By Gary Hernbroth

It’s big, big business, this pursuit of the whitetail deer and other game across many states in the USA each year. So is the pursuit of customers and accounts. The two pursuits have more in common than you may think. People throw around the metaphor “hunting for new business” or “I’m beating the bushes to hunt for business” all the time. So let’s compare just what they really do have in common and see what we can learn from the tales of the wild.

As a bit of background, I’ve done both kinds of hunting. As such, I’ve experienced the high highs and the low lows of both in my career. Anyone who hunts for deer or game or hunts for business as a salesperson has experienced both ends of the spectrum.

I fondly recall many memorable times over the years spent at deer camp back in my home state of Michigan. It was a great time to throttle down, commune with nature, and share fun, social times with old-timers and friends. I felt the annual pull to travel back there from my home in California primarily for the camaraderie, the time-honored stories and legendary tall tales of past hunts, the laughter, the warm fires, the stew on the stove, the quiet of nature, and the noise of a raucous poker game. It was a couple of days to get away from life's rat race, where no one’s title or job importance ever mattered. Going to deer camp was the thing. If you actually got a buck, it was a bonus.

I recall sitting in a deer blind nestled in a frosty grove of snow-covered pine trees on one particular hunt, just doing some thinking (when you don’t see any deer you get a lot of time to do that), and I just started thinking about the comparisons between hunting and selling. Soon, I was scribbling notes on a writing pad I always carried in my day-pack. Those quiet, peaceful times in the wintry woods allowed me to unwind and ponder without phones or emails blazing away.

For either pursuit, planning is key

To begin with, both hunting and selling requires planning ahead. If you’re not prepared, your hunt for game or for business will be a waste of time, effort, and money. You shouldn’t just show up dressed in blaze orange clothing in the middle of the woods and expect to get a deer, any more than you would pick up your phone, dial a random company, start pitching features, and expect them to buy from you.

The notion, in both cases, is ridiculous.

Let’s examine seven key areas that salespeople could take from a hunter’s checklist to be more successful in their “hunt for business” —

1) What kind of game should I hunt for?

Hunters typically know what type or size of deer or game they are looking for. Salespeople should know their target prospects, too — the types of business they want to pursue, and what their desired customers’ profiles are, before planning their sales campaign. Otherwise, they might put a lot of effort into chasing the wrong types of business. And the "woods" can get pretty thick and foreboding when you are overwhelmed with what you are trying to track down.

2) Where should I hunt?

You’ve heard this before: Location, location, location. The most skilled hunter, using the latest equipment, in the very best of conditions, can still get “skunked.” It happens to everyone at some point. But their odds of success increase if they are in an area where a deer sighting is likely. A smart hunter goes out beforehand and scouts the trails, etc., looking for deer activity and movement, sometimes months before the season opens. Thus, they come to opening day of the season better prepared.

The same thing applies for salespeople. Even the best salespeople with a terrific product can come up empty and can get "skunked" too. If they are selling to customers who are not the ones who can say “yes,” or aren’t inclined to buy, or don’t have a need to buy, or are not under any time constraint to buy, or who cannot afford to buy, then they are not selling to the right folks in the right places at the right times.

We’ve all heard “fish where the fish are.” Sure, that’s important. However, I’ll add to that old axiom that we should fish where, when, and how the fish are most likely to want to bite on the hook. Going to the right trade events, customer shows, engaging in horizontal cross-selling (across industries) and vertical selling (within industries) to the right set of potential buyers who are in the position to buy, or running promotions to the right potential sets of customers, is much better than just blind shot-gunning your sales efforts to people just because they breathe.

3) What kind of equipment will I need?

Hunters don’t want to find out in the middle of a storm that they went into the woods, fields, or ponds missing essential pieces of equipment or clothing. They plan ahead (there’s that again!), so if the weather forecast calls for rain or snow they are prepared with their water repellent clothing. They also take care in which firearms to use, and other items that may help (animal calls, antler rattles, compass, binoculars, etc.).

Salespeople need the right equipment for their hunt, too. This may include the proper data on prospects they will be pursuing, or collateral about their product or service. It can also include a user-friendly and compelling website, a strong sales support staff, or a sample of their product to show to prospects. I would also suggest testimonials from other pleased customers as a piece of “equipment” that the sharp salesperson is armed with going into the crowded marketplace. No one sells better to customers than other customers themselves.

4) How much can I spend?

Unlimited budgets are a fairy tale to most everyone. A hunter has to make his or her supplies last. They need to factor in their needs with their wants in terms of hunting equipment, apparel, and supplies. Quality outfitter clothing and gear can get quite pricey.

Salespeople need to think like an owner (unless, of course, they already ARE the owner!), and spend wisely on their sales campaign. Which trade events, customer shows, advertising opportunities, promotional items, product samples, sales trips, rounds of client golf, or entertaining can fit inside their budget?

Tough fiscal choices may have to be made. This is where doing the right homework comes in, and knowing where potential customers will likely be, and when they will be there, in addition to knowing what motivates them to buy. Too many companies waste their sales money on dead ends. They don’t spend “smart” money in the right manner.

For instance, does your prospect like to play golf? Many a big business deal has been closed on a golf course. How about a sports fan, where you can take your prospect to a game to see their favorite team play? It’s a great spend, as the atmosphere is casual and conversation is easier than in a stuffy office. Spend wisely.

5) How will I attract the game?

"Different strokes" applies here. No one tactic works for everyone every time. Hunters afield get pretty creative in how they attract game. Some use calls, antler rattles, food plots, spritzing themselves in deer estrus (I know how it sounds, but it works better than you might think), and other commercially-produced enticements.

Salespeople have several means by which to attract customers, including a compelling website (and any enticements or special deals for buying once they click on to it, such as “Black Friday Deals — Internet Only”). An inviting trade show booth, sales contests, mailers, product samples, marketing/advertising, emails (be careful when expecting too much with those — there is a ton of spam out there), word-of-mouth referrals from others, etc., have all helped attract potential buyers at one time or another for an array of different industries. And don't forget your "hunters" in camp — an honest, talented, forthright, opportunistic, accountable, and creative sales team is worth its weight in gold.

6) How much time do I have to be successful in my hunt?

Hunting and selling is all about timing and clocks, being in the right place at the right time. It’s also about being out in the field, actually looking for opportunities!

First, the hunting day is short – sunset comes early in the fall and winter. Plus, most hunters can only be at deer camp for a few days at a time, or less. The season itself is a specified length, not year-round. Thus, they must make the most use of their time out in the woods or fields. The clock of opportunity is ticking all around.

I always felt like making the most of my short hunting visit (2-3 days) by trying to stay out all day at deer camp. Indeed, many a lunch of mine in the woods was beef jerky and donuts. I came to learn that, surprisingly, many hunters would leave the woods in mid-day, which means I had less competition should any deer come in to my view during that period. It worked out for me several times that I harvested a deer at midday, when most everyone else was downing a hot dog for lunch back at the cabin, or taking a snooze. "You didn’t see many deer from the dining room table this afternoon, did ya fellas?"

The same principle applies to salespeople. They also should get out and hunt and make calls on prospects, especially when not many other salespeople are out there beating the brush.

The seasons of the selling year can work as “hunting seasons” too. As a sales team leader for a hotel during a period of my career, I scheduled a big sales trip each winter for us to see customers and prospects in the Midwest and East during the throes of cold winter weather, when our fair-weather competitors weren’t anywhere around.

The customers really noticed and appreciated the fact that we would come to see them in the frozen tundra of winter. We were getting face time, telling our story, gathering their meeting needs, and asking for the business in person, all dressed up in our cold-weather garb, bringing hot coffee and warm donuts to them in their offices in Chicago, Minneapolis, Omaha, Detroit, New York, Boston, you name it. Our feeling was that anybody can go out and make sales calls on warm spring or fall days when the sun is shining. “Sunshine salespeople” I call them. We scheduled those winter trips into our sales plans with much “hunting” success over the years.

Personally, I also scheduled many of my own sales trips at times when there was less likelihood of a lot of other salespeople hitting the town and flooding the customers’ calendars. Sure, I attended the requisite trade shows too, but I also went back a month or two before or afterward, when the waves of salespeople were gone. Again, customers appreciated that. They were deluged with a jillion requests for their time when the trade shows were in town.

I could always get appointments and lunches or dinners with customers on those off-timed sales trips. I also ventured out to make sales calls away from a "hub" like Washington D.C., to some of the less-visited suburbs in Virginia and Maryland where some really big customers had their offices. Location and timing is everything. There were very few fellow hunters tracking against me in those woods.

7) Whose help can I enlist?

Only a foolhardy hunter would go out on a hunt alone without at least letting someone know where they planned to be. You never know. Shift happens. Smart hunters also ask a lot of questions, especially if they are new to the acreage and don’t live there on a year-round basis (like me) in order to gather pertinent information that will improve their chances. Leaning on the locals and old-timers for helpful tips provides a wealth of knowledge that can be immeasurably helpful to a hunter and make the hunt not only more fun but much safer, too. Creating “Alliance Partners” at hunting camp can help make the individuals — and thus the entire camp — more successful.

Salespeople can also increase their odds of being successful by enlisting the help and input of others. Don’t do it alone. It’s just easier with help. Did you ever think to ask your customers where and how you should hunt or fish? They’ll have ideas, and will likely want to help you. They know about their peers. In my hotel days, I'd set set my new salespeople up with our best customers in their territories to contact them or see them on their first trip into the territory, to get a feel for the local buyer community and some advice from a customer on the lay of the land (referrals!), etc. It was invaluable advice – -and the customers always felt very flattered that we treated them like gurus.

Salespeople can have Alliance Partners, too. In the case of hotels, resorts, and convention centers, they have their destination marketing organizations / convention and visitors bureaus to assist in the selling and referring efforts. Salespeople can also ask their customers to provide a testimonial speaking to their product’s glory – a true consumer-based endorsement, which is solid gold. Why more salespeople don’t ask for these is beyond me. I think it is the greatest untapped sales resource out there.

Sometimes, Alliance Partners can be in the form of other businesses that also pursue the same customer type, but aren’t in competition with each other. Salespeople can refer business back and forth. For example, the auto muffler repair shop refers its customers to another trusted local business that paints auto bodies, and vice versa. Doctors refer patients to physical therapy professionals, and vice versa. It’s a win-win for both entities to have another sales force working on their behalf (and they fortunately don't have to carry them on their payroll!). Who can you align your selling efforts with so that you both benefit more?

And so it comes down to the Little Things…

Hunting or selling, it's the little things that add up to the big things. Embrace these seven key elements and you will surely improve your chances for sales success in bagging those big trophies.

If you don’t, someone else out in those woods — or on the lake — surely will.

Cover image by Hayden Lambson