The following article is based on Layne Richins, Chris Finely and Cody Searle's presentation at the 2018 Precision Farming Dealer Summit. To watch the presentation, click here.

Staff training was part of nearly every discussion at the 2018 Precision Farming Dealer Summit in Louisville. Precision is where things are moving fastest, and the expectations of farmers and the dealership itself (both equally unrealistic at times) and the firefighting at planting and harvest require highly structured processes and duties. 

Managers realize that whatever problem your dealership is facing, it can likely be improved by training. Good and productive training, that is. 

Because of the need to increasingly bring more talent into dealerships to meet the growing need — and growing complexity of products and systems — training was central to many sessions, panels and roundtable topics at the event.

In this article adapted from a dealer-to-dealer panel presentation at the Precision Farming Dealer Summit, Stotz Equipment (John Deere) and Mazergroup (New Holland) explain their revelations on training programs for precision personnel. 

Stotz’s Precision Team Training: Retreating to Take Higher Ground

Layne Richins, Precision Farming Manager, Stotz Equipment

Locations: 25 John Deere stores in 8 western states, ranging from southern Idaho to the Mexican border.

Precision Ag Team: 15.

Background: 8 years as a field technician at Stotz in Idaho; last 6 years in Arizona. Became service manager. “We’d had a separate Integrated Solutions (IS) department and there could be problems with the precision ag (or IS) department and service trying to do the same things. We ended up bringing it into the service department and running everything out of the service department. Each one of these precision ag guys are precision ag specialists all report to that service manager.”

Use it if you got it, right?

Layne Richins, precision farming manager at Stotz Equipment, has a benefit that energizes his team for training in a way others don’t. His staff working in the northern climes of Idaho and Utah get to come to the company’s headquarters in Arizona each December for training.

A desert paradise location for training isn’t the only thing unique about precision within the John Deere multi-store’s group. Another is that all of its precision ag efforts (15 full-timers) are integrated into the service department of the local store. That was a solution Stotz arrived at to better bill time — in the service department where farmers are accustomed to paying for it.

The third item is the insistence on the post-training camaraderie. A lot more than mere “team-building,” he says, as the conversations over a beer or golf naturally bring about a “who’s good at what” that puts everyone on a go-to list of their area of expertise.

For Stotz’s December training, Deere sent the developer of its moisture probes to detail the intricacies of the system.

Stotz Internal Training

In describing the 2 internal training events Stotz holds each year for all precision personnel, Richins goes down memory lane to share the origins of Stotz’s initial approach and the lasting mark that impacted all subsequent training. “There were just 4 of us on that first training we ever did and we didn’t really know anything about precision ag. We were all trying to figure it out. I’d been a field technician and was now a service manager, and I was leading these efforts with some newer guys. So we had to figure it out on our own.” That predicament turned into a positive and a core facet of training that remains today (see “Tips for Higher-Level Interaction in Precision Staff Training” below).

The early trainings were hands-on, by necessity. “We got the tractors and equipment, and we tested and worked everything out so we could learn how to utilize every piece, whether it was the data transfer, the John Deere Operations Center, all of those things. That’s how it started. A lot of hands-on so that we could learn how to make all these things, all these pieces work.”

Whether it’s at the restaurant/bar or at TopGolf, Richins says you can’t underestimate the power of the post-training get-together. Discovering who can help on specific problems across the entire dealerships’ stores is a major benefit — and comes from “knowing” each other on a personal level.

The ability to engage the participation of different suppliers in the staff training came later and was a powerful addition, Richins says. While OEMs often take it on the nose for training programs that dealers say are lacking, Richins sees great value in the specialized training he gets onsite at his sessions. “When those suppliers come and spend time with my group, the training is more specific and we can ask a lot more questions,” he says, adding that they’re out there sweating in the Arizona fields in December alongside his team.

The Intangible Benefits 

Richins stresses the practical elements of the team environment that their training provides, which he also works at, as he discussed on the Precision Farming Dealer series podcast (

The teamwork that offsite training provides any group is obvious to dealers who encourage it — opening the lines of communication, the professional and personal interactions and getting to know peers in other stores. One of the greatest accomplishments, says Richins, is the fact that the team learns each person’s strengths and weaknesses and who to go to and for what problem.

Tips for Higher-Level Interaction in Precision Staff Training

Stotz’s Layne Richins shared his latest technique to force interaction, a primary objective of his training. The trick he arrived at? Essentially a blank PowerPoint slide.

“The PowerPoint has a title at the top and blank bullet points, there was nothing there. I said ‘Here’s the presentation, you guys have to fill this out.’ So it wasn’t just me up there on my soapbox telling everybody what they need to do. It turned out to be a really good interactive discussion and everybody brought their points to the table. That helped everybody learn and grow instead of just me running my mouth; others had to talk and provide input.”

“We talked at length here at the Summit yesterday about support structures and how new hires need to know who to go to. These team-building events help everyone to know each other better. So when somebody’s having a problem with an AutoTrac system or a universal display system, they don’t have to call me. I’m not the only go-to guy; they go right ahead and reach out to one of the others,” Richins says.

“That’s really worked out well because they’re talking to each other, trying to help each other, and they know who to talk to about that one specific thing. I might be good at one thing where another guy’s going to be better at a different side of the business. That’s the additional benefits that we’ve had with our training events.”

Precision Staff Training Plans: Mazergroup’s Discovery & Implementation

Chris Finley, V.P. of Parts, Service & Precision, Mazergroup

Locations: 15 New Holland locations in Manitoba and southeast Saskatchewan, Canada.

Precision Ag Team: 11 (includes a departmental manager and a data manager).

Background: Worked at Mazergroup in various roles 13 years, with oversight of the precision department for the past 3 years.

When Chris Finley, vice president of parts, service and precision for Mazergroup, started in his new position, he was quickly taken with the lack of staff consistency. “We lacked knowledge and understanding as well as some performance standards and accountability,” he says.

He determined it was caused by inadequate training. Mazergroup wants the sales departments to promote precision, but they have their own internal training program called “Conversational Knowledge Training,” that’s intended to give them the confidence to talk about it. And service techs also have their own training focused on calibration, troubleshooting and diagnostics. 

Below, Finley discusses the thought processes that built the training plan specifically for the precision farming staff to where it’s at today for the 15-store operation.

Re-Approaching Precision Training 

The first step, Finley says, was identifying what the staff needed to know. “We need to know skills, abilities, knowledge, and we needed an acceptable timeframe in which our staff needed to understand this.”

“Customers will tolerate less product knowledge with someone new. What they won’t tolerate is poor communication or bad support so that’s really our focus at the beginning with our onboarding plan…”

The thought process they arrived at was that training needn’t be revolutionary, but it did need to be done correctly. Several things quickly emerged, he says. “We needed to be proactive, we needed to start onboarding new employees, we needed to be very thorough and we needed to have an appropriate timeframe in which to complete the training.” 

5 Areas for Precision Training Needs

Finley says 5 areas were identified where precision staff had to be well-trained. 

1. Product & Equipment Knowledge — Understand how to operate equipment across the entire product offering, and to understand how the products help improve customer productivity and ROI. 

2. Troubleshooting & Repairs — Understand how to resolve customer issues and how to show them how to utilize their equipment.

3. Selling Skills — Listen to understand the customer’s needs and to provide solutions to improve their productivity. Also to manage territories and all the customers within their area of responsibility.

4. Dealership & Departmental Functions — Understand basic departmental functions; the parts department, the service department and the sales department, and how each relates to their own job.

5. Internal Support Expectations — Understand Mazergroup’s support expectations and its mission and values. Also the appropriate customer communications and internal communications. 

The next step in Finley’s process was to inventory available training, starting with the existing in-person and online training resources available via Case New Holland and Raven. This type of training, he adds, provides the broad-level product understanding and basic diagnostics on the products they sell. But there were still things missing.

Precision Sales Training: Exams, Too!

Chris Finley, vice president of parts, service and precision, says Mazergroup discovered that the internal sales training for precision staff was the most important ingredient that was flat out missing. Mazergroup hired a consultant to build the training plan, which Finley describes as a “train the trainer” process where staff could go for training throughout the organization. 

He also described the “review and retrain” process. “It’s intense training — 4 days long — and there’s a test every day and everyone that goes through the training must pass the final exam or they need to rewrite it. It’s very thorough and we feel that gets to what we need them to understand.”

The basics are pretty simple stuff, he says. The sales training consists of 6 steps: prepare, greet, identify customer opportunities, propose solutions, agree with the customer and then follow up. “The sales process needs to be documented so corporatewide, we understand how each customer is being interacted with.”

The next step was to identify those voids and determine what the dealership had to develop itself. “A lot of the training we needed was specific product training, and in more detail than the OEM was giving. We needed hands-on training for specific products in our area, like application controls for Guardian sprayers, NH3 and others.” He also cites real-life scenarios on diagnostics and data management solutions as big training needs. 

Coming Next: “Customer-Facing Precision Training at Agri-Service: Making It Worth It.”

Pictured is Cody Searle, Precision Farming Manager, at Agri-Service Inc., a 13-store operation that does $3 million in precision sales annually.

This is a job that’ll never be completed, he says. “Technology is ever-changing and our requirement for training should be as well.” Today, Mazergroup reevaluates training plans annually to determine the needs for the following year.

New Onboarding Process for New Hires

Next, the Mazergroup attacked its onboarding process — where a lot of the payoff exists. A primary question was “What do new hires need to understand before interfacing with a customer?”

Much of it covered the same 5 areas cited above. But one of the paradigms that changed was the pace at which staff was released to the field. While you don’t want to rush a guy to the field too early, Finley adds that new hires needn’t know every last detail before being able to go out and help a farmer. 

In the past, the primary focus was to get new hires to drink from the water hose on all products. “We wanted everyone to understand the products that we sold because we wanted to get them sold and make some money. But we’ve found that’s one of the least important things to focus on at the start. Don’t get me wrong, the new hires need to understand this stuff quickly, but customers also understand when people are new. So in our experience, customers will tolerate less product knowledge with someone new. What they won’t tolerate is poor communication or bad support so that’s really our focus at the beginning with our onboarding plan.”

Precision Staff New Hire Timeline & Expectations

First 2 weeks:

• Dealership & departmental functions
• Mazergroup support expectations
• Job shadowing with mentor

3 months:

• Attend internal sales training
• Online training complete

6 Months:

• Attend in-person intro classes (when available)

12 – 18 months:

• Complete the CNH certification and all advanced trainings

Precision manager meets with new hires throughout the entire first 12 months:

• 3 month, 6 month, 9 month and annual follow-up reviews 
• Communication with mentor throughout process

Pointing to Randy Gates (Mazergroup precision manager) in the audience, Finley says Gates works with all new hires prior to them going off on their own (see “Mazergroup’s Precision Staff New Hire Timeline & Expectations”). It’s typically the first week upon hire and is scheduled offsite to reduce interruptions and keep it focused on what needs to be learned. After that, the new hire is paired up with a mentor. “The mentor is a first contact for technical information as well as for ongoing support for that new employee,” says Finley. The mentor assists the hands-on customer interaction and hands on training with that new employee.

The precision manager has in-person meetings with new hires at 3, 6, 9 and 12 month intervals, and the mentor is working with that person throughout the process. The mentor is tasked with making weekly check-in calls to see how their week went and to help guide their following week and planning what they’re doing going forward.

Finley agrees fully with Layne Richins of Stotz and his view on doing whatever it takes to create a team atmosphere with communication and knowledge sharing. Mazergroup has 2 in-person events like Stotz and supplements that with monthly conference calls within departments as well as internal communication tools where all staff can ask questions and share among themselves. 

There’s a lot of knowledge across all the staff and it’s important to make sure everyone sees it’s a resource they have and can use, Finley says.

Want More on Training?

Listen to a 24 min. recap of these sources “talking training” via a FREE podcast “Taking a Proactive Approach to Precision Training Solutions.”