The Psychology of Sales: Understanding the Distinctive Mindsets of Hunters and Farmers

If I should choose one single sales concept that resonates with every sales leader I have met, it is the idea of farming and hunting orientations. 

For the very few readers that might be unfamiliar with the idea, people with high hunting orientation are those who actively seek out new customers and close deals through aggressive tactics and persistence. They are constantly on the lookout for new opportunities and are driven by the thrill of the chase. On the other hand, farmers in sales are focused on nurturing and cultivating existing customer relationships. They aim to deepen customer loyalty, upsell or cross-sell products, and ensure long-term customer satisfaction.  

“Yes”, the eyes of my interlocutors seem to sparkle when I introduce the topic. “Some people are never satisfied with the current portfolio and enjoy the thrill of finding new customers. Others prefer to go back to the tried-and-tested customers, but they are great at building long-term relations.” 

And usually the sales leader adds something more: “I am telling you, pure hunters will never be good farmers, and vice versa, you cannot be a good hunter if you don’t have the attitude”. 

So… are really hunters and farmers different type of people? 

A 2016 research paper by Thomas DeCarlo (University of Alabama) and Son Lam (University of Georgia) tries to answer this question by investigating the differences in the personality structure of farmers and answers. However, the research also shows that contextual elements, sales skills, and training can help hunters and farmers switch between roles.  

To a large extent, however, the sales leaders’ gut feelings are correct. The disposition toward farming and hunting is connected to fundamental individual differences rooted in genetics and early childhood experiences. I am talking about a fascinating concept with a highly unappealing name: the regulatory focus. 

Beyond the Pleasure and Pain Principles

One of the most fundamental axioms of psychology is that people (and animals) generally tend to increase their pleasure and avoid pain. While this is true, there are many situations when the two rules are contradictory: to achieve something pleasurable (e.g., a succulent prickly pear) is necessary to accept the risk of getting pain (e.g., thorns in your fingers). Columbia professor Tory Higgins (1997) produced poignant evidence that different people prefer different strategies: some prefer to maximize pleasure and accept more significant risks, using promotion-focused strategies, while others are more worried about losing what they already have, and prefer prevention-focused strategies. 

Promotion Focused Cats 

While writing these words, I observe some street cats on my balcony. My partner has left a little plate with some delicious cat food. The cats are observing the food, tempted to advance but weary that I am observing them. Am I a dangerous predator trying to lure them into a trap by offering them food? One cat is braver than the others. She slowly walks the few meters that separate her from the food, smells it, and finally starts biting it. This cat showed promotion focus behavior: she accepted risk to obtain a reward.  

The Hunter Mentality 

Just like the cat on my balcony, individuals with a promotion focus are driven by the desire to achieve gains and pursue positive outcomes. They are focused on growth, advancement, and taking risks. What does it mean in a sales environment? That people with a promotion focus prefer to concentrate on the achievement of new ambitious goals (acquiring new customers), despite the risks of failure and social rejection. 

The Farmer Mentality 

On the other hand, prevention-focused individuals are motivated by security, responsibilities, and the desire to avoid losses or negative outcomes. They are more worried of losing what they have, such as existing customers, than driven to obtain new rewards. Prevention-focus mindset is therefore better suited to a farming job. 

Beyond Determinism

Regulatory focus is acquired in early childhood and is hard to change. Does it mean salespeople are bound only to have hunting or farming behaviors? Fortunately, the reality is a bit more complex. 

Expectancy theory (Vroom, 1964) can help us to understand how to motivate people beyond their natural tendencies.  

The theory postulates that the effort that someone puts into a task is a function of three variables: Expectancy (The probability of achieving the result); Instrumentality (The probability that achieving that result will bring to a consequence); and Valence (The positive or negative value that the consequence has for the individual). Regulatory focus influences the valence of the consequences. For those with a promotion focus, the intrinsic value of gaining a new customer is higher. Conversely, for those with a prevention focus, the intrinsic negative value of losing an existing customer is more intense. 

Sales leaders can leverage this understanding to motivate their teams effectively. Firstly, they can work on the Expectancy piece of the theory by providing sales representatives with effective hunting and farming training. Secondly, they can distribute extrinsic rewards that align with individuals’ regulatory focus. For promotion-focused individuals, setting ambitious goals and highlighting growth opportunities can drive their motivation also in farming activities. On the other hand, for prevention-focused individuals, emphasizing the importance of keeping generating revenues from new customers to avoid losing cashflow and retain the position amongst competitors can tap into their regulatory needs. 


In conclusion, hunters and farmers do exhibit different personality traits and tendencies. While some individuals naturally lean towards one role over the other, salespeople can switch between these roles with the help of contextual elements, sales skills, and training. Understanding the concept of regulatory focus, which influences individuals’ preference for promotion or prevention, can also aid sales leaders in effectively motivating their teams. 


DeCarlo, T. E., & Lam, S. K. (2016). Identifying effective hunters and farmers in the salesforce: A dispositional–situational framework. Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science, 44(4), 415–439. 

Higgins, E. T. (1997). Beyond pleasure and pain. American Psychologist, 52(12), 1280–1300. 

Vroom, V. (1964). Work and motivation. New York: Wiley and Sons. 

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