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Is the club limited to hunters and farmers?

May 1, 2003 12:00 AM


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One of the generally accepted principles of sales management is that most salespeople tend to be either “hunters” or “farmers.” Hunters are categorized as salespeople who welcome and actually enjoy the thrill of identifying and selling new accounts, which is an activity that can be characterized by personal rejection.

Those who have never sold for a living tend to believe that all salespeople should be hunters — keep knocking on doors; the more and faster, the better. After all, isn't that the essence of selling?

Farmers are characterized as sales reps whose forte is the maintenance and growth of existing customers. They are commonly the objects of disdain by employees outside of the sales department, who tend to describe them as glorified customer service reps.

These characterizations are terribly simplistic and often unfair. Even leading industry employee-search firms have fallen into the trap of making hunter-vs.-farmer value judgments of personnel and applicants. These characterizations, if acted upon, can be counterproductive.

Great — but incorrect — theory

I get at least one phone call a week from a printer who is convinced that (a) a hunter represents the future of the company and (b) a farmer is hardly worthy of his/her compensation. The caller's next step is predictable: Reorganize the sales force to exploit the relative talents of these two groups. The hunter becomes responsible for identifying and selling a prospective account, and then the farmer maintains the account.

It's a great theory but runs afoul of several issues. For instance, how is compensation to be handled if the sales force is paid on commission? Would a switch to another salesperson be comfortable for customers? This theory also assumes that the stereotypes of hunter and farmer are correct.

The latter issue looms large. I am frequently asked about the biggest mistakes I observe in the hiring of salespeople. My answer:

  • The assumption that past success ensures future success. This can be a huge mistake: The marketplace and buying motives have fundamentally changed.

  • Confusing aggressiveness with sales success. The interviewer may fall into the trap of buying into the stereotype of the super-charged, highly motivated salesperson.

  • Unwillingness to invest in the skills development of salespeople. When press operators cannot adequately perform their jobs, they are hustled off to GATF (Sewickley, PA) or elsewhere to sharpen their skills. When a young salesperson has difficulty generating volume, the solution often involves a Zig Ziglar tape, an edict to make twice as many calls, and an inspiring story of another sales rep who showed up unannounced at a prospect on a rainy day and left with a $1 million order.

More and more, successful salespeople are versatile and able to tailor solutions specific to the needs of each customer. They do not formulate and rehearse all-purpose sales pitches, and their management does a disservice to both them and their customers if they are hired and managed based on a decades-old stereotype.

Beyond the hunter and the farmer

I am not suggesting that anybody can sell — or even enjoy selling. Instead, I suggest that the farmers-vs.-hunters theory has enough credibility to be dangerous but does not adequately consider the customers' needs. Many farmers have transformed into successful hunters through the help of a marketing or business-development professional who can assist with identifying and selling prospective accounts.

The reaction to the suggestion that help be extended to sales reps is frequently: “That's what I pay salespeople to do.” Yet the risks and opportunity costs of an unproductive salesperson are substantial. Everyone would like to hire a rep who is immediately productive and requires little or no maintenance. It might be easier to find a needle in a haystack.

Salespeople need the support, care and nurturing that is extended to other departments in the company. An enriched compensation program is not a meaningful substitute for daily communication, guidance and skills development. Like it or not, the world of sales management is rapidly changing — and the attributes of a successful salesperson must also change. Empathy, understanding the business world, the ability and willingness to work as a team, and the ability to comfortably sell at the top of a buying organization are important characteristics of today's successful sales rep. It's not as simple as hunters and farmers.