Most issues within a precision business are caused by non-implementation of what you already know, and that’s why it’s important to have a checklist to print out, take home and check off, what you’ve done and to determine what you haven’t done.
There’s more value by far in knowing what you need to get done than what you’ve already accomplished in a business. I’m convinced of this and have been guilty of not understanding this approach when I started our precision business in 2000.
In November 2011, we acquired the assets of Linco-Precision in El Paso, Ill., which had 37 employees at the time, a huge change from the 2 precision and one administrative employee we had prior to the acquisition. We’ve since cut some fat, and tried to get as lean as we can. Today, we have 27 employees and do about $1.5 million in our precision business, annually, with 3 full-time precision employees. We’d like to increase that to about $2.5 million.
But to sustain our business, and for any precision business, we’re going to need to reach outside of ag for expertise, possibly even some time-sharing of experts here and there. This approach has been promoted outside of ag forever, but within our businesses, to remain independent many are going to have to become interdependent.
At the same time, we need to surround ourselves with those who are willing to make mistakes, but who are also willing to learn from them.
When something goes wrong, we need to address it and talk about it in our team meetings. Steve Jobs is quoted as saying, “It doesn’t make sense to hire smart people and then tell them what to do. We hire smart people so they can tell us what to do.” Part of this involves setting a plan, creating a map and executing.
Hire Slow, Fire Fast
The hire slow and fire fast mentality is one we’ve struggled with at times. If an employee is not doing your company a decent job, is not improving, it’s better for you and him or her that they exit your business.
There have been times when we’ve had 2 of our best precision equipment salespeople in the company who did some things that were unacceptable and they’re no longer with us. I’m not sure if that was a real bright thing to do, but it made me feel better, and the other salespeople filled the void and ultimately, We’re the better for it.
But it starts with setting expectations and defining the consequences. It does no good to set goals if you don’t have any consequences for not meeting them. Educate your team and clients as to what they can expect.
When we started this business, a cousin of mine worked part time for us and would tell customers they could call him 24 hours a day, and that’s how we ran things. It didn’t matter the time of day, if we were near the phone, we’d answer it. Honestly, part of our business was built on that promise.
Realistically, we couldn’t continue doing that. We’ve had one person burn out, and had some subdealers that basically burned their people out. We couldn’t do them the good they needed just because they were overworked.
“If an employee is not doing your company a decent job, is not improving, it’s better for you and him or her that they exit your business…”
So I drafted some standard operating procedures and a company policy manual for our business. After writing the draft, we developed it together as a team, critiqued, finalized and published it. Every team member has a copy.
It’s a 28-page manual covering everything from operating hours to warranties, contracts, upgrades and social media policies. It’s a living document we review at least annually and sometimes, quarterly.
This ensures transparency and buy-in from our entire company that they are part of making sure we’re all accountable, from the top down. Department managers have regular performance reviews and review expectations. I recommend developing as many standard operating procedures as is practical within your business.
You can’t do everything, but I actually did one while I was in the cab of a Case IH Quadtrac tractor while installing a Trimble FMX display and RTK base station. It took a page to write up and as it turned out, it was not as complicated as it sounds. It’s a handy tool for our employees, but also our customers.
Create Solutions, Not Problems
Communication, both internally with employees and externally with customers, is critical, especially when it comes to responsiveness. By at least the third ring, farmers want to talk to a live person, they don’t want a recording.
We have a competitor that customers have told us when they call, all they get is recording after recording. I’m sure there’s some science behind that, but if I were in that position, would I want a customer saying, “Hey, Skip, I’m really glad I listened to four messages and left a message on the shop manager’s answering machine.” In a relationship business, nobody likes that.
Part of our communication process involved team meetings. One of my tactics when I call a team meeting is I’ll be the last to speak. It’s not that I won’t interject, but I can run the meeting without directing the dialog.
It gives me a chance to see what everybody else is thinking and ask them to give me a little more detail or explanation. But it also gives me the chance to wait to hear all sides or suggestions and then make some decisions.
A good practice is to schedule regular meetings and stick to them with published agendas. In our company, all attendees are welcome to come to a meeting with an issue or a problem, but they are not welcome to bring it there without a possible solution.
I welcome an open forum for challenges and ideas, but everyone needs to at least have a suggestion for resolving it. Maybe it’s not the perfect solution, but it initiates opinions and challenges from our team while also encouraging solutions.
Control the Culture
Creating and then nurturing a progressive, professional culture is important to the success of our business. We had an employee who wasn’t a fit for our environment and that can create a toxic environment.
At the same time, when we catch somebody doing it right, we recognize it. There are times of the year I’ll carry gift cards in my pocket and throughout the shop I’ll hand them out. It’s a small token, but let’s our employees know they are appreciated. If the business is doing well, share that with the employees. And if it’s not, share that at least your inner team and discuss how you can make it better.
It’s also worth publishing a chain of command. When we started and only had a few employees, we still established a line of communication so everyone knew where they could go with questions or comments. As we grew, we had that laid out in the policy manual.
Everybody on our sales team who has been here at least 30 days, and been to a couple meetings, we share our core principles with them. It’s our job to sell our clients what they need in the quantity they need, as often as they need it — no more, no less.
We knew a hand tools salesperson once who loaded up a customer who didn’t know a 9/16 from an 1-1/8, with probably close to $50,000 worth of tools just because he could. We had a great sale, but he cheated that customer. That’s not the company or the culture we want. If we vary from our core values, we’re either doing a disservice to our client or our company — or both.
See more coverage of the 4th annual Precision Farming Dealer Summit and to register for the 2020 event.