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Sales for Startups: Hunters, Farmers, What?


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I recently had a conversation with an entrepreneur about what type of salesperson to hire first: a hunter or a farmer. As a bit of background, the startup in question has a heavy service component with fairly long implementation cycles. So, I was glad that at least this person was thinking more broadly about the question of what type of role is more important, rather than default to hiring a VP of sales or some prototypical sales jockey. Still, I was troubled by the distinction between hunters and farmers.

I was planning on launching into a longish series on the leads process. However, the question of sales hiring is quite relevant when thinking about lead generation. At some point you are going to have to staff, and success will largely rest on whether you hire the people with the right skills and temperament to handle what is a high-stress, high-rejection role that often seems thankless and unrewarding for most folks.

Back to the question of hunters and farmers, though. When presented the analogy of hunters vs. farmers in sales, it immediately calls to mind particular traits. Hunters are the risk takers, the aggressive ones, and the type to pounce on any opportunity. Farmers are the patient ones, the analyzers, and the type to cultivate relationships to develop opportunities. As such, many companies staff their new business “closers” with hunters while those that manage existing client relationships are staffed with farmers. The thinking is that the hunter profile is better suited for “hunting” brand new customers and the farmer profile is more suited to longer-term relationship-building activities that open up new opportunities with existing accounts.

Frankly, this type of thinking is sorely outdated and potentially disastrous to your sales objectives. The flaw is apparent when you consider that such an artificial construct:

  • Engenders a transactional mindset in the new business sales team
  • Introduces miscommunication between the implementation team and customers
  • Distorts incentives and compensation structures across sales
  • Confuses characteristics of new business sales with that of lead generation sales

In essence, those hunters are about the worst characteristics you want on a sales team if you are trying to foster a customer-centric, consultative selling environment. Particularly in startups, you need sales to not just seal the deal, but also take ownership for driving the success of the solution implementation. These are your account managers! Whatever they sell beforehand is what they are on the hook for during delivery. It also ensures that customers have one person to reach when there are difficulties or issues to be addressed. Call it the proverbial “one throat to choke.”

The other thing, however, is that those folks that are both closing deals and managing the process post-sales are highly skilled, high-priced, high value resources. What these people do, when they do their jobs well, can literally accelerate the growth of your startup beyond anything else. They are bagging the big deals and making damn sure that it is a win-win for both your company and the customer. Therefore, it is important to understand that making these folks cold call and prospect is about the poorest possible use of resources ever.

If I ever do drop down into the hunters and farmers analogy, it is in explaining what lead generation is and how it is different than field or inside sales. The latter close deals and own customer relationships. The former, however, research targeted accounts, churn through leads both inbound and outbound and qualify leads before passing the promising ones off to sales. These folks are drowning in rejection day in and day out, in the hopes of finding enough high quality leads that could eventually be converted into closed business. They are the true hunters of the sales organization. This is not to say that sales reps do not prospect, but that tends to be a small amount of the time. The bulk of the leads should originate out of the lead gen team.

But what about the question of who to hire first? Do you hire the farmer or the hunter? Instead of relying upon false archetypes, let’s frame the question as sales rep or lead gen rep. If you are really early on and only have a handful of customers, get a sales rep, one that is not just about closing deals, but can also have a consultative mindset. Face it: there is no point in lead gen if there is no one around to close the deals that come in. Soon after closing a few more deals, however, it makes sense to get someone that can help generate leads to feed the first sales rep. If your team is closing deals just fine, however, you might consider bringing on a lead gen person to build up the pipeline until you have enough business to bring on a sales rep.

The lesson here is not to simply fall into the simplicity of tired models used to describe sales. Figure out what exactly you need help with; then hire to fill that role. And remember that, as a startup, whoever you hire needs to be super resourceful as well, given the constraints on money and staff and time. That consideration alone should sway you from the false hunters vs. farmers dichotomy. What you don’t need is a “whine and bitch salesperson” when you are really looking for a “get shit done” salesperson.

This article was originally published on Strong Opinions, a blog by Birch Ventures for the NYC tech startup community.

Image credit: CC by Matt Lemmon

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About the author: Mark Birch

Mark is an early stage technology investor and entrepreneur based in NYC. Through Birch Ventures, he works with a portfolio of early stage B2B SaaS technology startups providing both capital and guidance in the areas of marketing, sales, strategic planning and funding.

  • Bill Hayden

    Hi Mark, thank you for the article. I agree with some of the things you say, but I have to respectfully disagree with you that the old paradigm of hunters vs farmers is a “false dichotomy”. No doubt you want everyone in your company to have a vested interest in the success of every customer from start to finish (or ongoing). And, I agree with the reality that with a start-up, you don’t have unlimited resources and therefore the sales person needs to be resourceful and not necessarily be a specialist in either hunting or farming, but to be able to do both. That said however, the skills needed in hunting and farming are different, and I think it would be a mistake to assume that specialization of hunting vs farming is an old outdated model that is without value. For a start-up most of the new business will be with new clients. For that, you need the skills of a “hunter”. But, as the business grows, more business will come from within existing accounts. For that, you need the skills of a “farmer”. As a business owner, these skill sets are the assets you need to employ to get the greatest return on investment. Most salespeople are better at one or the other, depending on their skills. And, if I have a salesperson who is more skilled at getting new clients than managing existing clients, that’s what I want them to be doing. Otherwise, if that salesperson is busy spending time managing existing accounts, then I am missing out on getting more new clients. That doesn’t mean they have to be disconnected from the successful delivery of the service or growth within the account after the initial sale. That’s where you need to have the right people and the right incentives. Yes, that requires a more complicated system, but so what? The opposite of matching the right skills to the right job to grow the business would be what I call “entrepreneur’s disease”. Most entrepreneurs go into business because they are really good at doing what they do, and because of that they have a hard time “letting go” and letting someone else do it. By following that line of thinking, you limit the growth of your company. I think a lot depends on the type of product or service you are selling and the goals for the business. But, I think the sales model that employs a hunting vs farming methodology has high value if used in the right place, at the right time, in the right way.

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