“There are two kinds of salespeople: hunters and skinners. A hunter can find an albino buyer in a blizzard, and a skinner can get him to buy ice cream. You’re better at one role or the other, and in business you need to know which one that is.”

This is a conversation overheard between two seasoned veterans of the real estate industry, with a bit of creative license added. The casual banter of two old friends might make it easy to miss its poignancy.

Real estate salespeople were traditionally both hunters and skinners. They hunted their own leads through prospecting, and then skinned their catch to close the sale. The differentiation between these two roles has become more distinct in recent years, though. Separation of duties within a team keeps growing in popularity, and listing aggregators continue to supply a larger portion of the initial consumer contacts to real estate agents.

An increasing number of real estate teams are putting the role of the hunter completely in the hands of a specialized prospecting group. Some keep these hunters in-house, while others are transferring the prospecting role to a portal, search engine marketing company or other lead generation provider.

Significant opportunities and risks exist when we look at the parallels between primitive roles and a current sales team. Traditional hunters and skinners succeeded only when both groups did their jobs. No one ate unless their tribe took the prey from discovery to the dinner table. There was symbiosis in the relationship. Members of both role groups were incentivized to encourage, and hold responsible, the other for a positive outcome. Much like a mutually incentivized team, if one of them lost, they all lost.

Traders throw the system a bit of a curveball, however. Trading the animals they hunt to various tribes in exchange for other valuables, traders offer an ability to relieve some of the hunting responsibilities of a tribe. Third-party lead generators provide this trading opportunity in today’s real estate world.

As long as a tribe retains the ability to hunt and skin enough of its own food to have a minimally sustaining supply, working with the traders can in some cases have a duplicative effect on their supplies and be a net benefit to them. If they stop hunting altogether, though, they risk relying purely on the traders to prospect for food. They become a tribe of dependent skinners, at the mercy of the traders’ pricing. By completely ceding the position of hunter to the traders, they voluntarily give away their ability to negotiate.

The continued separation of the hunter and skinner in real estate today can be leveraged for great efficiency. It can also distract us from the need to have a business that can be self-sufficient when necessary, and tempt us to rely too much on traders.

Real estate teams who have hunters focused solely on prospecting and lead generation are actually increasing the productivity of those members. Real estate skinners who close sales have a different skill set, with just as much value. Agents who spend more time doing what they’re best at enjoy their work more, and are more productive in those roles.

It’s difficult to hire and retain a great team of hunters and skinners. Traders offer up shortcuts to the hunter role, and can frankly provide a great kickstart to a new business, a supplement to keep business steady, or a quick influx when business suddenly drops.

Traders don’t share in the ups and downs of the team, though. They’re paid upfront. If their product turns out to be of poor quality, you’re out of luck, and they’re off to trade with the next sucker. Even if the relationship is successful, there’s no guarantee it won’t dwindle the next month or double in price.

The hunter/skinner dialogue is a good way to start talking about the roles within your business. Our teams need both sets of skills. When the market is good, we often lean too heavily on outside sources to do our jobs for us. When the downturn hits, we realize too late that we’ve neglected the part of our business that should be self-sustaining.

My team is just as guilty as the next of relying on technology to hunt for us. I’ve written about the need to diversify lead sources, but we still often neglect the ample hunting opportunities we already have: our past clients and local spheres. There’s nothing more change-resistant in real estate than personal relationships that become referrals.

As we head into the annual business planning season for real estate, it’s a great time to focus on keeping your team mutually incentivized, and creating a safety net. With in-house hunters and skinners, focusing not just on technology but also the readily available real-life prospects nearby, you’ll be building a business that’s ready to weather the storms, whenever they may come.

Sam DeBord is managing broker of Seattle Homes Group with Coldwell Banker Danforth and a director for Washington Realtors and Seattle King County Realtors. You can find his team at SeattleHome.com.

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