Finding talent in precision ag can be tough, but also a necessary part of expanding a precision business. According to the 2019 Precision Farming Dealer benchmark study, nearly 40% of dealers say adding precision staff was their greatest need to grow business, with another 50% saying it was an area of importance.
That’s why Greenway Equipment’s addition of 15 specialists in 2019 was an unusual accomplishment. But the process, while planned, came with anticipated and unexpected challenges tied to onboarding, expectations and personality.
The genesis of the hiring initiative was born out of a desire to improve customer engagement and communication, notes Jared Field, precision ag field operations manager for Greenway, a 31-location John Deere dealership in Arkansas and Missouri.
“At the beginning of 2019 we decided that customer experience is more important to us and employee retention or burnout was a concern for us. So, we knew that to create that customer experience, we need good staff,” Field says. “We added precision ag specialists across the dealership, based on the number of customers in the area.”
Generally, Field says each specialist has 40-60 customers, with 30 being qualified as primary customers. The goal was to increase personal contact with customers and convert more sales based on more frequent touch points.
Finding the volume of hires was difficult and required some creative recruiting, says Field. The dealership drew from its internship program and its relationships with local educational institutions, but also collaborated with customers for referrals.
“Some of these guys, they don't have a college degree and came right off the farm,” Field notes. “They were ready to start working for a dealership, and that farm experience really pays.
“They knew the agronomics and why a farmer may be doing something. Whereas the hires from the university had more technical skills or sales traits. We pulled from both areas, and were able to find some of the best talent in the region.”
Still, integrating that talent took time and patience. Drawing on Deere’s training materials helped provide the backbone of product knowledge, but it was the responsibility of the more experienced specialists at Greenway to provide the hands-on experience.
“When we show somebody how to calibrate something, they need to do it. That's one of the things that we focused a lot of time and energy on is getting the equipment in the right position so that when they're in front of a customer, they feel confident, because confidence is everything,” says Jeremy Bullington, precision ag support center manager at Greenway. “They can do a lot if they feel like they can do it.”
Greenway wanted to avoid the “throwing new hires to the wolves” approach, even though Bullington notes that it’s often the only option dealers choose to onboard inexperienced specialists.
“A lot of people learned that way, but we're seeing with some of the younger guys that we're bringing in now, they don't thrive like that,” Bullington says. “We're trying to help nurture some background support to make that a much easier process. If they need help, they have somebody they can call. Even if their manager is out of position, they have a backup, but they can always call to get answers.”
So, what are some lessons learned — both expected and unexpected — during the first year? Field acknowledges that 2019 was largely a “building year” for the new hires, with more emphasis on education and gaining experience than assigning hard sales or service numbers to achieve.
“There was no margins or sales revenues thrown at them. It was purely a learning year. Get out and learn the products and the customers,” Field says. “In 2020, we have started to roll out revenue goals for these guys at each location. We've shown them total revenue dollars vs. total margin dollars that we would like to seem reach.
“But as long as we're selling new equipment and we're engaging those customers and helping them on their farm, then that's the ultimate goal. It’s still another year before we really hold their feet to the fire. What we want to see is progress.”
Bullington adds that one of the more prominent growing pains has been getting new hires to understand the diversity of their roles. While each was hired as a precision support specialist, their roles are far broader.
“We have hired a very dynamic team and a lot of them really get along together. But they’re being asked more and more to be involved in the sales side,” Bullington says. “Everybody that works in the dealership is a salesperson. So, trying to develop these guys into more of a sales-oriented role, and be able to talk and promote products in front of customers is a work in progress.”
Hear more from Field and Bullington on how the hiring and training process went in this episode of the Precision Farming Dealer podcast.