Sales Hunters and Farmers Will Starve in a Sales 2.0 World

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Despite centuries of discovery, salespeople are still cast in ancient agrarian terms as “hunters” or “farmers.” Organizations value aggressive hunters who dote on Big Corporate Game, compete for new major accounts, and ink million-dollar-plus deals. Hunt. Kill. Carve. Eat. Drool! Farmers, on the other hand, are installed-account focused. They’re patient, nurturing, and empathetic. Vision, without as much saliva. Even still, farmers are expected to grow cash crops, not weeds. Could any sales organization survive without them? The better question is can they survive with them, because these metaphors are dying. Today, such simplification no more reflects sales than it does food production.

In the context of socially-empowered customers, thinking “hunters and farmers” jams salespeople into roles they can’t adequately fill, and forces processes that don’t match how customers buy. Why? Because social media that fuels socially-empowered customers has fragmented communication into many pieces, and selling responsibilities have fragmented along with it. Just twenty years ago, holding conversations with customers was an almost-inviolable domain of the sales force. Not anymore. And we’re just beginning to understand that buying processes are in fact, complex social processes. Social buying needs social selling, and vice-versa.

This fragmentation yields a related problem—no longer can a hunter/farmer assemble a target-account sales puzzle single handedly. It’s hard enough when the pieces aren’t moving. Try doing it when they are. Nothing in sales remains static. An article by Tuba Ustuner and David Godes, (Better Sales Networks, Harvard Business Review, July-August, 2006) says it best: “The salesperson’s job changes over the sometimes lengthy course of the selling process, with each phase requiring its own particular set of abilities. The skills involved in finding a lead don’t apply to, say, closing a deal. Moreover, each stage requires the salesperson to build and use a different kind of social network.”

If different social networks underpin different phases of the buying process, it’s not safe to assume that sales methods based on “individual contributor” hunter/farmers can support those processes. The multiple social network idea Ustuner and Godes describe begs many questions:



Do sales executives need to challenge the long-held view that selling is about managing deals? Instead, is it more about managing networks?

If so, are we identifying and rewarding the requisite sales competencies?

Does the authors’ observation change the definition of the “end-to-end sales process?”

If social media enables malleable buying processes and social networks, do we need similarly malleable sales processes, technologies, and sales teams?

Can sales organizations innovate new strategies that embed customer-centric engagement?

For the answer to the last question, it took none other than GM, former paragon of ossified thinking, to show us true innovation. Though the company’s experiment to sell cars through e-Bay flopped, GM recognized that buyer needs might be better supported by looking at their sales process differently. According to Rob Chesney, VP of eBay Motors, GM wanted to know “if we offer consumers a new way to interact with the purchase of a car, would they engage?” Who could imagine GM asking that even one year ago?

Engage they did. The program generated 1.5 million visits to a dedicated section of eBay’s website, and 15,000 leads for California dealers. But GM ran into a pothole: the engagers failed to buy, and for now, GM is trying to understand the reasons. Although GM postponed further implementation of the program to 2010, Mr. Chesney believes “there is a real proposition that we can build upon there.”

Failure or not, GM’s eBay initiative is significant for heralding another legacy sales process cracking under its own weight. Changing the status quo in sales is always fraught with risk, but GM and other companies are proving that there’s nothing sacrosanct about tried-and-true. There has never been a better time to consider the question whether buyer needs are best supported by an “individual contributor”—whether hunter or farmer. Social selling has become too complex for any one individual to perform.

Further Reading:



Can a Kinder, Gentler Sales 2.0 Rep Still Make Quota?, by Anneke Seley

Thoughts on Sales 2.0 from Lee Levitt, by Chad Levitt

Five Steps to Real Customer Centricity, by Graham Hill

8 COMMENTS

  1. Andy,

    In a blog post I published a few months back (http://ultimatesalesexecresource.blogspot.com/2009/01/what-is-wrong-with-hunter-farmer.html)
    I came to similar conclusions although I approached the problem from a little different angle.

    Thank you for also including the reference to Anneke Seely’s post. In a way she also wondered about your first question: “Do sales executives need to challenge the long-held view that selling is about managing deals, but instead, it’s about managing networks?”. As she describes, there are still aggressive executives in the real world who believe in hunting as a source of success.

    I think, as with so many other things, there is no universal answer.
    I just recently looked at Kraljics’s purchasing model again (http://www.12manage.com/methods_kraljic_model.html)to find a differentiated answer. Especially when you sell offerings considered as “Bottleneck Items”, hunter tactics might still work. For all the other areas, I would imagine, that those times are over.

    Thanks for the thought provoking article.

  2. Thanks, Christian. Not more than an hour after I read your comment, I found this posting for a “hunter” on a job board. Here’s a part of the description:

    Job title: Sales Manager. “You will generate sales leads, develop and expand relationships with key decision makers and will develop, manage and execute sales strategies to penetrate accounts and close sales! We expect that you will develop a robust pipeline of sales opportunities directly and through the VAR channel. You will support the proposal process (RFI’s and RFP’s), as required. You must possess excellent interpersonal and sales skills, be mentally agile and possess strong communication skills.”

    It will be interesting to learn how the selected hire fares after six months, assuming the company can find the person they’re looking for.

  3. Maybe I’m just going brain dead but I am having trouble seeing the problem as you describe it. Let me approach this starting with your first question.

    Do sales executives need to challenge the long-held view that selling is about managing deals? Instead, is it more about managing networks?

    If you are in a sales process with a company you must manage that deal or process. In traditional terms you are, and least in larger scale sales working with multiple people in the organization and they in return are probably working with multiple people in yours.

    You now ask about managing networks. My first question would be what network? Are you changing the buying team to a network? Or are you talking about other networks as in a social media sense, say a LinkedIn network?

    If you are simply changing the name how does that change the process? And if you talking about an external network of some type social or otherwise how does that change what is occurring in the sales process.

    Social media is simply and advance in communication and facilitates more exposure and access to individuals. When used properly it empowers one to communicate and connect with more people more easily. This is simply and additional asset to the selling process — how does it change it?

    Selling is about solving problems. A well defined sales process will guide the salesperson through key steps in identification of problems WITH the prospect and then help the salesperson build with the prospect the best possible solution.

    How is this changed in a significant way by a customer being socially-empowered. He was socially empowered before just with less technology.

    In my opinion the more crucial problem in selling is the disappearance of the unique selling proposition. Empowering communication only empowers both the seller and the buyer — it’s what you do with it that counts.

    And just as speaking on a phone versus speaking in person doesn’t change the words or concepts in the conversation I don’t see how you change the sales process with social technology other than to make a new method for finding that potential client — but that’s not sales — that’s marketing or prospecting.

    I would love to know how you think the actual process of selling – closing the deal has been changed.

  4. Hi Flyn: thanks for your questions. Writer Denis Diderot said “All things must be examined, debated, investigated without exception and without regard for anyone’s feelings.” Similarly, I appreciate your challenging the ideas in this blog.

    Ever since I’ve worked in the selling field (over twenty years) we’ve approached selling problems in a fundamentally consistent way:

    “Find out the pain points.”
    “Learn what keeps the customer up at night.”
    “It’s about finding problems, and providing solutions for them.”

    Good advice that works–but not always. When I review my own wins and losses, and consider the ones that I’ve analyzed for others, I’ve learned that many selling activities fail on not clearly understanding the buying process–more accurately, not understanding the social networks that facilitate buying processes. To address your point, I’m not changing the buying team to a network, the buying team is a network. Usually, though, we’re only asking “how does the buying process work?” –which is only part of the question. The answers were getting back (if any) leave us shortchanged sales-wise.

    If we’re looking at the sales process through a solve-the-problem-first lens, we subordinate a key question that must be addressed “how does the target organization transfer value internally and externally?” Answering that question requires thinking about people and their social connections–not just processes and technology. I’ve stubbed my toes on more sales opportunities in which I got around to asking that question late in the sales process. More than anything else, I view Sales 2.0, or social selling, as an approach that gives primacy to understanding valuable social links in an organization, and then learning about what types of business opportunities are being discussed in those communications.

    That’s a fundamentally different view than the more traditional approach of “find out what keeps the customer up at night,” followed by “how do they buy?” In that sense, “farmers” who understand their prospect’s buying networks will fare better than the problem-focused “hunters,” who constantly struggle to “get in front of a decision maker.” But maintaining an “individual contributor” mentality won’t help either succeed. Social selling is about collaboration.

  5. The network part sounds a lot more like lead generation to me than it does Sales. A complex sales process and relationship isn’t going to change too much in my opinion. Sure, we’ll have new tools to engage. But, who’s going to give up that personal touch for something less tangible? A company that already operates in a customer-centric way already gets it and always has. It works. What is it exactly that’s going to change for them, a successful customer-centric business?

    This Social stuff…is it here and have things changed, or are we just speculating because of all the hype and related investment capital (in the hype)? Honestly, I’ve been trying to see it but I talk to sales people all the time and the topic isn’t coming up except in blogs; including mine 🙂

    Mike Boysen
    Effective CRM

  6. Personally, I believe that the article is looking at the diversity of information that is required by the sales force today, since the amount of product diversity has narrowed significantly. Like it or not the consumer is much more savy- and has less channeled and organized streams of product comparison. This makes it much harder for either the Farmer or Hunter to go after the order. It is an entire company function to place themselves in the right position to sell now a days. There has to be much more coordination between sales team members, customer support networks AND marketing in order to sell. It’s not just the job of the salesman to get the order- It’s the companies responsibility to position the company and coordinate the sale, much more than ever before.

    Thats at least what I took away from it…:)

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