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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Selling to Farmers: His Opinions and Convictions

(One of the most intriguing books I own is Selling to Farmers by Larry Williams, published in 1939. It is relatively small in size, hardbound with green boards and features the De Kalb ear of corn on the cover. Yes, “De Kalb.” Not “Dekalb.” The De Kalb County Agricultural Association was founded around 1918 and was the grass roots foundation of the Dekalb seed company (today a brand of seed owned by Bayer). This is one of a series of posts featuring its contents.)

A training manual for sellers of De Kalb seed. It’s contents are still relevant today.

“His Opinions and Convictions” is from the first chapter of this training book and focuses on the farmer – his customs, buying power and habits, hobbies and pride, needs and the general nature of his business.

His Opinions and Convictions

“The farmer has spent much time alone riding down long rows of corn, working in fields alone many hours of the day. And, he has had much time to think. It is to be expected, then, that this man has formed opinions of some kind on practically every subject. His opinions may be wrong, but they are his opinions and he expects other people to respect those opinions. He will fight for his opinions, but he is easily swayed by suggestions, however bullheaded he may be in an argument.

This business of being alone and thinking alone makes him a particularly friendly and sociable person when the opportunity presents itself to make friends or to meet people.”

Whether it’s 1939 or 2020, farmers still spend long days alone in a tractor…thinking and forming opinions.

Yes, times have changed. Today’s farmers still spend much time alone riding down long rows, albeit at much faster speeds than in 1939. But higher speeds and increased efficiency have resulted in farms becoming much larger and I would guess that the typical farmer still spends as much time alone in the field as they did back in the good ‘ole days. (There’s probably a published research paper on this very concept. I’ll have to look.)

The section simply points to the fact we are free people with opinions that are to be respected. As it says, their opinions may be wrong. They could be based on actual experience as in “I tried their hybrids for several years and they never worked on my farm,” or based on what they hear from the neighbors as in “white cob hybrids are hard to thresh,” even though he’s never grown them on his farm. My advice is to never argue about matters that are not specific to the business at hand. No doubt you are correct in your position but differences of opinion can cause customers to avoid buying from you. My English mother always said, “never discuss politics, sex or religion except with family or close friends.”

Finally, the part about how working alone makes them particularly friendly is spot on. I also think it has to do with the fact that rural communities are spread out and folks just don’t encounter many people during the day. Regardless, when I visit folks, either from “just passing through,” or by appointment, I’ve rarely come across a farmer that wasn’t friendly and didn’t want to visit. Honestly, I can’t remember ever being turned away when asking to ride along in the combine.

To summarize, the customer is not always right… but please respect their opinions AND respect their time…don’t take advantage of their friendliness.

I want you to do well. ~ph

Selling to Farmers: Age

“Age Has Little to do with Success, Time Has Much”

(One of the most intriguing books I own is Selling to Farmers by Larry Williams, published in 1939. It is relatively small in size, hardbound with green boards and features the De Kalb ear of corn on the cover. Yes, “De Kalb.” Not “Dekalb.” The De Kalb County Agricultural Association was founded around 1918 and was the grass roots foundation of the Dekalb seed company (today a brand of seed owned by Bayer). This is one of a series of posts featuring its contents.)

A training manual for sellers of De Kalb seed. It’s contents are still relevant today.

The following text is provided in its entirety. It’s from Chapter 10 that focuses on planning for success. Yes, “men” or “man” are used solely throughout. It was 1939, after all..

Age Has Little to do with Success, Time Has Much

“The outstanding success of men past sixty in science, art and commerce is proof to all of the opportunities and chances for all men to make good, regardless of age. Indeed, in the sales field the best men of many firms are past fort-five. So, youth with its energy and age with its wisdom start even in the selling field and battle for fame and fortune where both are theirs for a price.

The all-important requisite is the deep-seated desire to sell. The art of selling is always to conceal the art. Practice teaches both young and old that influencing without apparent influence makes sales and dollars as well as friends for them.

How well is the value of the service or product established in your mind? This value is the thing you are to get others to enjoy. You are out to give values, not to take anything away from your prospect. Then tell me, in a business of getting others to share in values you know are great, what has age to do with the program? You are charged with the task of getting others to believe and visualize benefits which they may enjoy. You can be as adept at age 25 or at age 65 as your understanding and ability will permit. You are not too young at age 25 to show proof and value, and impress others with benefits. Nor can a man of 65 find age a handicap in bringing others to take advantage of values he can prove are there if they will but accept them. Vision and planning for success are both keen in men who love life, regardless of age.

Let the young man who feels his youth a handicap try stressing values and increasing enthusiasm about his product and he will find youth and asset and people will admire his enterprise and help him on toward success. The same thing works for the older man, for the moment people notice his vigorous drive for business they respond with a desire to see a man with such pep succeed.”

Yes, 81 years ago, all ages of salesmen could be motivated to impart values on customers. And what I really like about this section is that it appreciates the energy of youth and wisdom of old and their roles in selling to farmers. I’ve often been the oldest member of a sales team and always enjoyed the younger teammates. No, they don’t have my experience, but eventually they will because they have a drive to succeed. Often, the willpower to overcome deficiencies and gain experience is all that’s needed to thrive in this business.

I want you to do well. ~ph

The Art of Cherry Picking

Folks who sell seed corn for a living often get excited about sharing photos or actual specimens of their products – for example, ears of a new corn hybrid. Some braggadocio is expected but any grower with experience knows they are NOT showing off the average ear. In a survey of 1,000 growers, I would guess that 999 would scoff at an ear sample or ear photo presented to them by a seeds salesman believing it to be typical of any field environment (the 1 true believer likely being a family relative). They know full well that the sales person walked into the field, scouted around for an abnormally large ear, and then brought it out proclaiming it the savior of corn production ills across the fruited plains.

Hey, we’re a competitive bunch! The competition does it all the time and we’re not going to just stand by and let it go. If they post a photo of 22 rows around, then, by God, we’ll post one with 24. Test weight of 62, you say? How about my hybrid that went 63 in the plot? This one-upsmanship can get a little annoying but in small doses keeps it interesting. In large doses, you’re just being a used car salesman and nobody’s interested. Building excitement and creating momentum is part of sales. We want customers, existing and prospects, to notice and hopefully ask about the very products we’re bragging about.

22 around is not uncommon but the 26 that the competitor found was likely brought in from another state.

One of the key principles in seedsmanship is representing products honestly. Is cherry picking ears dishonest? Maybe in the purest sense, but most seedsmen (male and female) know that it’s okay when presented with context. The ear with 22 rows and 60 kernels per row that magically appeared after just a few minutes in a corn field will always be met with skepticism and an eye roll. But when you admit that you picked the best you could find, most folks take the ear sample to represent its genetic potential. That’s right – if the environment is just right, a lot of ears could look like this. Experience shows that his type of presentation can generate a lot of interest from growers. Keep it exciting but keep it honest!

The photographer of this ear collection, @wardynmi, shared with growers that he chose the largest ears.

In the ear collection photo above, the author shared with readers that he chose the largest ears of each hybrid. The experienced eye can’t help but be impressed. Image 35,000 of these ears per acre? If that were the case, yields would probably eclipse 400 bu/a. But imagine if he collected the smallest ears he could find. If the largest ears represent genetic potential then what do the smallest ones represent? You got it – the genetic potential to be small. The combination of small, medium and large ears in a field is what a grower harvests. That’s the reality of fields with varying soil types. Agronomists make a living trying to minimize the number of small ears and maximize the number of large ones.

A service call necessitates collecting ears that represent the field in question – the good and the bad ones.

Salesmanship is one thing. Sales support is another. Service calls are part of the business. Growers may send you pictures or bring you ears of corn and perhaps a complaint about performance. While the seedsman can be criticized for cherry picking, in a way, so can the grower. Often in my career, a customer has brought ears that were cherry picked to exaggerate the field condition. This is somewhat understandable as poor product performance can be emotional and will certainly have a negative impact on profitability. But in all my years of working in the seed industry, the field is rarely as bad as the ears that were presented to me. But they did get my attention – which is what cherry picking is all about!

I want you to do well. ~ph