Hunter or Farmer? Does Social Media Have a Role in the Sales Cycle?

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by Shannon Paul on December 27, 2010

What makes a successful social media program? Awards? An engaging Twitter presence? Scores of Facebook fans? Lots of coverage in Mashable and speaking gigs on the conference circuit? Maybe. Many argue he (or she) who drives the most sales wins. Unless yours is a nonprofit, business, is still about having a healthy profit margin and even nonprofits need capital to fulfill their mission.

Even though neither metaphor does much to explain how food is produced these days, the hunter and the farmer is still widely used in sales departments to explain how tasks involved in the sales process are divided into those that support acquisition of new accounts, and retention activity focused on growing an existing account.

Peter Chee asked me about my thoughts on the hunter-farmer model a few weeks ago, so thanks to him for the inspiration to write this post.

The Hunter and the Farmer

Many sales departments have segmented the hunter and farmer responsibilities in ways that make logical sense:

  • Hunters find prospects, land appointments with decision makers and focus on closing deals.
  • Farmers grow relationships with potential customers through a consultative approach, provide service, etc.

Now, you might jump to the conclusion that anyone using social media should immediately adopt the role of the farmer, or that those who fulfill the role of farmer should use social media. Is it really so simple? Can a kinder, gentler sales approach make quota?

It’s true that those who engage in social media should listen and share first and allow customers, clients, stakeholders, etc. to discover you in a way that makes them want to buy — not because doing it any other way is wrong, but because this is the model that has been proven to gain the attention of others within these social networks in almost every scenario.

However, once you learn the rules of personal engagement, don’t think that’s all there is to this business of social media. If it were only so simple…

Networks are complicated and the path is anything but linear. Many in sales hardly think the hunter/farmer metaphor is apt for their own function within today’s economic environment.

Shortcomings of the Hunter-Farmer Sales Model

From Ann Bares’ summary of a report from Harvard Business Review report by Jerome Coletti and Mary Fiss:

  • Assumes selling to new customers is transactional rather than consultative (easy to “hand it off”)
  • Assumes skills required for the hunter and farmer business development roles are fundamentally different
  • Assumes there is more business to be had from new, rather than existing customers
  • Trivializes the cost of the hand-off from hunter to farmer
  • Disregards that the hunter may leave “loose ends” since they don’t have to deal with the consequences of on-going customer relationship

One could also argue that these assumptions are harmful when you take the approach of flipping these statements to imply the opposite with your social media presence. In social media should one never ask for a sale? Should transactional relationships be avoided even when they may benefit both parties? Is it easy to hand off a social media connection to other departments within your organization? Should it be?

What About the Buying Process?

Are hunters and farmers starving equally in a world connected via social networks? I love this comment from Andrew Rudin (scroll down to the comments) where he explains the problem with traditional models in this new space:

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.

What I believe Andrew is saying is that focusing on the buying process misses a lot of the circumstances, scenarios, behavior and individual demands that lead up to the buying process. If we’re only focusing on the buying process, we may be skipping over the first five chapters of the story.

Maybe in the past, the first five chapters in this story that led up to the buying process were boring exposition — today, they’re chock full of important data.

I’ve always maintained that the mechanized approaches to communication no longer work as well as they once did. Although there is still an important role for those mechanized, traditional approaches, we need to also make room for the new approaches that are more improvisational, more adaptive, proactive and iterative to stay relevant and competitive.

How Can Social Media Help Sales?

This question still matters. Is it about augmenting the popular hunter-farmer sales model with social media communication, or is it simply time to change the way we define the buying process altogether?

Photo Credit: Natalie Maynor

Comments on this entry are closed.

{ 17 comments }

December 28, 2010 Leah S.

Great read, Shannon. And very forward thinking. I’m in the process of launching my own site, so this is all heavy on my mind right now.

Interestingly, I ran across a tweet this morning that said something along the lines, “Everyone out here is wanting to sell something…doesn’t anyone just want to chat anymore?” And agreeably, I admit that I, too, grow tired of the constant sales spam…it can be overwhelming.

However, I also find myself constantly in the “Try it!” mode working to convince clients and friends how marketing friendly social media really can be…if they’ll just give it a try. You’d think I were a Facebook or Twitter representative, as much hawking as I do for them!

Social media and sales funnels and buying processes – so much has changed in the past 12-18 months, that it’s all really virgin territory at this point, isn’t it? I think your post may very well be exactly where enlightened conversation needs to start when considering how social media and sales can best be accomplished together, in an ethical and productive way.

Thanks, Shannon! And best wishes for the New Year!
Leah

December 28, 2010 Shannon Paul

Thanks so much, Leah.

I’ll admit when Peter asked me about this hunter-farmer model, I was fairly clueless, but with a little bit of explanation if makes sense. I hope we can have some good discussion around this — we all get a little tired of people trying to pitch us 24-7 via social channels, so we tune out. However, I think there is something to all this noise that actually leads people to the buying process in a roundabout way.

Like everything in this new space, the path is probably less than linear than most would prefer. Maybe the answer is just giving farmer types access to social tools… something tells me this is something worth trying (I, too am a give it a try type :), but I don’t think this is the juggernaut anyone is looking for. My experience in this space tells me it’s much more likely that we start changing the way we define the buying process than anything else. At least we have data to support that notion now if anyone is willing to start digging.

All the best to you, too! I’m looking forward to the new year :)

December 28, 2010 Ian Gilyeat

Nicely said… as much as I like the simplicity of the hunter/farmer idea it falls short of what happens in reality. Understanding the mechanics of the buying process is equally necessary but it misses too many nuances in the momentum of a deal. I happen to prefer the fundamentals of a relationship selling cycle; one in which you understand the need, construct a solution and sell future value. Within this broad construct is the ability to deal with transactions, systems and buying processes. Social media simply extends the relationship through use of some pretty cool technology…

December 29, 2010 Shannon Paul

Hi Ian – thanks for that :)

Social media simply extends the relationship through use of some pretty cool technology…

Very true – What I also think is happening is that the typical snapshot being examined and defined as “buying processes” or “relationship selling cycle” can be made a bit broader in terms of measurable social media activity.

I could be wrong, but I think there could be a lot of cool things happening outside our typical line of sight.

December 30, 2010 Peter Chee

Shannon, thanks for writing this. You have amazing insight in asking really good questions. I also really enjoyed the supporting links that you provided: “Can a Kinder, Gentler Sales 2.0 Rep Still Make Quota?”.

Shannon, you ask “Is it easy to hand off a social media connection to other departments within your organization?” My gut feeling based on experience is, no, it’s not easy to hand off. People do business with people that they trust. The trust was earned with the person that they purchased from. In my business, I repeatedly see my customers go back to Alyssa who was my Community Manager at the time. Even though she’s no longer in that role as she has now taken on the roll of Business Development Manager, the customers still go back to her.

When I look at my interaction with my vendors, I always go back to my Account Manager. It’s because the person that created the relationship has earned my trust. They always take care of me. Even though I have been handed off to the internal account manager who should be taking care of me — when the hits the fan, I always call up the person that I purchased from because the good one’s always take care of me.

I change who I do business with because of relationships. I think it’s all about the relationship and the buying process has clearly moved toward relationship based-sales.

Social media seems to be one channel that quickly enables or helps foster, cultivate, and maintain real relationships with people who happen to be your customers. I think of it as accelerated serendipity. It’s about having great customer service too which helps keep customers happy.

As for hunter or farmer? I feel the best kind of sales person is a mix of both. One who can create genuine relationships and have a goal crushing attitude. A person that can see things from a holistic perspective and understand that happy customers become advocates, who refer others to your business — customers who create more customers.

December 30, 2010 Shannon Paul

Thanks for the very meaty comment and the inspiration for the post!

I think this issue digs into something that has always been at the core of why social media integration is so frustrating — processes scale, people do not. I think the tools can provide a way of managing the messiness, but the concern about scale remains. Top performers will have an ever-increasing amount of demand placed on them since they’re the ones good at growing the relationships, but at what point does that break down? How many business relationships can one person manage?

December 30, 2010 Peter Chee

Yes, the scaling of the relationships is impossible as people do not scale. However, if the customer service experience with the hand-off to the internal account manager is exceptional then it’s possible to retain the customer. The other thing that seems to be required are systems and process that can help automate account management. Reminders to touch base with customers every 30, 60, 90 days goes a long ways…

January 19, 2011 Amy Garland

While it shouldn’t be easy to hand off a client to another department, I think it can be successfully done. All departments – community, sales & account management – must be on the same page and put building relationships first. Our CEO at Blue Sky Factory (Greg Cangialosi) often stresses the notion of “being there before the sale” to the team. Hopefully, with a social-savvy, friendly, sharp team, there will be a successful hand off. I will note that the social media relationship isn’t *always* as strong after our community to sales or account management hand off, but the relationship itself remains strong. We still send thank you notes, etc, and do most of the communication via email and phone.

But, yes, I definitely think social media has a role in the sales cycle. Sometimes – depending on the relationship and the prospect – the community manager may need to be much more involved in the sale.

Great article!

Amy Garland
Marketing Manager, Blue Sky Factory

December 31, 2010 Nick Stamoulis

Well the way I see it, social media is the way to engage possible clients, and current clients, keep them in the know, and eventually they will affect the sales cycle. You have to sort of put the bottom line on the back burner with social media and focus on the customer, their needs, engaging with them, as odd as it sounds, less focus on the bottom line and more focus on the other areas.

January 6, 2011 adam

I’m sorry I clicked on this article expecting to get some insight as to how social media is being used in the sales cycle and instead got a definition as to the Hunter/Farmer sales approach.

This might be the worst titled blog post I have ever read.

Although the content is fine it has very little to do with the actual title.

Shame on you for wasting my time.

Adam

January 6, 2011 Crystal Thies

Shannon,

Great article! While you did spend a significant amount of time explaining what is meant by hunting and farming from a sales sense, many people are still not aware of those terms even though they use the strategies every day. As a social media strategist and LinkedIn consultant, I specialize in social media for sales and business development and regularly use those terms. It’s amazing how many blank stares I still get talking to very accomplished sales people.

I think that this is a very important issue. Social media is great at building awareness, but does not naturally drive sales. It fits in perfectly with the farming mentality of planting seeds, building exposure and credibility and attracting clients. However, if you don’t ever “harvest” your crop – or hunt – you’re never going to be successful.

Too many people think that all they have to do is build networks, engage and people will be knocking on their door to give them money. The problem is that farming strategies tend to lull people into a common problem – they never ask for a sale.

There does come a point where you do have to harvest and hunt, which are the sales tasks that many people don’t like to do. Social media has almost given sales people an excuse that they shouldn’t have to.

I teach people how to hunt in LinkedIn every day. However, hunting in social media is not the same thing as cold calling, spamming and blasting messages until you’ve annoyed most people. It’s about understanding your target market, conducting effective searches to find them, seeing how you are connected to the prospect and then LEVERAGING your existing relationships in order to get in front of them and begin to build a relationship.

A truly effective business development strategy in social media needs to include both hunting and farming tactics. I see too many people spending a lot of time growing crops that then rot in the fields.

These are two very important concepts that people need to understand how to apply effectively to social media. Thanks so much for the insight and for bringing them into the light of day!

Crystal

January 7, 2011 John Balla

Hi Shannon,

Interesting post here – I like your thinking, but I’ll offer a slightly different take that takes into account both the hunter and the farmer.

Whether it’s B2C, B2B or whatever, people buy from people. And people prefer to deal with people they LIKE. So how do you get someone to like you? Just be yourself, care about other people and show them some respect, and one way or another it will happen. The “just be yourself” part happens to be a hallmark of social media – transparency and authenticity are key. The same goes for sales and relationships in general.

January 20, 2011 Mark - largest plr seller

When we update a business message on social network, people inside your network may not aware of your product or service. You make them aware with this text message and out of all your connections in your network, some becomes prospects which means you have identified people be a good fit for your business. Then, when you identify them, you have to take steps to see who among these prospects are genuinely ready to become customers and enter the lead process (up to this, the process of sales guy finishes).
After this, the person becomes a customer and you turn up to the farmer’s job to facilitate him good experiences with your product/service they’ve purchased.

February 4, 2011 Jeff Molander

Yes. But we’re constantly being told “Likes are the goal, not sales. ” Spreading product images and words across the Web are the goal, NOT sales… nor should we be leading customers toward them (leads).

Social media is about selling. Not can be, is. We’re witnessing it. No, not Dell, Zappos and Blendtec. I’ve been researching many others as part of a book project. Many are *quietly* using social to sell. Some to the tune of Twitter producing six-figure clients. (Avaya http://bit.ly/giv9Q7)

I’m not sure that the hunter/gatherer debate is a very practical one. Thoughtful? Yes. But not so practical IMHO.

Because successful social sellers are using *publishing* approaches. Not debating theory. They’re selling more, more often, with social by being *useful* to prospects. And publishing relevant tools… providing helpful information to customers that fit their buying contexts. Yes, they “listen” to do that but is that really a new “good selling” concept?

Socially successful sellers are designing marketing processes that guide customers toward destinations they choose – their products and services. Again, also known as direct response marketing. Lead nurturing.

I’ve found that there are 3 practical success principles that always get results: Focusing social media marketing on behavior, translating customers’ evolving needs, and publishing useful tools and services. That’s how social media sells. In a practical sense.

Lately, I’m uncovering stories that teach us how to start reaching beyond listening to customers — translating their evolving needs. Then prompting customers to “signal” what they’re most interested in, when, where and why — leading to more leads and sales. Companies from Intuit down to little guys like PetRelocation.com and Logan Services (residential HVAC) are selling on Facebook, generating leads using content marketing, etc.

February 4, 2011 Justice Marshall

I recently enjoyed reading the Little House on the Prairie series to my kids. Charles “Pa” Ingles is a farmer. He’s also a hunter. He responds intelligently to his environment, drawing on a range of experience and skills. Because he understands hunting AND farming he’s resilient and adaptable, able to provide for his family in a variety of (sometimes harsh) conditions.

February 19, 2011 Kevin Samolis

Favorite quote “However, once you learn the rules of personal engagement, don’t think that’s all there is to this business of social media. If it were only so simple…”

Thanks for an engaging article that demonstrates complexity of marketing.

March 31, 2011 Sebastian

Excellent post! Great information! Thank you!! @sebrusk

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