Sales: Are You An Explorer or an Exploiter?

In tough times, buyers are more open to cost-cutting ideas. This creates an opportunity.

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In uncertain times, are you better off exploring new opportunities or exploiting existing opportunities?

Before answering this question, consider this analysis of nearly 2,500 fishing expeditions. In this two-year study, researchers Shay O’Farell, James Sanchirico, and Orr Spiegel analyzed the fishing behaviors of 2,494 commercial fishing trips. The researchers analyzed the tradeoffs between “exploiting” the usual fishing sites and “exploring” new fishing sites. Exploiting the usual fishing sites is safe. It’s predictable. You know what to expect. Exploring new fishing areas is risky. It’s unpredictable. You could catch more, but you could also catch less.

As salespeople, we understand this tradeoff. Like the fishermen, we have a limited amount of time to fish per day. Given the scarcity of time, we ask, “What’s the best use of our time? Exploiting what we know or exploring what we don’t?”

Researchers classified fishermen in two categories: exploiters or explorers. Exploiters consistently fished the same locations. Exploiters took less risk and fished the familiar. Explorers, on the other hand, fished a wider range of locations. Explorers took risks and fished the unfamiliar.

After their exhaustive study, researchers concluded that explorers generated more fishing revenue than exploiters…but not during stable, good times. Explorers only had an advantage during tough, uncertain times.

Like other industries, the commercial fishing industry faces tough times. It could be weather, fishing regulations, fish not biting, etc. During this experiment, several traditional fishing spots were closed to protect an endangered species of sea turtles. During this tough time, the exploiters weren’t sure what to do. It took them longer to find new spots. Whereas the explorers had more experience in fishing multiple spots. Explorers were better positioned and outperformed the exploiters in tough times.  

How would you classify your selling strategy during tough times? Are you an explorer or are you an exploiter?

This exploit/explore trade-off is familiar to salespeople. During tough times, people are likely to stick with what’s familiar. Sticking with the status quo creates stability. For salespeople this means exploiting our familiar “fishing grounds” rather than exploring new ones. Salespeople might justify this behavior by saying, “I know this opportunity is buying. This is the best use of my time. It’s doubtful those new opportunities are going to buy.” This is the equivalent of a fishermen saying, “I know the fish will bite here, but I’m not sure if they’re biting over there.”

During tough times, people adopt a scarcity mindset. Scarcity of money, resources, and opportunity. People protect what is scarce. Buyers protect resources, like money. Salespeople protect their current opportunities. During tough times, salespeople focus too much on protecting and not enough on prospecting.

Even in tough times there is an abundance of opportunity. Position yourself to prosper during and after this tough time. Don’t succumb to the pressure to protect. Instead, prospect. Find a new spot. Catch some more fish.

Cast your nets wider and deeper. Now is the time to fill your pipeline with new opportunities. I was recently talking to a sales leader in the software industry about prospecting. We discussed the unique opportunities that tough times create. In tough times, buyers are more open to cost-cutting ideas. This creates an opportunity. In tough times, there are layoffs and companies must learn to do more with less. This creates an opportunity. In tough times, decision makers are shuffled around or shuffled out of the company. This creates an opportunity. An old prospect with new decision makers is a new opportunity. Review your previous prospects and see if there are new decision makers. There could be a greater need for your solution than ever before.

If the fish aren’t biting, change your bait. Adjust your value proposition to reflect the buyer’s priorities. In good times and bad, buyers trade dollars for value. Value is a constant. During tough times, buyers define value differently. Cost containment is critical in tough times. Be able to demonstrate how your solution reduces overall cost and reduces risk. In tough times, decisions are scrutinized thoroughly. Buyers need reassurance that their decision to partner with you is safe, smart, and reduces overall cost.

If the fish aren’t biting, mend your nets and ready your poles. During tough times, salespeople have more time on their hands. Use this downtime to increase your value. Work on your presentation. Develop your messaging strategy. Read more books. Practice your skill. Research your prospects more diligently. Develop thorough account plans.

Fishermen like to share their knowledge. In our research, buyers indicated that salespeople create more value by “delivering meaningful insight.” During tough times, people crave information. People analyze what they know and agonize over what they don’t. Every prospect has an information gap they are eager to fill. Effective salespeople highlight this gap and then fill it with their knowledgeable expertise. Close the gap and reel them in.

While reading this article, you might be thinking, “I’m already a pretty good explorer. I dedicate time to prospecting in good times and in bad.” But, during these tough times, explore faster and broader. The fishing experiment also indicated that a more intense effort to explore further reduced the negative effects of tough times. Among the explorers, there was a select group that performed better than the average explorer. This select group explored broader and faster. In short, they worked ReillyReillyharder and longer than the others. This group was more successful than the rest. Use this select group as a model. Challenge yourself to fish a little longer, and cast your nets a little wider.


Paul Reilly is a speaker, sales trainer, co-author of Value-Added Selling, fourth edition (McGraw-Hill, 2018), and host of The Q and A Sales Podcast. For additional information on his keynote presentations and seminars, call 636-778-0175 or email Paul@ReillySalesTraining.com.

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