Hunter vs. Farmer – A Contrarian View

You’ve all seen it.  A recruiter posts a job listing for a sales person and it starts off “We’re looking for a real “hunter” to go and find us new business!”  The concepts of “hunter” and “farmer” is so ingrained in our sales culture that we use the terms much too loosely.  In fact, it’s possible that these terms are so incorrectly used that the true definitions could be the exact opposite of what is intended.

What are the qualities of a great “hunter” sales rep?  When you consider that description, it typically depicts a sales person who can go out and close new business from scratch – using their tools of the trade to make lots of cold calls, build relationships and drive new business where no business existing previously.  And the farmer is the person that hates all that tough work of prospecting, and is much better at upselling existing customers to generate new business.

Now, let’s think about what a true hunter does.  They take their tools of the trade and go out – typically in well known locations – and kill in order to satisfy one of our most basic needs (food).  Of course, you could focus on people that hunt for pleasure vs. necessity; I would argue that the motivation and results are similar.  Contrast that to a farmer, who plants seeds, tends and cares his garden, and (if all was done properly) he will have a lush garden of food several months down the line.

So, why do enterprise software companies want hunters?  Are they interested in sales reps who can quickly “kill” their customers with a quick close that will be used to satisfy a short term need (e.g. cash) but with no long term benefits?  Or do they want farmers – people that will plant lots of seeds (e.g. prospects) with the hope of a large harvest down the road (e.g. large, repeatable sales and customers)?  Ok, I get it – the hunter analogy can apply to the sales person who makes a lot of cold calls – since a hunter is typically looking for their prey in a large open area, not sure exactly where they will be.  But a smart hunter focuses in on the smallest area possible to provide him with the best outcome, and isn’t that also what a farmer does?  In fact, if anything, the farmer is a great example of a targeted market segment – going after a very specific area that you feel confident will give you the best returns.

To conclude, a successful software startup looking for repeatable sales needs to (a) focus their efforts on the right customer base, (b) plant lots of seeds in that base, and (c) see where the opportunity is most lush, then tend it vigorously.  It seems to me these are the attributes of a farmer, not a hunter.   It also seems to me that the hunters go for the large kill that can last for a while, whereas the farmer looks for sustainable results.  In this economy, I’m not sure that the large kills are really large enough anymore.  Sustainability and repeatability are key, and great farmers excel at this.

  • Adam

    Seems to me that no one wants to be called a farmer. Is there any trade more provincal than a farmer? I agree that the farmer analogy as the better for what you are looking for in a sales team, but hunter is just too evocative of the agressive “winner” attitude in which I think people want to view themselves.

  • Adam

    Seems to me that no one wants to be called a farmer. Is there any trade more provincal than a farmer? I agree that the farmer analogy as the better for what you are looking for in a sales team, but hunter is just too evocative of the agressive “winner” attitude in which I think people want to view themselves.

  • Good point Adam – and perception is certainly important, especially in sales. I would argue that results are what matter – you can call me whatever you want if I’m profitable and generating lots of positive cash flow (e.g. commission!).

    And of course, the well-known documentation of humans transferring from hunter/gatherers to farmers (e.g. http://bit.ly/aePJ5G) – evolution shows repeatability is more sustainable and profitable.

  • Good point Adam – and perception is certainly important, especially in sales. I would argue that results are what matter – you can call me whatever you want if I’m profitable and generating lots of positive cash flow (e.g. commission!).

    And of course, the well-known documentation of humans transferring from hunter/gatherers to farmers (e.g. http://bit.ly/aePJ5G) – evolution shows repeatability is more sustainable and profitable.

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  • guest

    Scott – In searching for insights into why hunters & farmers job descriptions are so alike (and why I – a hunter – ended up in a farming job), I came across your blog from last year.  What baffles me is the number of companies who believe growing & prospecting an existing an account for new opportunities is “hunting”.  For hunters, the large kills exist – the compensation plans, however, are not as rewarding as they were during the Dot.COM boom.

    • Hi – I recommend you read a more current post – http://www.topicsoft.com/topicblog/mavericks-and-journeyman – which states that hunter and farmer are the wrong terms to use for startup software folks – and that you should use Mavericks and Journeyman – for the reasons you state.  Just because you are growing something new, doesn’t magically make you a hunter. 

      Similarly, you should look at what the company where you ended up as a farmer was really looking for – I will tell you that I would not setup a compensation plan that paid somebody more for a single, large kill than a greater number of smaller kills – the key to success in today’s market is repeatability – so I would look for people that can find a pattern and close many accounts, even if the $$ size for each one is smaller.

  • guest

    Scott – In searching for insights into why hunters & farmers job descriptions are so alike (and why I – a hunter – ended up in a farming job), I came across your blog from last year.  What baffles me is the number of companies who believe growing & prospecting an existing an account for new opportunities is “hunting”.  For hunters, the large kills exist – the compensation plans, however, are not as rewarding as they were during the Dot.COM boom.

    • Hi – I recommend you read a more current post – http://www.topicsoft.com/topicblog/mavericks-and-journeyman – which states that hunter and farmer are the wrong terms to use for startup software folks – and that you should use Mavericks and Journeyman – for the reasons you state.  Just because you are growing something new, doesn’t magically make you a hunter. 

      Similarly, you should look at what the company where you ended up as a farmer was really looking for – I will tell you that I would not setup a compensation plan that paid somebody more for a single, large kill than a greater number of smaller kills – the key to success in today’s market is repeatability – so I would look for people that can find a pattern and close many accounts, even if the $$ size for each one is smaller.