Pictured Above: (l to R) Kevin Depies, Ritchie Implement, Hannah Long, 4 Rivers Equipment, Pete Youngblut, Youngblut Ag

The first step to establishing a brand for your precision business is taking a look in the mirror and figuring out what exactly you are or what you want to be. You need to look at how you’re different from not just your neighbors but different regions, says Kevin Depies.

Before trying to establish a marketing plan or branding strategy, Depies says he asked himself a few key questions. “We had to look at our variables. What’s in our marketplace that is different than central Illinois, Florida, Texas?” he says. “And then we really had to look in the mirror. Who do we want to be, what do we want to represent ourselves as? Where is that going to take us? What is the need of our marketplace? How does this fit with who we want to be and fill that need? And then lastly, can we make money, is it profitable? You can have the best marketing strategy in the world and if you’re not making money, it just doesn’t make sense.”

Depies, part of the management team at Ritchie Implement, a 3-store Case IH dealer based in Cobb, Wis., along with two others, discussed the do’s and don’ts of creating a marketing strategy during this year’s Precision Farming Dealer Summit in St. Louis.

Today’s consumers and farm customers are smart and demand that their dealers be knowledgeable. When it comes to precision farming, you’ve got to know what you’re talking about, Depies says. “If your trying to get into the marketplace and your understanding of GPS is it comes from a little beam up in the sky, you don’t really know much and you’re not going to capture that marketplace. You’re just going to be another number, another salesman that drives in the farmer’s yard trying to pitch something. If you can add value to your knowledge, that’s how you can build your brand.”

Pete Youngblut, owner of Youngblut Ag, an independent precision dealer in Dysart, Iowa, agrees that the first step in branding a dealership and the precision department is figuring out what you want to be in the marketplace.

“Your branding really starts with who are you?” Youngblut says. “I have a lot of customers who tell me ‘You have a great product. I really like my monitor, but I’m not buying a monitor, I’m buying you. I bought Pete, I paid for Pete.’”

Youngblut asked himself, “Why are these guys paying for me? What makes me so great?” The answer is he’s worked at cultivating the relationship. He answers their questions when he can, but when he doesn’t know the answer he at least knows someone who does and can get the answer for the customer. “Relationship building is really the biggest thing. Who are you, what do you do and what are you going to sell to that customer?” he says.

Once a dealership has determined how it’s going to serve the marketplace and what it’s going to be to its customers, it’s time think strategy. How are you going to build a brand that delivers the right message to your customers?

“In reality, marketing has various pieces to it: research, promotion and advertising. The strategy is what are you doing to get to an end result,” says Depies.

Finding a Strategy

When Ritchie Implement, Farm Equipment’s 2015 Dealership of the Year, began putting a marketing strategy together, the management team considered branding the precision farming department as a standalone business but ultimately decided that didn’t fit with who the dealership was. “We just couldn’t, it didn’t work with what we were. We sell Ritchie Implement, we don’t sell wholegoods, we don’t sell service, we don’t sell parts. We sell the whole dealership,” explains Depies.

For Ritchie, a key to the strategy was ensuring that precision wasn’t just an add-on to help get a tractor sold and that meant getting everyone in the dealership on the same page. “That give away or discount mentality went away once we brought everybody together, the sales staff is ultimately part of our PF [precision farming] staff,” Depies says. In fact, in order to become a member of the sales staff, new employees are required to be a precision farming specialist too.

“Everybody knows how to talk the talk and walk the walk. Some people are a little bit more specialized than others, so we turn it over and let our specialists take over those particular areas just so we make sure we’re presenting the right knowledge to our customers,” he says.

One benefit of this “all for one” approach is if the dealership loses an employee, or even if someone just takes some time off, there’s back up. “We can mask our weakness,” Depies says. “You lose one man, you don’t lose the whole show. You just lose one part of the your puzzle because everybody’s experienced and part of the team. It’s a lot easier for the group to overcome the one person missing while you fill the void and retrain.

“When we did have a little turnover, we didn’t drop the ball. We kept running with it. While it may have taken a little longer to pass it, we could still keep moving it forward. Every department is our PF department.”

With each department working as part of the precision farming department, Ritchie Implement has been able to gain billable time. Rather than saying they’ll send a precision farming tech out, they are setting up a service call. “When you say the words ‘service call,’ it becomes billable. The first thing the customer thinks is ‘I’m getting a bill.’ Before when we said we’d send a PF guy out, they thought freebie.”

Depies stresses that while “freebies” were necessary when they were getting started in precision farming, the dealership is moving away from it 100%. He says everything has to be billable, whether it’s internally or to a customer. “The biggest thing is to keep as much accountability for your time as you can,” he says.

Building a ‘Free’ Sales Team

Youngblut Ag is a small operation without a dedicated marketing staff. But Youngblut has found ways to get the word out about the operation without growing his staff. Through his interactions with customers, he’s built up a good reputation. “You start with the basics by going out and doing a good job, being good at what you do,” he says. “That can also kill you because if you half-ass it and don’t do a good job or you just wanted to hit that sales quota and you’re just kind of shoving stuff out the door, people notice that and they talk about it.”

Youngblut has taken word of mouth to the next level by seeking out the “Chatty Cathy” in the group. He looks for a customer who likes to go to meetings and farm shows and who, if given the opportunity, will talk your ear off. “We all know those people, ones that you go and you talk to them and they tell you their life’s story. Well, if you pick out those customers, you can make them your salespeople,” he says. “You can ask them, ‘You know anybody else that does stuff like this or has a similar operation or might want to do something?’ That was something that somebody told me years ago. They said, ‘Why don’t you ask the guy if he’s got any buddies?’ It just grows and grows from there.”

Those talkative customers are what Youngblut calls a “free sales team.” He found people he knows will be in front of a lot of other people and lets them do the talking for him. “They aren’t intentionally trying to. I’m not paying them to sell for me. But it comes up in conversation,” he says.

Those free salespeople can also help you out on social media. For very little money (as low as $10) you can promote a post and get a thousand people to see it, Youngblut says. “Then people are talking and you can see the interaction. You can look at the insights, and that will help you gauge what’s going on,” he says. “But you’re still kind of coming back to that word of mouth because that’s what social media is essentially. You get to go out and say, ‘Hey I was doing this,’ and all these people see it and talk about it.”

Spreading the Message

To get the word out about their precision farming offerings, Ritchie Implement also opted for word of mouth. Depies says they didn’t use any paid advertisements for two reasons. First, they didn’t want to oversell and not be able to deliver the service, and second they wanted to be known for the whole dealership, not just precision farming.

“The important thing to know is not everybody can be the quarterback, but everybody’s got to have a role on the team. Like I said, we don’t sell PF, we sell Ritchie Implement and we’ve got to build partnerships with our customers and with the players on our team,” he says.

Word of mouth of course is not the only option to spread the word on your precision farming business. For dealers who have a marketing manager on staff, Hannah Long recommends creating a sales manual that can be used to help make the marketing message clear and effective. “I’m the type of person who needs to know everything, but just enough of it so I know what’s going on,” says Long, marketing manager at 4 Rivers Equipment in Greeley, Colo.

“That way I’m clearly communicating the full picture when I’m sending something out in the mail or on Facebook, wherever it may be. I really want to know the details so I don’t leave anything out. It’s hard to communicate to a customer sometimes as things change. So we’re trying to find a way that makes that change a little bit more consistent.”

A sales manual that works as a sort of playbook for 4 Rivers Equipment’s sales and marketing teams is one way to make sure the messages going out to the customers are clear, consistent and actionable.

Creating a Sales Manual

Before creating the sales manual, the Integrated Solutions manager, Chase Crouch would forward sales bulletins from John Deere on to Long and it wasn’t always clear what aspects were most important. “It says all these very descriptive things from Deere are available and there’s a price point that I’m not sure if that’s the price we want to go with. I don’t really know the call to action. What do we want our customers to do? But I’m supposed to advertise this. So where do I go from there?” Long asks.

To clear up that confusion, Long and Crouch started meeting regularly to create a sales manual that would provide Long with some general ideas about where the department was going. It provides 4 Rivers with a plan going forward. Items covered in the sales manual include effective dates for a promotion, a why statement, sales strategy, solutions, delivery and pricing. They meet every 3 months to make sure the current offerings are still relevant to the market. The “why statement” looks at reasons the dealership is investing in this department.

The sales strategy defines who is responsible for what, Long says. For example, is the service department responsible for taking calls or is the salesperson responsible for placing the order and giving it to the precision department. It lays out a formal process. “That way when we’re putting together call to actions for some of these services, I know who to direct that person to,” explains Long. “I’m not just saying contact us. I’m saying contact someone at the Greeley store, he’s going to be the one that’s going to help you sign up for this.”

While most dealerships likely have the solutions they offer pretty well defined, Long says it’s important to sit down and look at how you’re delivering those solutions. And this can be tedious. “We sat down and spent about half a day defining the steps of each service. So, say for the variable-rate options we have available, the customer needs 3 things. They need an EM RTK mapping session, they need a soil sample and they need a consultation before we even get into the next part of the solution,” she says.

This process helps Long to more clearly understand what can be bundled together for a promotion. For instance, if 4 Rivers wants to get customers to sign up for EM RTK mapping in the spring, she now knows that variable-rate options will be important too and she can push those two together in the spring. “It gives me a better idea on how the whole system works,” Long says.

Branding by Value Silos

To make sure the messages being presented in 4 Rivers marketing materials are consistent, the dealership has created 4 “value silos”— Ground, Cultivate, Grow and Yield — or value steps that cover a different value they’re providing the customer (see table below).

“The reason we’ve done this is to really establish a consistent message. So when I go out with a marketing presence I have a message to work off, I have something to establish a consistent presence in the market,” Long says. “The services within each of these value silos can change from year to year or month to month, which is great because now we have the ability to establish that consistency but provide our customers unique opportunities within the market each quarter.”

Now, when Crouch passes a sales bulletin from John Deere along to Long, he answers three questions for her. First he tells her what the update is in about one sentence. Second, why does the customer care and finally what’s the call to action, what does he want the customer to do. These three pieces help Long create a clear and consistent message to send out to the customer.

Getting on Board

A consistent message isn’t just important for the customer. The entire dealership needs to be on the same page, with a constituent understanding about the precision department to make it profitable. From the precision farming techs to the sales team and parts department all the way up to top management, it’s important that everyone is viewing the precision department as a critical and necessary part of the business.

“There are people who look at it as a necessary evil and I cringe when I hear that term out there,” Depies says. “When I hear the term necessary evil I think of a dealer-principal or a management team that doesn’t understand the value precision farming brings to the dealership. That’s typically the dealership that is discounting a lot of what’s going on and giving away free labor. We want to look at it as an essential advantage. This is your essential advantage to get into that farm, to build your partnership with that customer and that grower.”

That all goes back to looking in the mirror and determining who you want to be. Youngblut says above all else you need to figure out who you are and what your goal is. “Is precision your priority or is it just moving iron,” he says. “If you’re just giving it away to get a piece of iron moved, that’s a little bit different than if you’re really in this game.”

The most important thing to remember, Depies says, is your dealership is different than your competitors. “That’s what’s going to drive your brand, and that’s what’s going to drive profitability at your dealership.”