Pictured Above: (l to r) Jon Bickel, Ag Solutions, Bryan Peterman, Atlantic Tractor, Dustin Christofferson, Wheat Growers

Mixing and matching precision farming equipment and components can, in many cases, produce a superior system for some operations. On the other hand, compatibility issues with such systems have been known to create major headaches for precision farming technicians whose job it is to make them operate properly.

This along with the need to grow revenues from precision services are among the conundrums dealers are grappling with in their efforts to profitably serve farm customers.

It’s a question of compatibility, says Jon Bickel, which he defines as “the ability of one computer, piece of software, etc., to work with another.” Bickel, who owns Used Precision Ag Solutions, Fort Wayne, Ind., and two other panelists addressed the topic of solving equipment compatibility issues while increasing service revenue at this year’s Summit.

He reports that 90% of his business involves used equipment. As a result, he says, “I’m trying to match a lot of older equipment with newer equipment, so I work on conquering compatibility on a daily basis.”

And unlike the problems confronting dealers who focus on newer precision technologies, Bickel says, compatibility issues and the time involved with pairing up components of older systems and technologies also presents him with some bigger bottom-line challenges. “I’ve had to learn some tricks to stay profitable in this business.”

According to Bickel, one of the difficulties all precision tech services wrestle with is the fact that while manufacturers provide hardware, they seldom test its compatibility with other brands of equipment. “It ends up being our job to figure out for them how to make it work with all the other equipment out there. I’ve had to do this many, many times.”

On the other hand, Wheat Growers, a 5,400 member co-op based in Aberdeen, S.D., is a colorblind group that works with more than a dozen different equipment brands, and they prefer it that way, according to Dustin Christofferson, precision specialist for the 2014 Precision Farming Dealer Most Valuable Dealership.

“Collectively, all of us on the precision ag side of things at the co-op level have decided that if we could build the best system out there without regard to price, it would be rainbow colored because no single supplier has that best solution. One company may have the best offering for one part of the system, but another has that niche filled better on the other side of things. Being colorblind offers opportunity for a lot of labor and revenue potential because you can service that many more customers rather than being restricted to the logo that’s on the side of your service vehicle,” says Christofferson.

‘If It Hooks, It Works’

The fact of the matter is, regardless of the age of various precision systems and their components, compatibility between the brands has been and, in all likelihood, will continue to be an issue. This combined with the rapid rise of new applications for precision farming have dealers and their technicians running in several directions at once trying to keep their customers up and in the field.

To Grow Service Programs, Offer Variety, Ask Questions

Most dealers have already discovered that no single support package will fit the needs of all farm customers. They must constantly change and it’s up to the precision specialist to determine which customer needs what.

Three panelists at the Precision Farming Dealer Summit suggested answers to the following questions will help determine the type of service package an individual customer requires:

  • Does the customer need support for documenting or only for technology components?
  • Where’s the customer in terms of knowledge and ability to work with technology?
  • What is your [as the dealer] comfort level when it comes to technology support. Is it only with your brand or with various brands?

As customers’ experience with precision technology grows, they will probably require less support with the technology components, but may need additional coaching with data gathering and record keeping.

According to Bryan Peterman, Integrated Solutions Manager for Atlantic Tractor in Clayton, Del., dealers need to create new and different service packages that are dependent on the customer’s individual needs and experience.

When it comes to inspection programs, he advises dealers to make sure the words “software” and “updates” are included. Software, he says, needs to be treated like parts — old software is the same as an old part.

“I look at software like diesel fuel. We can have the highest performance engine possible in a tractor, but add poor fuel and it won’t perform,” Peterman explains. “It’s the same scenario with technology. We can have the best rate controllers, the newest displays, brand new wires, everything done right, everything perfect. If we don’t make it a point to validate the software all the way through, especially when we’re mix and matching, it’s going to fail. And if it fails you failed and you will struggle to get that customer back under your wings.”

Now in his 30th year in the farm equipment business, panelist Bryan Peterman says, precision farming’s new compatibility challenges are far more complex than in the early days of precision farming.

Peterman is Integrated Solutions manager for Atlantic Tractor in Clayton, Del., a dealership that operates 11 stores. He explains that many of precision farming’s issues start with the OEMs who designed their systems to only work with their proprietary equipment and components. “They were hard locked to not work with any others,” Peterman says. This makes mixing and matching components to form one smooth running operating system difficult at best. In some instances, he adds, it may not be worth it for the time, costs and headaches involved.

Starting with auto-steer, which was initially an aftermarket technology that worked with multiple brands, he says, farm customers were lulled into thinking that newer technology could be easily adapted to their existing equipment. Now, they want to use their existing monitors, for example, with new planters or other implements. In other words, farmers believed “if it hooks, it works,” says Peterman.

“The customer expects that, because his equipment has a touchscreen and auto-steer, it’s going to work with other technologies. It’s like all tractors have drawbars and PTOs that work with any sort of implement, they think their equipment should work with any precision technology,” says Peterman.

Using the term “ISO compatible” also adds to the confusion, he says. “The customer hears, ‘It’s ISO compatible’ and thinks it should work with whatever other ISO compatible equipment he has. And it might depending on the manufacturer and year it was ISO certified,” Peterman explains. “For example, in the early 2000s, John Deere had some equipment that ran on a 4.5 voltage CAN bus system. It still uses the same plug as it did previously, but it’s 2.5 current. When you plug one into the other, interesting things start to happen. Of course, the customer doesn’t know why things don’t work now because it plugs in just like the other one did, so it’s left up to us to figure out why and if it will even work.”

Making the Pieces Fit

Peterman says the best way to solve compatibility issues is to avoid them in the first place if at all possible. This effort must start with the sales department. “Sales have the habit of selling the latest and greatest without understanding what it takes to make it work properly,” he says.

In the past, the equipment salesperson was the primary contact between the dealership and its customers. But Peterman insists that at the rate new technology is emerging, the precision team needs to have the same level of relationship with the dealership’s clients. “Salespeople have not been in a position to keep up with the technology and don’t have the experience to spot potential compatibility problems. If a dealership’s technology specialists aren’t involved in the sales process, they better make it so because it’s becoming more and more important.”

Peterman explains how equipment salespeople and technology specialists differ in their views of customer transactions. “A salesperson goes to a farm, looks in the shed and sees an opportunity to sell a half million dollars’ worth of equipment. When we go to that same farm and look in that same shed, we’re trying to figure out how to adapt precision to the farmer’s operation. We start profiling the customer to prepare them for what’s going to happen.

“If it’s an all green customer, for example, we’re comfortable that what they buy from us is going to work. If it’s a rainbow customer, we make absolutely sure they’re well aware of ISO compatibility,” says Peterman. “If we’re going to mix and match things, we want these customers to ask questions like, ‘Is it going to work with my display and my tractor?’ We want these questions asked and we demand that our employees address these things before the customer makes a decision to prevent surprises when it’s time to go to the field. It’s a combination of employee training and customer awareness.”

In fact, he insists, selling today’s equipment with technology requires a team effort of all dealership employees. “These days, a salesperson has no business selling iron that involves technology without the support of the precision staff. Customers need to know what they’re getting into because it gets expensive if it doesn’t work. It’s very important that there’s a team effort and everybody understands your customers’ needs and the direction they’re going.

“You have got to know your equipment limitations in the technology world and make sure the customer understands it. For example, I had a customer plug his old drill into the back of his newer tractor and it destroyed the controllers. That’s a very expensive lesson to learn.”

He adds that it also gets expensive if it takes additional components or software to correct something that should have been included in the setup costs. And besides not accounting for compatibility concerns, when selling iron with technology, salespeople often don’t build in enough margin to cover training time, Peterman explains.

Help Along the Way

It’s not unusual for tech specialists to blend a half dozen different brands of components and equipment together based on what a farmer needs and wants. It happens all the time according to the panelists. “But if we can’t put that last touch on it to make it all work, the whole thing’s a disaster,” says Peterman. “We don’t care what color the equipment is or how new it is, if you can’t make it work, it’s a disaster.”

In other words, precision specialists need to recognize the limitations of the technology and equipment and it’s their job to make sure the customer understands it. Nonetheless, it’s a feather in their hat with the customer when they can resolve the most difficult of issues.

The panelists have come to know that sometimes they aren’t able to do it on their own. So who do they turn to for help in difficult situations? It’s not unusual for them to call their competitor.

The fact of the matter is, techs who are responsible for making mixed systems work can’t rely on the OEMs to tell them how a new monitor, for example, can interface with other brands of hardware.

“It’s up to us to figure this stuff out,” says Bickel. “A lot of it is done by trial and error, and by talking with the guys who work with the different brands. I’ve got Deere and Case IH guys on my speed dial. If I’ve got questions about their equipment, I call them and they help me out. If they have questions about brands I work with, I help them out.

“There have been times when I dropped a case of beer off because they’ve gotten me out of a jam. You can’t put a price on these relationships,” says Bickel. “So my challenge to you is to make sure you meet some other dealers, get to know your competition. It will help you in the long run.”

Peterman adds, “A lot of us sell a lot of different things, but we all get along. Our dealer-principals probably don’t like the fact that we have a good working relationship with our competition, but I can tell you that we need it.”

He says one of the lessons he learned early on was selling a green planter to a farmer who owned a red tractor and a red display and ran on a RTK cellular network. “He was ready to plant and it wouldn’t work. I checked with John Deere and I heard several times, ‘It should work. It should work.’ It didn’t. So Deere’s solution was to call the red guy’s precision expert. “He needs to put software in that display so it’ll talk to our planter.’”

Peterman describes his call to the competing red dealer as “uncomfortable.” He says, “I had to tell him that I sold his customer a new planter and it won’t work and John Deere is telling me it’s your problem.”

The competing dealer’s precision specialist came out to work on it and it took about 4 hours to update the software and to get the thing to work. “We both learned a lot that day and so did the customer. Neither of us wanted that customer to have a bad experience. The farmer was happy to know that we had worked together to solve the problem. Both of us knew we needed that customer.”

Since that time he’s developed a solid relationship with the competing dealer and they help each other out. His dealership has since taken it to another level and the two service departments now cooperate with each other. “It really speeds up the solution even when it’s a competitive product,” Peterman says. “A lot of our tech staff is on a first name basis with our number one competitor. In my opinion, if we don’t work together, there’s a good chance that the customer will view technology negatively and all of us will struggle to sell new products.

“I’m a firm believer in not only know your competition’s equipment and its capabilities, but also to literally ‘know’ your competition,” he says.

It Comes Back to Revenue

Deriving enough revenue from precision farming activities that contributes to dealerships’ bottom line can be challenging for many dealers. With many precision systems and components being factory installed, retailers are looking toward service as their best opportunity to grow revenues. But it’s often easier said than done, according to the panelists, and sometimes its as much a matter of reducing losses than increasing sales.

They identify “free-to-fee” as one the industry’s biggest challenges. They say this is largely the result of companies like Verizon and AT&T constantly offering free software upgrades and service support, while banking on subscription fees to cover these costs.

Dealers don’t have that luxury as ag equipment OEMs aren’t nearly as generous with their software as are the cellphone companies. “A lot of times we’re just banking on the service itself,” says Peterman. “Free-to-fee is a very tough challenge that we will continue to have as we figure out how to get paid for a lot of the stuff we do, especially when it’s our branded equipment and farmers believe it just should magically work.

“Our job as specialist is to determine if it is an equipment failure, requires a software update or it’s operator error. We don’t know the source of the problem until we ask questions and get some answers about where the trouble is and then the conversation starts.”

A major issue dealers must take a closer look at is recouping warranty costs from the OEM. He advises, “Do not let the manufacturers off the hook.”

While OEMs resist paying warranty claims, Peterman says dealers need to submit every problem, especially if it involves software. “You may only get paid an hour or two on a 10 hour job, but if you do that 20 or 30 times they’ll finally get the message that there’s a problem. You’ll start hearing from the OEM’s service rep. The next thing you know, the factory starts asking questions and you can at least get the problem resolved. Don’t just go by and let this one slip through. It’s definitely a trigger for the OEMs to fix the problem. Do not let this slide.”

3 S’s of Used Precision Ag Compatibility

While Jon Bickel, owner of Used Precision Ag Solutions, Fort Wayne, Ind., says he adheres to the 3 S’s of “used” precision ag compatibility, his guidelines can pretty much be applied to any dealer’s precision farming operations, including new equipment. This is because they’re aimed at making smart decisions that result in profitability.

1. Stay in Your Comfort Zone.

With equipment brands: “If you’re a John Deere or Case IH dealer and a customer has a problem with a Dickey-john controller and you have no experience with these units, will the time required by the tech be worth the revenue earned?

With the age of the equipment: “I deal with a lot of old equipment (15-20 years old) that can still work. But if you’re new to precision farming or been around for just a few years, this is probably something you’re not going to want to dive into.”

With your experience. “You’ll learn a lot of things from the other dealers if you pat attention. With more experience, you can tackle some of these older compatibility issues. Just because you can do it, doesn’t mean you should do it.”

2. Stay Profitable.

Dollars: “You can’t stay in business with a 20% margin on a $500 piece of old equipment and making $100. With stuff like this you’re working for nickels and dimes and it’s not worth the effort.”

Time: “If you spend 5 hours working on old equipment, it’s hard to bill that 5 hours out when it was $100 piece of hardware. You’re better offering your customer something newer that works at the get-go and probably a little bit easier.”

Surprises: “Working with old equipment, not a day goes by that we’re not surprised with something. We’ve run across a lot of different scenarios that we never would have expected. And they all take time and it cost money.”

3. Stay Efficient.

Limited Time: “You’ve got limited time, so the less time we spend on [used] the more money you can make doing other things. Many times, if you can move the customer into a new or newer piece, it’s best for everyone involved.”

Off-Season: “If working on older equipment can be pushed to the off-season and there’s no urgency, it’s best to do this. I’m not going to sacrifice other jobs to do a job and make less money on it. It all boils down to profitability. You got to stay in business.”