At the start of 2020, we launched what we considered a critical training initiative around precision farming that applied to every employee, no matter their position or responsibility within the dealership. We looked at it as an ongoing journey for everyone within 21st Century Equipment, with no finish date or anticipated completion time in mind. We told employees that personally engaging in this journey would be critical for their ongoing success in the company and the long-term success of the dealership. 

This initiative revolves around precision agriculture, or simply agriculture as it is today and will continue to evolve into the future. The training plan is designed to equip all departments with essential precision knowledge to “mainstream” our integration of ag technology from the bottom up. 

While ag technology is a central focus, it needs to be a shared one. For each of us to continue to be relevant to our customers, we all need to have a fundamental understanding of the quickly changing landscape of precision agriculture and agriculture, in general.

But precision ag is no longer just something used by our early adopter-type customers. It is an integral part of agriculture today and is being integrated into almost every aspect of today’s farming operation. It’s been readily adopted by our customers — by some more than others, I’ll grant you. But customers large and small, including those who are broad acre, specialty or row crop, and some customers you would never expect to be so engaged in the use of precision agriculture, they’ve all bought in. 

Owen Palm is CEO of 21st Century Equipment, a 16-store John Deere dealership with locations in Nebraska, Colorado and Wyoming. Palm spoke at the 2021 Precision Farming Dealer Summit on the dealership’s year-long investment in education and training of employees on precision farming practices, and how the challenges of 2020 influenced progress and plans for the future.

Precision ag is becoming as mainstream as using your smartphone, tablet or laptop to keep track of what is going on in your world. Anyone interested in giving up your smartphone and going back to your first bag phone or even a flip phone?

Every year, billions of dollars in ag innovation investments, not only by our mainline John Deere, but by tech companies around the world, are being made to create new technologies that will help us feed a world of nearly 10 billion people by 2050 using less water, less land and fewer inputs. Simply stated, the agricultural production of fuel, food and fiber by our customers must double in the next 30 years. The pace of change has never been so fast, nor will change ever be so slow again.    

The goal of this precision ag initiative is not to make everyone on staff a precision farming expert. Our goal is to keep each employee relevant with our customers so they can continue to be their go-to parts specialist, salesperson or technician. 

We provided some basic training on the art and science of precision agriculture. Deere provides an end-to-end total system solution for our customers. Our goal with this training is to make our staff comfortable talking to our customers about our role in precision ag technology and Deere’s engagement in the 4 major steps in the production cycle.

Building on Basics

The training was done in small doses at each location and started with the basics and builds from there. We tasked our Integrated Solutions team with leading the training, meeting with the staff about every 2 weeks — and staff participation and attendance was mandatory. Each training session concluded with a short quiz, not only to make sure everyone was comprehending the material, but also to make sure that it was being delivered effectively by our instructors. We also had a short list of John Deere University web-based training classes regarding precision ag fundamentals that every employee was expected to complete over the first 6 months of the year.

We took a fairly aggressive approach to this training. First off, many precision farming practices, services and equipment are no longer specialized. Products like auto-steer, sectional control and documentation that were once cutting-edge are now mature and routine practices used by the overwhelming majority of our customers. I would submit that it is totally unproductive and impractical to utilize a precision ag specialist to either install or diagnose problems with these basic mature technologies.

As we’ve all learned, the skill set possessed by a really good precision ag specialist is hard to find. They are in high demand and thus expensive. They require extensive training to develop. So, why waste your truly valuable time dealing with the basics? 

I strongly believe these mainstream technologies should be installed, diagnosed and repaired by our service technicians. They should also be the go-to for routine software updates and activations. Again, why waste the valuable time of a precision farming specialist to perform these fairly simple tasks?

You are probably asking yourself why. In my opinion, by their very nature most precision ag specialists tend to give away these mainstream service opportunities for free because they view themselves as consultants and not technicians. And to a large extent, they are. 

Our service technicians, on the other hand, are used to billing for their time and materials, and customers are also used to being billed for a service call on a malfunctioning machine when the service is done by a service technician. The result is a much improved bottom line for the service department and a precision ag specialist who is freed up to provide value-added services and handle the newer, more complex precision ag technologies with our customers. 

“We took the position that precision farming technology training was an investment in our future, so therefore, it was mandatory…”

To be successful in this transition, the service technicians have to be trained and understand these mainstream technologies to able to be talk about them conversationally with our customers.

Most importantly, the expectation to be proficient in technology across the organization has to be conveyed and supported by management from the top down. I, along with our senior leadership team, have set some high expectations for proficiency in mainstream precision ag activities across our organization. 

Mainstream Model

A couple of years ago when we really started getting serious about mainstreaming our basic precision ag technology products, we made a portion of our salespeople’s commissions at risk if they did not pass a basic proficiency exam that tested their knowledge of basic precision ag practices and equipment. Today, we have set an expectation that every salesperson can log in and walk a customer through the ops center and be conversational about its capabilities with this tool. We also have an expectation that every one of our parts specialists, salespeople, service technicians and even our support center staff know their way around a display and can set an AB line.

Our goal is to have every employee be at least at a conversational level and understand the basic difference between things like RTK vs. SF1 guidance. What does a customer mean when he talks about concepts like variable rate or setting field boundaries? Being conversational in the fundamentals of precision ag keeps our employees relevant with their customers. Our senior leadership team firmly believes today’s precision agriculture is really just agriculture.

The biggest reason for mainstreaming the basic precision ag products to the service department is it frees up your talented precision ag specialists to focus on the more advanced technologies involving the complex applications, such as robotics, artificial intelligence and autonomy. It also gives them the chance to provide data analytics and consultation services that really increase the stickiness we are all looking to develop with our customers. Your precision farming technology specialists can’t be delivering these kinds of added value services to your customers if they are tied up on an auto check malfunction.

Training Plan

The biggest excuse we all hear is that training takes away from other revenue-producing activities in the dealership. While this is a true statement, we took the position that this precision farming technology training was an investment in our future, so therefore, it was mandatory.

The training sessions we developed generally lasted about 45 minutes. Some locations started their training day early, before the morning rush. Other locations did it over the noon hour. Early on, we decided that doing the training at the end of the day was fruitless. Each training session was followed by a short quiz to capture employee retention and assess how well the instructor delivered the material. Each training module focused on one or two specific topics. For example, one of the first modules was on the principle of guidance — GPS 101 through high accuracy RTK, including the customer applications reaching their signal choices.

The training material itself was developed and delivered by our Integrated Solutions team. Classes were held every other week, supplemented by a list of required John Deere University remote training modules contained in the AMS product path that every employee — from the CFO to entry level technicians — were expected to complete. Each of the live training modules were recorded for viewing by employees who may have been absent for the training or manning the parts counter, for example. These videos are currently posted on our internal YouTube channel for mandatory viewing by all new employees.

Our goal was to complete this training by mid-March, when our customers typically head for the field to start strip-tilling. COVID-19, of course, accelerated that deadline a little bit. 

6 Takeaways from 21st Century Equipment’s Precision Ag Training Initiative

  1. Don’t waste your precision ag technology specialists’ time on basic precision ag products.
  2. Top-down leadership support for mainstreaming is critical.
  3. Today’s “Precision Agriculture” is really just “Agriculture Today.”
  4. Precision ag training is an investment in our future.
  5. Bi-weekly live training supplemented by web-based remote training.
  6. Support Packages commoditize the precision farming services we have been giving away for years.

To add a little fun competition and peer pressure to promote this initiative, we developed a contest based on a number of various outcomes that we felt the organization needed to achieve. Scoring metrics included the most John Deere University remote training classes completed by each location, the most 2G and 3G to 4G MTG upgrades sold at each location, the highest number of precision ag packages sold at each location, and finally, the highest location average test score on our internal training quizzes.

We broke the stores into 3 groups — large, medium and small — so there was an element of fairness in awarding prizes based on these quantities. Your question has got to be, did we hit the mark? Critically, I would give us a B+. 

The enthusiasm in January faded by March as spring planting activity started to ramp up, and the training became more like more work. And of course, COVID took the shine off the program toward the end, too. However, during that time frame from January to early March, our organization not only completed, but passed 1,276 John Deere University remote training modules just related to precision ag, which I consider a huge success in its own right.

Creating Support Packages

Another factor that strongly drove our decision to aggressively pursue precision ag training across the organization was the development and introduction of three bundled support packages. These three unique packages bundled various added value services with offerings from all three departments. The roll out of these packages was planned for January 2020. These packages were developed in response to complaints from our customers about constantly being nickeled and dimed. “First you charge me for an RTK. Then you charge me for a service call for a software update, and now, it’s a subscription renewal.” And on and on and on.

So we thought, why not bundle several of these services into one package and bill them once a year instead of after every interaction? More importantly, we were discreetly trying to commoditize many of the services that were related to precision ag technology that we have been giving away for years. We also knew if we were successful in selling these value added packages, we were going to have to deliver, which likely would overwhelm our precision ag team. Hence, the push to mainstream our basic technology knowledge across the organization.

Our basic package was priced at $2,999. Our mid-level package was priced at $4,999 and our most comprehensive package was priced at $9,999. By the time planting season rolled around last spring, we had sold 72 packages with 16, or 22%, of them being the $9,999 version. For year one, we were quite happy with those results. And for the most part, we delivered on what we promised in each package. We recently made some modifications to these packages, mostly to make the offerings within each package less rigid and more a la carte. Our goal is to double the number of packages sold here in 2021.

So are we done? Everything is good? Are we officially mainstreamed? Heck no! We still have lots of work to do. As I said, the road to mainstreaming is a journey, not an event. Our COO, Keith Kreps, has set a personal objective for himself in 2021 that he calls Precision Ag 2.0. The technology products are constantly being introduced, and they are evolving every day. What was cutting edge a couple of years ago may be mainstream technology today. But as I said earlier, the most important reason for integrating support for our basic technology products across the organization is because it allows a precision ag specialist to work on the really complex technologies coming down the road, like artificial intelligence, robotics and autonomy. They’re coming right around the corner and will likely disrupt our industry in ways we can’t even imagine.     

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