| | | Effective PR

Contact-us Interruptus. Or why the hunter-farmer model of sales organisations is flawed.

Bryan Edwards

When customers spend months working with a salesman who works hard to understand their business and to tailor products and services to their specific needs, companies often cancel that relationship in favour of transferring the customer to someone with none of that understanding of the company, the product fit and, of course, the individuals involved. The question is this: does this hangover from the 1980s have a place in the modern sales environment?

In the 1980s, the heyday for "gurus" and their self-help books on every management topic, two "statistics" came up over and over again:

1) it costs five (or any figure up to twenty depending on which writer was making his own particular point) to get a new customer than it does to keep an existing one; and

2) a satisfied customer tells eight people, a dissatisfied customer tells 20.

Those two combined should create one simple rule: sing along with Simon "Keep the customer satisfied," also to be interpreted as "don't piss off the customer."

To paraphrase those who misquote Sun Tzu, "keep your prospects close and your customers closer."

Why then do companies deliberately break that relationship?

The theory is that those who originate accounts are hunters, that they are driven by the thrill of the chase, that a new prospect will always distract from those that have gone before; that hunters are predatory, inherently insincere, promiscuous. Hunters, the theory goes, are just in it for a quick shag in a dirty nightclub toilet, not interested in marriage; even, the theory goes, if they were to be in a long-term relationship, they would neglect it when the chance of deflowering a new prospect arises and, even more, the chance of taking someone else from an established relationship because hunters, the theory goes, are always looking to stick it to someone else's farmers.

Farmers are supposed to nurture those that the hunters have delivered to their den.

Both are supposed to be "closers" but, say supporters of maintaining the difference, farmers take longer to get to "yes."

But, is that necessarily true? And even if it's true, is it desirable?

If you are selling white goods, then fine: it's all one-night stands, sell a washing machine, try to up-sell to include a tumble dryer and "has madam thought about the savings if you take the latest, more efficient ovens? I can do a great deal on a bundle." Or, if the customer is a man "look at all these knobs and they all do something." It's a yes / no proposition, sell now or lose the deal. But that's not how it is in corporate sales other than plant and machinery and, even then, there are service contracts to consider and, as manufacturers have found, by automating more which is controlled by proprietary software, service can be made to pay when fixing something mechanical would be cheap and easy, within the customer's own skill-set.

Hell, in the 1980s, photocopier salesmen would pester small businesses to buy "a copying system" which, if they could be persuaded to tell the truth, amounted to a deal to churn the existing lease agreement into a new one that, over its life, would cost more while the business still made the same number of ordinary copies, regardless of the features of the machine. Then the salesmen would come back every two years (out of a five year agreement) to repeat the process.

That was a giant con but it showed that hunters and farmers are not, necessarily, competing functions: the salesman adopted the principle of "Know Your Customer," and was able to use it to his own advantage. Is there any good reason why that same principle is thrown away rather than used to build a symbiotic relationship between the salesman and the customer and those who work there?

Segregating hunters and farmers takes away another of those 1980s expressions: "eat what you kill." Instead it turns it into "take one bite out of it and hand it over; then the rest of us will drive you off, we will feed on it, we will not share the kill, no matter how much it grows."

Pure farmers are essentially parasitic.

In days of plenty, hunters get to eat and they feed stock to the farmers who, without the pressure of relationship-building, are credited with success for renewals and lauded for new sales to the hot leads provided to them. Mostly they don't have to nurture, they just have to not screw up; mostly, the only pressure they face is when a competitor's hunter tries to raid their stock-yard. And while farmers are armed with some defences, they are rarely as talented in their use as the hunters who brought in the stock anyway.

But in times of famine, hunters are left out in the cold, scavenging for scraps - and even then having to turn over the prospect of future feeds to farmers who are already living high on the hog from times of plenty. And when the hungry hunter comes to the door, empty handed, he is turned away, told that it's his job to provide, not to share.

2020 has been a time of famine in many industries; it's not only that businesses are economically vulnerable (although that is a major factor), it's that decision makers are hidden behind the firebreak that being away from the office telephone system brings. Actually, and ironically, as PR departments blast out announcements about the digitisation of their businesses, the thing barely anyone has thought of is to divert the phones on their desks to a phone they can use while working from home (or wherever they have located themselves). Equally, they seem to have abolished telephone answering devices: once they were renamed "voicemail" they became disposable items of fashion, not business tools with longevity. All of this means is that hunters literally cannot contact prospects unless they have an e-mail address.

Easy, some say: use LinkedIn. Well, LinkedIn stopped, some time ago, allowing access to the e-mail addresses of users unless they elect to put them into the text of their profiles. Those that do, rarely use corporate accounts. How about messaging? Many people are fed up with marketing within messaging and will block sales people rather than reply, especially if it's obvious that the message is not accurately tailored. And those messages that start "how are you today, I hope you are fine, I have found your esteemed company...." Nope: they go in the bin without further reading.

Hunters can't cold call by turning up at offices: CoVid-19 policies mean that appointments must be made; so no, Mr X, even if he's in the building, will not be taking a lift down to the lobby to meet you. Bog off and take your potentially killer-virus carrying business card and/or brochure with you. Hunters are placed on performance reviews, told that they must meet targets that do not take in the reality that new accounts are as rare as hen's teeth.

In short, in today's business to business climate, the insistence on a hunter-only model with adverse consequences for failure is tantamount to constructive dismissal. Worse, in the meantime, it's mental abuse. Claims for damages arising from the tort of failing to take adequate care of the well-being of employees is a trend waiting to happen - and that's before health and safety officers work it out and start criminal prosecutions. The stresses of working from home are hugely amplified by the hunter-only model - and management's insistence on it is the mental equivalent of a Guantanamo Bay stress position. Bring on the dogs, cut my hair, piss on me, make me squat for hours with my hands on my head. What do you expect me to do when no one will pick up my calls? It's inhumane - and it's bad business practice.

Combining the hunter and the farmer have many advantages to the salesman and to his employer.

Sure, as in all relationships, there are challenges in keeping the passion alive but in good relationships, passion mutates into respect and enduring mutual satisfaction. There are ups and downs, times when tearing each other's back open are interspersed with slobbing in front of the telly with a cup of tea and a bag of crisps, both pleasurable and effective in their own way.

Sales is seduction; the one who is left when consummation is done, the one left in the wet patch that represents the aftermath of the deed, feels unwanted after all. It is not in the interest of the customer that someone else comes in to mop up and, maybe, to have sloppy seconds. And it is hardly surprising that many customers don't want to go a second round and, instead, listen to the next hunter who promises to nurture them, to cuddle afterwards.

It is in everyone's interest that those who make the initial sale maintain the relationship, not so much as hunter/farmer as going back to an even earlier time than the 1980s.

A time in which people would reap what they sow, that a salesman plants his seed and watches it grow, blossom and bear fruit which is then harvested for the benefit of all concerned. It is the function of companies to ensure that they provide fertile soil, not to intervene in a natural process unless it shows signs of blight. A customer should not be cut back and transplanted onto a different hunter unless the original hunter leaves or utterly neglects his post. Those customers that have been grafted away from their original hunter should, especially in difficult times, be re-attached to whence they came.

Customers and salespeople should remain in a relationship until it fails. And let no man(ager) put asunder.


Bryan Edwards has managed sales teams since the mid 1970s.

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