May 14, 2013

Do You Have Sales Hunters or Zookeepers?

I’m in the midst of a month of hard sales leadership conversation after hard sales leadership conversation. It seems like in company after company we are tackling big topics and doing the necessary heavy lifting. Oh, I am not complaining. I am happy to do it, particularly because I know from experience that very often, sales coaching alone is not going to move the needle. There are bigger leadership, cultural, strategic or talent issues that must be addressed in order to effect transformative change.

Last week I was leading a full-day Sales Management Summit for a relatively new client. Great people with a fun business and storied history. But their business is down. And unlike so many of the companies I see, this particular company hasn’t experienced the post-2009 recovery that so many others have. I did some pre-work for the session and interviewed a handful of key people on the sales team, including one with 40 years at the company. Yes, you read that right. Over 40 years. He was a great guy with tremendous insight who also provided me with some pithy one-liners. This was my favorite:

The sales team is no worse than six years ago when business was booming; we don’t suck any more than we did when sales were great!

How great is that assessment of the situation? It’s accurate and I love it!  Almost everyday, I am saying some version of what this seasoned pro is proclaiming, just not with as much color. He nailed it. Their team is selling the same way they always have. And you know what? When business was good — translation: when the macro economy was strong and their industry was hot — it worked just fine. There was plenty of demand and the typical reactive, route-running, relational sales guy did fine, sometimes more than fine. Many on their team not only survived operating in a reactive mode, they thrived. Today, that is no longer the case.

During the session I facilitated an exercise where the sales managers reviewed lists of their top-performers and those on the team who needed to be either coached up or coached out. This stimulated some great discussion and produced a memorable statement from another manager in the room:

“Some salespeople are bird hunters and others are elephant hunters.”

I liked, and for the most part agreed with the statement. But I didn’t feel he was going far enough or truly asking the hard question that needed to be asked. After processing it for all of about two seconds, I blurted out:

“Sure, some of your people are small game hunters and some may go after the big kill, but isn’t the real problem that most of the folks on your team are zookeepers?”

The conversation about sales hunters and sales farmers is not going away. My previous post about Tim Tebow and sales talent drew as much traffic and more comments than anything I’ve written. So let me leave you with this challenge today: Look at the image I selected at the top of this post then ask yourself if the majority of folks on your sales team are sales killers who are wired to hunt down new business, or are they (like the zookeeper) nurturers who are most comfortable caring for existing relationships?