Banner forStaying Ahead of the Customer

If you thought going into ag retail merely involved selling products and services for fun and profit—unh-uh.

Farmers don’t want or need just a product supplier, they want advice. They want someone who is one-part Farmers’ Almanac, one-part Wikipedia brainiac, one-part sales-rep, and one-part reliable resource.

It means being a jack-of-all-trades, master of all. As difficult as it may seem, it’s the role a successful ag retailer must adopt if they are to maintain and grow their customer base.

And, with the pandemic continuing to muck up the supply chain for manufacturing and product delivery, your job has only become much more difficult—its not just fertilizer costs for 2022 that are going to be expensive.

While there is no one way to be everything to everyone, we can at least provide you with some helpful tips to be the best ag retailer you can be for your customer.


The Ideal Customer

The first thing every serious ag retailer needs to ask of themselves and other staff, is to define their concept of an ideal customer.

It may seem simple from the outset, but we’re not talking about “Bob” or “Claire” who are nice to talk with and are big spenders who aren’t always trying to nickel-and-dime you.

Rather, the conceptualization of your ideal customer—is not a “who” question, but rather a “what” question, as in “What are the types of customer that are purchasing my products and services?”

You need to identify, for example, if you are selling mostly to livestock or grain farmers; do they have a tight budget, a loose budget, a large budget or no budget. Or, are you selling to larger farming conglomerates who order in bulk, but only one brand of product or prefer to always have the latest buzzword ag toy in their pocket.

Knowing just who your ideal customer is helps you to be better prepared to serve them. It’s true that you can’t be all things to everyone, but you can be all-things to most of your customer base as long as you know who it really is.

As well, if you know that your ideal customer—IE the majority of your customer base that has similar likes and dislikes—prefers one brand of fertilizer over all others, you can stock up on that singular brand while reducing your order for other brands.



While it’s true that few farmers tend to slow down for the off-season, that doesn’t lessen your responsibility in maintaining the lines of communication.

Do you have a CRM (customer relationship management) system in place? It’s a software tech that allows you to manage all of your company’s relationships and interactions with customers and potential customers.

It’s not just to send holiday greetings—though that is something you should consider. We recommend doing things the old-fashioned way, however. While an e-card is nice, less actual thought goes in it as opposed to writing a personal note and sending a card via Canada Post.

For those customers who are big spenders, a gift basket is also a considerate option.

But all that is merely you “thanking” your customer for being your customer.

Since it’s not the busy season for either of you, arrangements should be made to go and see each and every one of your customers. Don’t send a request by text or email. Call them up and speak to them. Ask “when would be a good time for you to drop by for a short visit.”

If they ask why—and they will—tell them you need their professional advice, because it’s true. Further details are up to you.

For the visit, dress accordingly: visiting a corporate office versus a more casual farm—the clue is knowing your client.

As for why you are visiting a customer and seeking their advice, the answer is simple enough, even if their reply isn’t: you want to learn how your products or services actually performed for them this past season(s).

One solution is to offer to white board the farm operation for 12 months to monitor all activities to identify what works and what does not.

You want to learn if there are any constraints in the operation, and determine if there is an opportunity for the retail to manage some of the constraints directly.

This is an opportunity to demonstrate your knowledge of agriculture operations to the farm customer.

However, for all customer interactions, ensure you review your company’s confidentiality rules with your employees to avoid any data sharing with any area customers.

Physically talking to a customer on a one-on-one scenario shows that you value their business and truly care about their livelihood.

Picture this scenario: Ag Retailer #1 goes and personally talks with a customer while Ag Retailer #2 has no such relationship with his customer. What happens when those two customers meet and chat over a coffee? Ag Retailer #1 is going to receive plaudits for customer-service, while Ag Retailer #2 will reap as deserved. A change in ag retailer may be forthcoming.

Word-of-mouth. From yours to the customer to other customers. That’s how you increase business.

The same holds true during the 2022 planting, growing and harvesting seasons. You need to visit your customer and do a ride-along or two to get a better appreciation of how they are doing their job.


Post-Visit Analysis

Hopefully you will have heeded our advice re: customer visit and data research. Now, with pleasantries aside comes the tough part—finding a solution.

Ideally, your customer will explain how happy they have been with the products used for this past season’s yield. Whether that’s the case or not, your goal should still be to figure out if there is a way to make it even better. This can only be achieved if you truly listened to them.

Whether its by determining an even better way to utilize a product—be it timing or amount of product use or even the application method, there’s always room for improvement.

It could involve helping to create a cocktail of products to apply and try—a test for next year—we’re not only concerned for short-term farming yields, but long-term, too. It could involve new technologies such as precision farming techniques or even new products from your suppliers.

While this is incumbent on your suppliers telling you, the ag retailer, about the newest offerings, it is also up to you to go and request such information. Your supplier of a particular brand of herbicide, for example, may have a new product, but since it is awaiting an official roll-out date, you won’t know about it until it happens. Showing your forward-thinking inquisitiveness may get you an advanced screening, so to speak.

And, any advanced knowledge you can glean is not only something you hold over your competitors, it’s an advantage you can at least familiarize yourself with to discuss with your clients when the product is officially released.

Forewarned is forearmed, and you don’t know if our suggestion is even feasible unless you ask.

The bottom line here, is that the ag retailer must know the products they sell. It’s also about knowing what products work best for their customers going forward. It’s having an informed opinion by knowing all of the pluses and minuses, and to make informed recommendations to your customer as their trusted advisor.

You are offering a solution, not just a product specific to each customer.

Now, having stated all that, we must also be aware of the financial capabilities of the customer. We certainly should not ask for their financials—rather this is where you actually talking to the customer plays an additional role.

Not every farm operator can afford the latest tech toys coming onto the market—however you can provide support. If interest is observed in a new technology, you and the customer can seek out a solution to make it a reality. It may include leasing rather than purchasing outright. It may involve helping set up loans with a financial institution you partner with, or one of their choosing.

Or it may involve finding a more affordable alternative.

Egos are fragile. Why discuss an expensive option if it is not a feasible option for the customer? Yes, we all want to maximize our profits, but if we do not have the best interests of the customer in mind, that customer may not be in business for long, and neither will you be.

Know your customer. Provide advice and recommendations based on their needs and financial resources.


Data Sharing

While this could also be placed under the topic of “post-visit” analysis, it is worthy of its own point of interest.

Although this pre-supposes your customer is interested in moving forward with new technology and can possibly afford it, it behooves you to provide data on their return on investment (ROI).

It’s not just on how precision agriculture technology can help, it’s about being aware of new products and technology.

Contained within this December issue of the CAAR Communicator is an article on newish technologies that can be applied by a farmer of various market segments to ease the day-to-day burdens while hopefully increasing yield.

Knowing your own ag retail business and products is one thing, but knowing about other products and technologies helps you grow your business opportunities as well, while also being able to talk-the-talk with your customers who are keeping atop of trends.

You may be aware of why fertilizer products will be so much more expensive in 2022 than 2021, and have known about it for months—a result of the pandemic. But, did you share this information with your customers this past autumn?

Did you advise them to lock in their orders then, rather than the spring when it is required? For those ag retailers that did, you thought about your customers first. That’s data sharing.

Not every farmer will have heeded the advice for reasons of their own—but for those that didn’t, you should find out why. It may be that they forgot to do so earlier because purchasing next year’s fertilizer isn’t something they normally do until the new year, or maybe it’s because of something else.

You want to be the go-to resource for market intelligence for your customer and would-be customers to inform them of the latest trends. Your job should also be to encourage and to remind. In this instance of higher fertilizer costs for 2022, more than friendly cajoling may have been required.

Showing that you want to save them money for a product you are selling—even if your mark-up remains consistent from year-to-year—will show customers that you care about them.

Like any customer, there is a deep-rooted distrust that the retailer is only out to make a profit on them. You going to them earlier and often and explaining what is going to happen with certainty will provide customer trust in you and your company. That bodes well for the future success of your ag retail business.


Taking Stock of Everything

This one is a no brainer. Taking stock of your inventory should be something done often and reviewed throughout the year to help better prepare for possible product shortages.

For those ag retailers that sell farm vehicle parts, for example, will the pandemic issues of supply chain disruption affect you and your customer base? The short answer is yes.

In the past, when a tractor broke down a farmer could fix it themselves. Nowadays, you need a computer technician to diagnose the issue before fixing. It’s the price of modern technology. Can it even be fixed in a timely manner owing to computer chip shortages

What about something as simple as low-tech tires? Along with a microchip shortage for vehicles, there is a global shortage of tires—most of it due to transportation of materials to and through North America, for example, to manufacture the finished product.

Manufacturers such as Michelin have been flying materials into its factories to manufacture tires. Even though flying may cost as much as four times more than standard transport—a worse alternative was to have its manufacturing facilities sitting idle with downtime for its factories or worse, job-loss for its loyal employees. The result, however, means a more expensive tire for the customer to absorb.

While the above example was focused on automobiles, the same holds true for ag vehicles. While ag tire manufacturers are a business separate from automobile and truck tires, it is worth noting that for all vehicles where there is less demand owing to saleability, the shorter the production run the less chance it will be produced by a tire manufacturer.

There’s also the fact that tire manufacturers generally charge for the tire based on the weight of the materials used. Again, factor in that it is difficult getting materials in to be manufactured into tires and add in the fact that manufacturing plants still have not caught up to pre-Covid levels owing to health protocols limiting the number of employees working on a line due to spacing requirements, and you can see the issue. And you should have been aware of it to warn customers of the shortage.

Even if you do not sell tires to your customer base, a friendly heads-up would certainly go a long way in establishing superior relations with them.

Tire supply is just an example, of course. The pandemic has caused supply chain issues up and down the agricultural retail landscape.

It means sharing your own company’s issues with the customer to allow them to be better-prepared.

As for yourself, for the possibility of you being short of a product—what are you doing about it?

Simply shrugging your shoulders and muttering “what’re ya going to do?” does not help your customer or you.

You need to exhaust every legal avenue—searching all over Canada, North America or even worldwide—to ensure you have the products your customer wants or, in a less than ideal scenario, provide alternative solutions. The point is, you have to be able to keep the customer happy.

And sometimes even that falls apart. Yes, transportation issues abound with supply chain snags, but you can at the very least be satisfied that you tried to keep your client happy.

The ag retail industry is a competitive one, often with razor thin margins. To maintain customers and to find new ones, the ag retailer needs to adapt to the changing landscape of the Canadian ag industry.

While outside influences such as the pandemic are shaping the way we do business, internal factors going back to the good ol’ common sense ways of doing business still have a role to play.

Building a strong relationship with each member of your customer base will ensure loyalty. This means creating or re-creating your habits for success.

Being an ag advisor or ag partner is, in the 21st century, a means to a successful ag retail operation in both the short- and long-term.

You must know your customer, know your product, know what other products and technologies are out there, be aware of issues that may ultimately affect your customer base, and above all, you must have solutions at hand.

Farmers and ag retailers have more in common than perceived. Don’t be afraid of communication between you on a business to business level.

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