Employee turnover is a predicament most precision farming dealers will need to navigate through at some point. The average tenure of a precision farming specialist at a dealership is often cited as about 18 months.
Losing tech-savvy talent and experience can be especially painful and stunt growth, but dealerships shouldn’t accept staff departures as an inevitable part of operating a precision business.
“Instead of looking outside of our organizations and trying to find a Superman-type of solution, we need to start taking a closer look at ourselves and figure out what we are reproducing as an organization,” says precision ag recruiter and consultant T.J. Stauffer. “What kind of people are we growing? We shouldn’t be expecting to hire the next Superman. We need to be cultivating the next crop of game changers in this industry. That’s the systemic switch that every dealership needs to make.”
During his general session at the 2018 Precision Farming Dealer Summit, Stauffer challenged a sold out crowd of nearly 170 attendees to evaluate their internal hiring habits and management of precision employees.
He detailed 4 essential approaches dealers can adopt to improve internal culture, increase employee retention and develop managers to be leaders their employees never want to leave.
1. Strengthen Your Structure
The first step in creating a sustainable precision workforce is having a strategy. Precision departments and dealerships tend to develop a “fire-fighting” mentality, reacting to problems rather than really solving them, Stauffer says.
“You have to understand what your number one goal is and what your number two goal is and know which is which,” he says. “Everybody wants to be the best and make money. That’s not a goal.
“The large train wrecks happen when the top level leadership, the principals, the investors, they don’t understand the goal of a precision farming business. They think if they build it people will come, and they don’t.”
Establishing clear and measurable goals, along with a detailed strategy, will guide dealers in knowing the kind of people they need to execute those objectives. But one pattern dealerships repeat, whether out of convenience or frustration, is hiring people for the wrong roles and expecting them to perform, Stauffer says.
“If you are hiring a salesperson and your number one precision priority is service, it will bite you in the butt,” he says. “You’ll get excited when you see the sales coming in, but then you’ll get really unhappy fast when all the angry farmers start calling because they’re not getting the support that they want. So you have to know which is first. Is sales number one or is service number one?”
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It’s worthwhile for managers to have an honest conversation with new precision employees to set expectations and define responsibilities. In some cases, this can be a more collaborative experience than anticipated.
Stauffer says he’s seeing more “reverse mentoring” situations where new precision hires bring an advanced understanding of technology to the dealership and educate older generation managers in different departments.
“I am a huge fan of having a peer level precision department,” Stauffer says. “I am anti being the lone ranger because that’s a recipe for failure. A peer level department doesn’t just collaborate with sales and service, but the service and sales departments also have shared responsibilities under the precision farming department. Precision farming touches every part of the equipment your dealership sells, so it should touch every part of your organization.”
Meaning is Essential to Managing Millennial Employees
A report by the Pew Research Center indicated that as of 2015, the millennial generation represented the largest labor force in the U.S., at 53.5 million people.
This figure probably isn’t surprising to many farm equipment dealers who are populating their precision farming departments with employees born in the 1990s or early 2000s.
But this growing workforce represents a cultural shift from past generations in terms of motivation, career objectives and management needs, says professional ag recruiter, T.J. Stauffer.
“The number one thing millennials are looking for in their career is meaning. Not money,” he says. “I believe they are going to be the least money-motivated generation we’ve ever seen in this country.”
With that in mind, dealers are wise to evolve their approach to training and retaining this segment of their precision staff. As the most tech-savvy generation, millennials hold tremendous potential, and tapping into it requires a mix of patience, personal attention and leadership.
Stauffer notes that millennials often seek out guidance and direction, but also want to work in a collaborative environment. “Millennials do not want a boss, they want a mentor,” he says. “The challenge and goal for dealers is to be the leader that they never want to leave.”
Simple practices including taking an employee out for coffee and asking about their life can be impactful interactions and foster a sense of purpose. Stauffer says millennials also aren’t looking for promotion, as much as progression in their careers.
“Progression means there are literal goals planned out for achievement and accomplishment,” he says. “If you don’t lay it in front of millennials, they’re going to go somewhere else and work for someone who does that for them.”
Millennials also tend to value flexibility over financial compensation, Stauffer says. While a 9 to 5 grind may have fit past generations, it’s not the rigid work day today’s precision specialists are seeking.
“They’ll work the 80 hour weeks in the spring, but when the down season comes they want to know they can go to their kid’s baseball games,” Stauffer says. “If you show them flexibility, they’re going to be loyal.”
2. Take Training Seriously
While dealerships emphasize the importance of technology training, it’s also often an area where many fall short. If dealers expect to get field-ready specialists fresh from universities or a week of OEM training, they will be disappointed, Stauffer says.
In his experience, it takes an average of about 3 years on the job before a precision specialist is going to become pretty competent. It takes about 5 years before they start attaining “Jedi” status, and then anybody who’s been in the business more than 5 years starts becoming a “demigod” in the precision farming world.
“The problem is we don’t have many people that make it to the 2 year mark. But those who do get to the 6, 7, 8, 9 year mark, their talent is in their knowledge and experience and it’s irreplaceable,” Stauffer says. “How do you replace a million dollar earner that walks away from your organization? You can’t do it. What you can do is make sure you have your own internal pipeline of developing, mentoring and training so that when one person steps out there’s another one ready to step up.”
Stauffer calls this creating a “You University” where the precision business has a center of knowledge that can cross-train other departments and even customers.
For equipment dealers, this starts with nurturing their OEM relationships. “Manufacturers get excited when they see that you’re serious about staffing the right people and the right number of people, and then investing in their training and development,” he says.
Training will also breed another invaluable asset for precision specialists: confidence. Stauffer suggests being creative with how and when you expose employees to in-field experiences, which they likely haven’t had if they didn’t grow up on a farm.
“The difference between a good precision farming specialist and a great one is often confidence...”
Letting specialists “play” during slower times of the year increases their comfort level with different systems and also gives them low-pressure experience troubleshooting technology so they can be prepared when a customer needs help in the middle of planting or harvest.
“The difference between a good precision farming specialist and a great one is often confidence,” Stauffer says. “The difference between a bad salesperson and good one is often confidence. Confidence sells. Confidence helps to mitigate stress.”
3. Support: The Missing Link
Even if dealers invest in proper training for their precision team, it’s only as useful as the back-end support they get. This is a gap that needs to be closed, Stauffer says.
“The number one reason why people are quitting precision farming is support,” he says. “This job is never going to be easy. But getting and receiving support should always be easy.”
Too often, there isn’t a clear path of communication for problem-solving support and specialists aren’t sure who to call for answers — the manufacturer, another specialist from the dealership or someone else?
“You have to develop a system and a network for ensuring that your people have the support they need when they need it. There’s nothing more stressful when you’re in the field and you have a problem that you can’t solve,” Stauffer says. “Throw in an infuriated farmer and your specialist is going to quit.”
To prevent this scenario, an effective support system should be implemented, guided by the answers to several questions.
• Who is the back-up to each precision specialist?
• Who is sharing duties and responsibilities?
• Who do you have at the OEM level that will answer when you call?
• Who do you have when someone at the OEM doesn’t answer?
• Who can you call in your peer network for advice?
Another option is to tap the expertise of some of your most progressive customers. “I have no problem with deputizing farmers,” Stauffer says. “Some of your customers are smarter than some of your employees, and it’s not a bad idea to train them to the level of some of your specialists.”
The bottom line with establishing a deep and reliable support network is customer service. There is little benefit to having a revolving door of precision specialists who are constantly being admonished by customers.
Eventually, this cycle will start to eat into the profitability of a dealership, Stauffer says. “What’s the cost of replacing an angry customer that walks away vs. the cost of training somebody? There’s a dollar sign involved in both of those and you have to figure out where are you losing the most, because the cost of investing in staff oftentimes is lower than the cost of losing a customer.”
4. Plot a Path to Progress
In addition to structure, training and support, precision specialists also need progression. A challenge for many dealers is to provide opportunities for advancement or growth within a precision business.
“When we lose our veteran precision farming people, those 5 year Jedis, it’s almost always because of a lack of progression,” Stauffer says. “We have lost some of our best people because they felt they had no future in this business.”
But it’s not all about the money, he says. It’s about understanding there are steps in the path where precision specialists will grow in their level of expertise, be given more responsibilities, diversify and be cultivated as leaders.
“If you are an equipment dealer, can your precision farming specialist one day be a general manager?” asks Stauffer. “Can they get there from where they are now? Have you created a path, where just like a salesperson or a service manager, that precision manager can become a store manager?”
If dealers don’t have a plan in place for growth, they face an uphill battle in retaining talent. While professional development is part of the equation, Stauffer says today’s specialists are also looking for personal support.
“The whole family unit is completely shaken up and that has totally changed the availability of our employees to work those 80, 90 hour work weeks,” he says. “If you’re asking them to chose their job over their weekend to have their child, which way do you think they’re going to go?
“You think sometimes people want more money, but I’ll tell you right now, every precision specialist I’ve talked to would rather have more flexibility than more money.”