The Agronomist and The Customer

An agronomist’s perspective on interacting with customers

THE CUSTOMER

Agronomists interact with customers in many ways. Taking soil samples, interpreting yield results, planting and harvesting plots and handling product complaints are just a few examples. Most of these interactions are pleasant but certainly not all. If you are genuine in your intentions, that of having their best interests at heart, the day-to-day work comes easy and the customer will appreciate all that you do, even in the worst of times. Too often, sales quotas and chasing the sales bonus often come before what is ultimately the right decision for the customer’s operation.

The adage, “respect isn’t given, it’s earned,” is true for many facets of life. Rural communities thrive on deep-rooted family and church values. Lasting relationships with agronomists that are built on trust can take a great deal of time to develop. Credentials such as M.S., Ph.D. or CCA are often shown on business cards but your performance and attitude dictate whether these titles deserve any more respect than the agronomist without them that has been in the community for 20 years.

In my experience, a well-respected agronomist always takes the time to listen before speaking. For the inexperienced, every meeting with a new customer should be 90% listening and 10% talking. There is so much to learn about new farming operations – the family, the land, the crops, the livestock – all important components that will impact your work. Take notes and don’t be afraid to ask questions. There is no embarrassment for jotting down information and letting the customer see that you’re actively engaged. This is equally true for the seasoned veteran. Forgetting or ignoring critical facts, making assumptions, or simply not getting the information correct can lead to bad decisions that will cost the customer and ultimately your reputation in the end.

THE GOOD and THE BAD

The good.  My first job after receiving my M.S. in agronomy was in soil conservation and I held a position in a regional NRCS office. One of the first visits I made was with a cohort who took me on a visit to an ag retailer. I was new and didn’t want to appear over-anxious to engage or show off my knowledge that was now verified and proudly displayed in a frame.

After listening to the conversation for over 20 minutes, the retailer looked over at me and said, “I like you. You’re listening and not trying to inject everything you know into the discussion. You’ll be good.” This has stuck with me for 33 years.

The bad. Ten years later I was on a complaint call for cotton. It was a call where a lot of things were involved – when it was sprayed, products and additives, spray rates and so on. The ultimate claim was that yield would be impacted. (Complaint calls like this one are often emotional since income can be significantly impacted.)

I was assisted by a more experienced agronomist who knew the customer. We listened and asked several questions. I recorded several notes in a field notebook. After about an hour of looking things over I came back and basically asked the same questions again making sure we had it right.

The customer was incensed by this and felt we thought he was lying. Why else ask the same question twice? He called every supervisor he could find a number for, but not me.  We haven’t spoken since.

My cohort told me afterwards that he knew about the customer’s disposition but didn’t think it was important enough to share. I believe I was right to ask and clarify but learned that setting up the additional questioning in a more professional manner might have helped. (“Mind if I ask a few more questions?”)  Might of, I said. 

Remember, relationships matter at all levels of the business but more so in your local community. Too, the customer is not always right and colleagues might not always have your best interests at heart. But it is up to you to decide how you’ll carry yourself in your relationship with customers and peers.

I want you to do well.  ~ph

Photo credit: Iowa State University

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