard will go up and you’ll never convince them of anything.
Instead, find out about the customer, what they want uniquely and what motivates their decision-making. Plato broke down three overarching drivers of human behavior: desire, emotion and knowledge.
- Does your customer like the idea of saving money on their utility bills (desire)?
- Will they be swayed by the opportunity to do their part to leave a better planet for their kids (emotion)?
- Will an appeal to logic correct their misconceptions about solar (knowledge)?
The Socratic method was all about asking questions to test the truth of received wisdom. So take a page out of Socrates’ book: Find out what misconceptions might be holding your customer back from going solar and disprove them one by one to arrive at the truth.
Discover your customers’ needs, and then you can guide them to the right solution.
Believe in what you sell and why you’re selling it
Obviously, that’s tried-and-true—you might even say cliched—sales advice. But because it’s particularly essential to solar sales—and speaks to a fundamental notion about ourselves—it’s worth a deeper dive.
As solar professionals, we are in the pretty unique position of being able to offer a product that truly has the potential to change the world, while providing numerous other benefits. That power means there are a whole lot of passionate people out there hustling to realize its full potential. If you’re not passionate about solar, you’re not going to thrive selling it.
Residential solar is still a big change for many people to wrap their heads around: They’re looking for a reason to say no. People can pick up on insincerity, whereas studies have shown that genuine enthusiasm—not the hard sell—is often the difference in convincing someone of your position.
Socrates advised that a person’s mission in life should be to “know thyself.” I came to residential solar sales at a time when I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life. Starting as a sales rep for solar felt a bit like going back to square one, having already managed retail sales teams in my younger days. But I turned out to be good at it and was having fun doing it. What’s more, I felt like I was contributing to positive change. My focus in school had been on climate change, cosmopolitan justice and ethics, and here I was finding a way to act on my convictions.
Around this time, I also had the opportunity to volunteer for the Sustainable Energy Advisory Committee in San Diego, which I eventually chaired. We did a lot of good, but the heavy lift of pushing for systemic change in the public sector ultimately convinced me of my commercial pursuits. So not only do I believe wholeheartedly in the benefits, even the necessity, of solar adoption, I believe in the method I’m using to help spread it. This brings me to my final philosophical pillar.
Surround yourself with people you respect
“People are like dirt,” Plato tells us. “They can either nourish you and help you grow as a person or they can stunt your growth and make you wilt and die.”
After more than a decade in solar sales, I’d seen enough of the industry to know what wasn’t working. Then I saw Mosaic Founder and CEO Billy Parish speak during the virtual Empower Solar Summit. He opened by telling everyone on the Zoom call that they were heroes. I knew right then I wanted to work with him.
Billy’s example sets a culture of mutual respect and a shared mission that is nothing short of inspiring. When I joined the company, I wasn’t surprised to find a sales team that was already really well functioning (which is often not the case). It was up to me then to see how I could help them function even better by asking questions and seeing which pain points I could address. A lot of this had to do with bringing different teams throughout the company together to be part of our thinking from the early stages so we could all pull toward a common goal.
When you surround yourself with great people, it makes everyone better. That principle extends to our partners and customers as well. There is an inherent tension in our business in that the more we offer our customers, the more we impose costs on our installers. Being good partners, finding the right balance that works for everyone takes mutual respect and collaboration.
So there you have it, a few of my favorite bits of wisdom from history’s greatest minds. Something tells me they would appreciate knowing they are helping guide us on our mission to bring clean energy to all.
John Bumgarner is General Manager of Solar and Storage for Mosaic, a leading financing platform for U.S. residential solar and energy-efficient home improvements. Bumgarner is a longtime solar industry professional with nearly 15 years of experience managing new partner development and training, business intelligence and portfolio management.
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