Pictured Above: With just two people working in the precision department at A.C. McCartney, Joe Smolenski (l) and Nathan Zimmerman keep in close contact throughout the day and regularly check in to see how the other is doing.
Multitasking was the name of the game while riding along with Nathan Zimmerman, precision farming manager for A.C. McCartney, for our latest Day in the Cab profile. With the sun finally breaking winter’s gloom and temperatures in the mid-60s, spring had taken root in northern Illinois, making area farmers anxious to get in the field.
As farmers dusted off their planters, it quickly became clear that a large portion of Nathan’s job over the coming hours, and the following days, would be to help refresh customers’ memories on how to get their planting technology up and running.
This requires a steady cell phone signal and an immeasurable amount of perseverance. “A big part of my job is patience,” he says. “I can’t get frustrated with customers, especially in the spring. As precision service technicians, we’re the face of the company. We work with the customers almost on a daily basis. Customers buy into the people at a dealership, more so even than the products we sell.”
Nathan has been a product technology specialist with A.C. McCartney, a 4-store AGCO dealership group, for 5 years, starting at the Wataga, Ill., location. Since building up the precision customer base in the area, he became the store manager at the dealership’s Mount Sterling, Ill., store.
Day in the Cab Videos
Take a closer look at a day in the life on the job with Nathan Zimmerman, precision farming manager with A.C. McCartney, through exclusive videos filmed during Precision Farming Dealer's Day in the Cab.
6:00 a.m. I roll out of bed and take a moment to remember where I am as my alarm squawks at me from the night stand. The day before had been spent making the 3.5 hour trek south to the Fairfield Inn & Suites in Galesburg, Ill., just 15 minutes away from A.C. McCartney’s Wataga, Ill., store where we’ll rendezvous with Nathan this morning to start our day.
6:55 a.m. Bags packed and ready for the day ahead, I meet managing editor Jack Zemlicka in the lobby for a quick breakfast before we head out. As we finish up, a hotel hostess stops us for a little small talk and we explain that we’re on our way to do a story on a farm equipment dealership in Wataga. She beams and says, “You must be talking about A.C. McCartney. We live just up the road and do all of our equipment business with them.” Her enthusiastic endorsement for the dealership sets the tone for the rest of the day.
7:30 a.m. We pull into the parking lot at A.C. McCartney. The dealership is spacious with a two-story showroom sprinkled with utility vehicles and Massey Ferguson tractors. A set of stairs to one side of the showroom lead up to a second story mezzanine housing the dealership’s offices, including one occupied by Nathan and Joe Smolenski, A.C. McCartney’s second product technology specialist who has been with the dealership for 3 years.
They are already busy on the phone confirming their customer visits for the day, precision parts piled high on the desk ready to be delivered. Nathan tells us he’s been at the dealership since around 6:30 a.m., which is typical for him. While he’s based out of the Mount Sterling location, he met with Joe in Wataga today to help make a few calls in the area.
“It should be in our job description that we need to be part monkey,” Nathan Zimmerman says as he climbs on top of Jeff Hank’s tractor to fix a GPS cable.
While Nathan used to handle all of the invoicing for the precision program himself, he’s had to pass more of those duties off to Joe. “Sometimes you have to learn to delegate here and there,” he says.
Between the two product technology specialists, A.C. McCartney’s precision service program covers farmers from Springfield, Ill., to Janesville, Wis., though Nathan says he has been as far north as Steven’s Point, Wis., about a 5 hour drive from Wataga.
Encouraging customers to text if their issue isn’t urgent can cut down on the number of missed phone calls during the busy season.
Keeping spare parts and commonly used cables on hand can save a trip back to the dealership if an unexpected problem occurs.
Getting as many customers set up as possible before planting begins can help cut down on customer visits during the busy season.
7:45 a.m. Nathan finishes his second phone call in the last 10 minutes with a customer in Mount Sterling who wants him to make a visit the next day. He explains that in some of their service areas, there are quite a few farmers already finished planting. “Some of them must have been planting in their winter coats,” he says with a laugh.
There hasn’t been too much planting activity in the Wataga area yet, but with nice weather in the forecast, Nathan says that could change quickly.
New this year for A.C. McCartney’s precision department is a precision service plan, in which customers pay $300 for the year and receive unlimited phone support, 10% off labor rates and technology parts, two free training sessions and free loaner equipment when available. “The most important part of the new service package is now we get paid for phone support,” Nathan says. “Honestly, 95% of my job during the busy season is spent on the phone. We can usually fix just about everything over the phone, and if we can’t, we know it within the first 2 minutes of talking with a customer and we’ll set up a service visit.”
Since the plan was introduced in January, A.C. McCartney has had a 30% take rate. As tractors get rolling for planting, Nathan says he’ll typically receive 70-100 calls from customers a day. While the call volume hasn’t reached those numbers yet, with the sunshine and drying soil, he anticipates that this day in the cab could be a different story.
“Troubleshooting often occupies the majority of Nathan Zimmerman’s time during customer visits. Taking a methodical approach to diagnosing and solving a problem is essential.
7:52 a.m. After grabbing the parts he’ll need for the day, we’re headed for the door. He squeezes the components in among the other miscellaneous parts and cables kept in the covered bed of his GMC Sierra pickup truck. “I try to keep an assortment of stuff in the truck, the things I know I usually run into in the field,” Nathan explains.
He keeps his toolbox in the back passenger side of the truck and as Jack and I squeeze in beside it, we joke that there’s an important reason why they always send us short editors on ride alongs.
Our first stop of the day will be at Al Werkheiser’s farm about 40 minutes away in Kewanee, Ill., where we’ll be doing a pre-season inspection on his 24 row White planter, as well as unlocking the GPS subscription on his Topcon steering system. This is a pretty routine job and Nathan guesses it will take about 30-40 minutes.
“95% of my job during the busy season is spent on the phone……”
8:15 a.m. As we drive to Kewanee, Nathan’s phone buzzes for the first time since entering the truck and the Bluetooth kicks in, momentarily deafening us with the louder-than-expected jingle of the ringtone coming through the truck’s speakers.
Eric McKee, a customer in Macomb, Ill., is on the other end of the line, asking about the ECU steering on his tractor that needs to be replaced and calibrated. Nathan says we should be able to stop over later this afternoon, which is comforting news for Eric, who says that although they’ve only had auto-steering for 2 years, his father has already forgotten how to steer the tractor on his own.
“That’s validation for what we’re doing,” Nathan says with a laugh. “Once they have steering, they never want to go back.”
8:25 a.m. As we pull up to Al Werkheiser’s house, Nathan warns Jack and I that he told Al ahead of time that we would be joining him for the visit. “There might be a crowd waiting for us,” he says, smiling.
Nathan and the customer climb into the cab of the 8660 Massey Ferguson tractor and get to work checking that all the systems are working correctly on the planter, including running a valve calibration to make sure the rates will be correct when he gets into the field.
“We do quite a few of these stops early in the year to get customers ready for planting,” he says. “We like to plan them ahead of time so customers have confidence that everything is correct and they aren’t calling us the day they want to be in the field planting because something isn’t working right.”
“While visiting Al Werkheiser to do a pre-season planter inspection and update his OmniStar subscription, Nathan Zimmerman takes the time to run through various monitor screens with Werkheiser to make sure everything is set up correctly before he gets in the field. This can save time and a service call during planting season.
Setting up the OmniStar subscription goes quickly this morning. Nathan is only 4 calls behind in line when he makes the call to the company to activate the signal. But later in the spring, he says waiting in line for receiver activations can easily turn a 30 minute job into a 4 hour job.
9:15 a.m. We’re back in the truck and on the road. Before we head over to our second visit for the day, Nathan wants to stop and see how Joe’s doing with a down force monitor installation on a Kinze planter in Toulon, Ill.
“With there only being two of us in the precision department, we stay in close contact throughout the day to see who’s where and doing what,” he says. “If I get busy, I’ll call or text Joe and ask him to call so-and-so back. My voicemail says to call Joe if you can’t reach me and I’m pretty sure his says to call me if he’s busy.”
Nathan says he’s had more customers texting him recently as well, rather than calling with a problem. “A lot of the customers know we’re really busy and will text and say call me when you get a chance, which is helpful because then I know it isn’t urgent,” he says.
9:26 a.m. We reach Gary Forline’s farm in Toulon where Joe is hard at work setting up an Ag Leader down force monitoring system. “We’ll just pop in quick,” Nathan says. “We put clutches on his planter last year and Gary added precision meters on the corn rows earlier this year, so now he just wants to be able to monitor the down force.”
Confident that Joe is on the right track, we head back to the truck and get ready to pull out. As we’re about to leave, Gary hustles over with a plate of brownies, still warm from the oven.
“If customers like the way we handle our precision business, hopefully they’ll come in and buy some iron from us next time…”
9:30 a.m. Our next stop for the day will be at Jeff Hanks’ farm in Aledo, Ill., which is about a 1 hour drive from Toulon, for another planter pre-season inspection. On the drive, the truck becomes a call center, with customers calling in to ask planter set-up questions one after another.
“Most of the time, I’m able to talk guys through their problems while I’m on the road,” Nathan says in between calls. “I do 90% of my work right here while I’m driving in between customers.”
One customer calls with a monitor setup question and is having trouble getting his field prescriptions to behave correctly on the monitor. Nathan is able to talk him through it step by step, recalling each of the screens the farmer will have to go through and explaining what buttons need to be pressed to get everything working smoothly.
Six customer phone calls later and we’re bouncing up the stretch of dirt road to Jeff’s farm. “I’ll try to hit every pothole I can,” he jokes as we hit one especially rough bump in the road.
10:53 a.m. We arrive, but before we get out of the truck, Nathan makes a call to OmniStar to update a GPS subscription for a customer who called while we were on the road. We’re call number 30 in line so Nathan leaves his number. When he’s waiting to be called back, he usually estimates it will take about 1 minute per place in line, so this time, he expects to hear back in about 30 minutes.
As we leave the truck, the customer who called with the monitor setup issue calls back and is still having trouble. Now he’s losing his satellites. Nathan has him switch the guidance system from the Eastern to the Central beam and says to call back again if that doesn’t solve the problem.
11:05 a.m. We are greeted by Jeff’s three dogs, which immediately identify me as a willing head scratcher. The farm is busy at work as Jeff, his son and his toddler grandson prep the planter to get into the field.
“Nathan Zimmerman keeps a supply of regularly used cables and connectors on hand for situations like the one he encountered at Jeff Hank’s farm where the tractor was missing a necessary GPS cable.
Starting his inspection, Nathan immediately notices that Jeff is missing a GPS cable, which comes as a surprise. Luckily, he finds and untangles the cable he needs in his service truck.
“Jeff always has a little surprise in store for me like something broke last year and he didn’t tell me about it,” he says good humoredly. “If I hadn’t had the GPS cable in the truck today, we would have been out of luck.”
As Nathan climbs on top of the tractor to attach the GPS cable he receives two more calls from customers with planter monitor questions. As he balances his phone between his ear and shoulder, he is able to get the GPS cable set up, runs through the clutches and solves a problem the customer was having getting his ISOBUS to connect to the Ag Leader monitor.
“It should be in our job description that we need to be part monkey,” Nathan says. “I spend most of my time crawling all over tractors with one hand on my phone and one hand attaching wires.”
Jeff also needs his GPS subscription updated, but Nathan will take care of that when he hears back about the other activations.
12:38 p.m. Nathan wraps up the planter pre-season inspection and we’re back in the truck. Despite the busy start to the day, we’re running ahead of schedule and have time to stop for a quick lunch at a Subway in Aledo. “Every little town seems to have a Subway,” he jokes.
1:15 p.m. After lunch we get ready to head to Eric McKee’s farm in Macomb, Ill., to replace and calibrate the ECU steering system he had called about earlier.
“They had the ECU sitting in the cab of the tractor with the tractor parked on a hill,” Nathan says, explaining what happened to Eric’s old ECU. “The roof was leaky and the cab filled up with enough moisture that the ECU got soaked. Replacing the ECU should only take about 5 minutes and calibrating it should only take another 10-15 minutes.”
“Retrofitting older equipment isn’t a problem ... If it has a steering wheel, we can do it…”
Shortly after we hit the road, the calls from customers come pouring in again. One customer calls to see if we’ve heard anything from OmniStar yet about updating his GPS subscription, which we haven’t. Nathan lets him know that we’re still waiting and we’ll give him a call when it’s updated.
The customer who had called twice before with monitor setup issues calls back another 4 times, still having trouble working with his ISOBUS planter. The farmer didn’t buy the precision equipment from A.C. McCartney and Nathan says sometimes trial and error problems can bring new business to the dealership.
“If I had time, I’d probably run out to the customer’s farm at this point and put in a new unit for him. If it rains in the next few days, I might be able to get out there,” he says. “Of course, then he’ll want to trade in his equipment that isn’t working, which puts me in a difficult position because I can’t sell it to someone else or I’ll be having the same conversations all over again.”
A large portion of A.C. McCartney’s precision business is aftermarket and Nathan says this helps bring customers with other colors of equipment into the dealership.
“We can put Ag Leader on any color of equipment, so if the customer has a planter or sprayer that doesn’t match, it doesn’t really matter on our end,” he says. “We can approach most situations with the same system. This also gets us in the door of some competitive dealers’ customers. If they like the way we do our precision business, hopefully they’ll come in and buy some iron from us next time.”
1:25 p.m. As the phone rings yet again with another customer question, Nathan says, “How many calls is that now? I just wish OmniStar would call back.” After he answers the customer’s questions, he decides to call the company again, thinking maybe since it’s been 3 hours now that he somehow lost his place in line. After this call, we’re now number 35 in line.
1:55 p.m. Three more customer phone calls later, he says, “Maybe one of these calls will finally be the one we’re waiting for.” And it’s almost like he’s psychic. Seconds later, OmniStar returns Nathan’s call and he gets a handful of customers’ subscriptions updated.
“As the weather warms up and more customers get into the field for planting, Nathan Zimmerman can receive near 100 calls throughout the day from customers with questions about equipment setup, navigating their monitors and receiver unlocks.
2:17 p.m. We pull up to Eric McKee’s farm in Macomb, Ill., and see his older Case IH 7120 tractor sitting outside the barn ready to have the new ECU for an OnTrac 2+ steering kit installed. Nathan pulls out his tape measure and gets to work measuring the tractor to get ready to calibrate the new system. We take the tractor for a few spins around the field and it’s ready to go.
“We get a lot of customers with older equipment who ask us if we can put steering on it,” he says. “I always tell them that if it has a steering wheel, we can do it. Retrofitting older equipment isn’t a problem. That’s probably the majority of our precision business, actually.”
3:10 p.m. We’re back on the road, but before we return to the dealership for the day, we drive to La Harpe, Ill., to drop off a relay for a display cable for a customer.
“I don’t know where he bought his stuff,” Nathan says. “I fixed his John Deere equipment one day and now he keeps calling me back. I just happened to have the part he needed with me, so we’ll drop it off for him. We’ll charge him for the part and if it doesn’t fix his problem, I’ll make a service call out there.”
3:34 p.m. We meet the customer at the Casey’s General Store in La Harpe and pass along the part. Then we head back to the dealership to wrap up the day.
As we’re driving back, Nathan receives a call from one customer who says his OmniStar still isn’t working, even though Nathan had been on the phone with them an hour ago to update the subscription. Nathan then calls another customer back and asks if his subscription came through, which it did.
He puts in another call to the manufacturer to find out why the first customer’s subscription didn’t go through. We’re call number 13 this time.
4:32 p.m. As we pull up to the dealership, Nathan’s call is returned. The customer’s subscription number had initially been entered incorrectly, but after the situation is cleared up, the system is activated and Nathan calls the customer back for confirmation.
All in all, he says today was a successful day. “If the next two days go as well as today, I’ll be in good shape,” he says. The day still isn’t over for Nathan, though. With the lights turning off in the dealership as Jack and I make our way back to our rental car for the drive home, Nathan pulls out the parts he’ll need for tomorrow and gets ready for another day in the cab.