Hunter and farmers – it’s time to change sales strategy – A STC Classic

A Classic - '63 Corvette

The Hunter-Farmer framework has been used for a very long time to configure sales forces.  The idea is to designate a group of sales people as Hunters – responsible for generating business in new accounts.  A second group is assigned to the Farmer role – charged with maintaining and growing the business in existing accounts.

In today’s economic environment, characterized by uncertainty and keen competition, this ancient agrarian dichotomy has as much to do with sales success as it does with bountiful food production.  Today, in most industries – in most companies, everyone has to develop new business in their existing accounts and aggressively seek out new accounts.

Let’s examine some of the reasons why it has become increasingly important to find a better way to organize a sales force and then explore a couple of ideas for transitioning to a more effective business development configuration.

First, some reasons why change might be in order:

  • Transformation of Productive Farmers to Gentleman Farmers. Gentleman farmers tend to become comfortable and often fail to explore new opportunities in their existing accounts.  The result is a lot of money is left on the table.
  • Correlated with the first problem is the fact your competitors’ Hunters will not ignore your existing accounts. And, their Hunters will all too often out sell your Farmers.  So your existing account base is eroded.  
  • Hunter fatigue emerges because hunting is tough. When someone spends 100% of his/her time hunting, burn out often occurs – conflict with Farmers can emerge – or Hunters get really good and leave to hunt for someone else.
  • Hunter-farmer handovers can make for difficult transitions. After a Hunter closes an account, they transfer that account to a designated Farmer.  The problem is relationships in the customer organization are not easy to transfer so a lot of relationships have to be rebuilt.

Is it time to make a shift?  Maybe!  If the timing and circumstances are right, then the question is how to make the transition as smooth as possible. No such transition is easy, so leadership, planning, and communication are critical.  In addition, a few management best practices are worth considering:

  • Remember the power of other specializations. The suggestion of doing away with the Hunter-Farmer distinction does not mean that sales force specialization in general is a bad idea.  In larger sales forces, the use of Global Account Managers, Strategic Account Managers, Major Account Managers, and Product Support Specialists usually proves to be very effective.
  • Review administrative considerations. Two areas are particularly important for the transition.  Getting the compensation system and territory coverage model right are critical for the transition to be implemented successfully.
  • Consider additional training and coaching. First, it is important that the entire sales force, including all the old Hunters and Farmers, have a common sales process.  In addition, it is likely that the X-Farmers will, in particular, need to upgrade their selling skills.  It is also a good idea, at first, to focus the coaching effort on X-Farmers.
  • Establish a hunting day. It is easy to fall back on old habits.  So, establish one day in the week when the entire sales force is expected to be hunting for new business.  This is particularly important right after the transition to establish a new expectation – over time perhaps less structure can be employed.

The idea of using a Hunter-Farmer model has been on the scene for at least 25 years.  Think back to 1986 – Microsoft had its first public offering and the Dow Jones was at a December high of 1955.  Things have change, so maybe it is time for a change.

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©2011 Sales Horizons™, LLC

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About Richard Ruff

For more than 30 years Dr. Richard Ruff and Dr. Janet Spirer - the founders of Sales Horizons - have worked with the Fortune 1000 - such as UPS, Canon USA, Smith & Nephew, Boston Scientific, Owens & Minor, Textron - to design and develop sales training programs. During his career Dick has authored numerous articles related to sales effectiveness and co-authored "Managing Major Sales", a book about sales management, "Parlez-Vous Business" which helps sales people integrate the language of business into the sales process, and "Getting Partnering Right" – a research based work on the best practices for forming strategic selling alliances. Dr. Ruff received his Ph.D. in Organizational Psychology from the University of Tennessee and a B.S. from Rennsselaer Polytechnic Institute.
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