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

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{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

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!


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…


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.


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