Whether your precision team consists of 2 people or 20, a commitment to excellent customer service, a solid training program and measurable expense benchmarks will put your precision department on a path to profitability.
Three precision managers at John Deere, Case IH and Fendt dealerships shared what precision management strategies are working well at their stores and how they’re continually evolving and improving their management practices.
Formalizing Training Programs
Jeremy Bullington is the precision ag support center manager at Greenway Equipment, a 31-location Deere dealership in Arkansas and southeast Missouri. The dealership’s precision ag department currently manages 3 million acres and 850 distinct customer accounts.
“We’ve increased our area under management, customer engagement, customer account management and customer adoption rate dramatically,” Bullington says.
- Develop a formal training program to eliminate gaps in training among new hires who may have diverse needs to get up to speed on the requirements of the precision specialist role.
- If you don’t have the means or need for a dedicated training manager, consider using resources from your major or shortline manufacturers.
- Commit to excellent customer service and provide staff with the knowledge and resources needed to best serve your customers.
- Keep staff connected and supported by using customer relationship management apps. Consider team-building activities to foster personal relationships among staff and improve employee morale.
In the early years of Greenway’s call center, 6 field reps covered the dealership’s 24 locations with help from 6 additional people at the support center.
“That is a pretty bare-bones precision ag staff,” Bullington says. “A lot of those field reps were covering 5-7 stores. They were run ragged and burnout was rampant. It was a very hard thing to do.”
In 2019, the dealership made a drastic change to the support center’s personnel and now employs a manager, 5 assistant managers, 3 regional managers, 16 specialists, 3 full-time data analysts and 2 intern operation trainees who rotate through all the departments. In about 6 months time, the dealership had hired 16 new people with a variety of backgrounds.
Greenway used Microsoft Teams, Smartsheet, ExpertConnect, John Deere University and other platforms to address the diverse needs of the new hires, but Bullington says there still were gaps in training.
“We train precision ag personnel like everybody else does — figure it out,” Bullington says. “It works, but it’s not optimal. If you’re going to keep people and you’re going to retain people, you’ve got to arm them with the right knowledge.”
In 2022, Greenway established a full-time training department to make sure new hires have the instruction and hands-on training they need to succeed. The training department also runs the Greenway Technology Farm, a 750-acre operation that is designed to run as a full-scale, production-level farm. It also serves as a central training location, hosting employee clinics to teach staff about broad topics and give them a hands-on understanding of how equipment works and wears.
“This gives us the facility to bring in 30 employees all at one time and also have some small groups with 5-8 people where they can ask the instructor questions and get actual feedback,” Bullington says.
For smaller groups who are farther away, the training department may come to them. Looking forward, Bullington says internal training with parts, wholegoods and service departments will be handled regionally.
Kuhns Equipment uses the Fendt Connect app to manage products for customers. The app shows where the farmer is in the field if they need service and also tracks the tractor’s service and maintenance needs.
Nick Rust, precision ag coordinator at H&R Agri-Power, oversees the precision staff at the Case IH dealership’s 18 locations in 6 states, most of which are in Kentucky and Tennessee.
H&R Agri-Power’s precision department employs 14 people — 11 full-time employees and 3 employees who have dual roles. Rust says it’s a mix of age groups — from a few people hired right out of college at age 21 to the 43-year-old who earns the title of the department’s oldest employee. The average on-the-job experience among the group is 4.5 years.
Rust is involved in the dealership’s hiring process and interviews potential candidates with the location manager and store manager. He likes screening people to get a feel for how they’ll fit with the culture at the store’s geographically widespread locations.
“The culture in the North is different than the South,” Rust says. “Personality types work in some places and not in others. It’s hard to manage people that you don’t vet.”
“The worst thing for a new employee is not having any backup…” – Jeremy Bullington, Precision Ag Support Center Manager, Greenway Equipment
Upon hire, the new precision specialist spends their first 2 weeks with Rust at the Hopkinsville, Ky., location. Rust says the store always has equipment on the lot, allowing him to provide hands-on training. After those initial 2 weeks, the new hire spends time with each segment of the dealership’s business, working with parts, technicians, sales and customers. That includes ride-alongs with Rust.
“In the first 6 months, I try to be out there once a week or once every other week to work alongside them and make them not feel like they’re on an island,” Rust says. “Most of our specialists are the only ones at the location, and sometimes they can feel isolated. But if you have that constant touchpoint with them, it helps create the sense of a team.”
Having a centralized training department works well for a dealership with dozens of employees, but this structure may not be possible for a small dealer with only a few employees. Kuhns Equipment is a 2-store dealership in Gibson City and Arthur, Ill., covering Fendt, Gleaner and Massey Ferguson. There are 8 employees between the 2 stores, all salespeople who wear multiple hats.
While Kuhns has been in business for 66 years, Fendt is a new addition to both the dealership and the AGCO family, Duzan says.
“We don’t really have a precision farming department,” says Kelly Duzan, salesperson at the Gibson City location. “Everything is done through us salesmen. I’m hoping that one of these days we’ll be able to become like you guys and be able to have those training departments and things like that.”
Right now, Kuhns utilizes training and resources from AGCO about the Fendt tractors they’re focused on selling. AGCO Fuse Connected Services provides support through calibrations, setups, configurations and more.
“Any time I contact them, I talk to a person,” Duzan says. “They provide that awesome customer service experience for us as a dealer and for our customers. The customers have the knowledge that not only is Kuhns Equipment 100% behind them, but AGCO cares and is going to be there.”
Prioritizing Customer Service
Duzan views his role as more of a consultant than a salesperson. He’s used to thinking out of the box for his customers because he’s representing a product line that’s new to the North American market. Customers have to place trust in a new dealership, and Duzan says he has to prove Fendt’s superiority and ability to work with other equipment.
“Perception is everything,” Duzan says. “Our training and business systems are built to work hand-in-hand with our customers because it all comes down to giving the customer the best experience he’s ever had in his life.”
Kuhns uses a four-step approach to train its employees on the new product line. Step one is giving the customer the best experience with one solution that works with everything else.
Next, the salesperson needs to learn how to operate the equipment and effectively train the customer on how to do it. Kuhns brings customers together for training, allowing the farmers to learn from each other and grill the sales team on their common questions.
Duzan and the other salespeople then go out to the field to operate and fine-tune the equipment for the customer. They make sure the equipment is working together and the customer is comfortable with how to operate it.
“When I leave that farm after they’ve planted 180 acres that day, I want to make sure they’re ready to go the next day and don’t have any questions,” Duzan says. “If they do have questions, we’re right there to help them. We’re going to support them 100%.”
Nick Rust, precision ag coordinator at H&R Agri-Power, says he still has a service truck and likes to “work in the trenches.” He tries to go out on calls with new hires once a week to create a sense of a team and provide support.
All departments in the dealership need to work together to achieve that level of customer support, Duzan says. Customers have enough technology to manage as it is.
“I want everybody on board so when the tractor leaves the store, it’s ready to go,” Duzan says. “That tractor’s going to be perfect because the customer has to learn a new tractor and monitor when he’s used to something else.”
Kuhns uses the Fendt Connect app to manage products for customers. They can see where the farmer is in the field and keep track of the tractor’s service and maintenance needs. AGCO has a 3-year maintenance program included with every tractor, and it’s the sales team’s responsibility to keep track of what needs to be done on the tractor.
Greenway’s precision department also prioritizes customer experience over sales. Bullington says the dealership shifted away from salespeople selling specific products when it overhauled its precision department. Instead, precision specialists engage customers with the entire portfolio and make sure they understand the mainstream technologies. This strategy required implementing what Bullington calls a “premiere customer experience.”
“When you have a big team, getting people together outside of work has a lot of value…” – Nick Rust, Precision Ag Coordinator, H&R Agri-Power
“We want to make sure that customers are able to use and understand the technology that they’ve been sold,” Bullington says. “We are providing on-the-farm training to those customers and our employees, all while trying to maintain a sustainable business. You can throw money at anything and do really well with it, but you’ve got to make sure that it’s sustainable over time.”
By 2021, Greenway’s retention rate was relatively high and all of the employees had solid on-the-job experience. Bullington says management began outlining expectations and setting specific goals for each employee, resulting in a pay-for-performance plan. The plan is designed around what the precision specialist can control at their store.
Some measurables include acres available for management for each location vs. how many are being managed, number of customer accounts and intensity of account management.
“That’s been a pretty good change for us,” Bullington says. “We look at the revenue that the employee is driving, so that’s a pretty key factor in how much money we’re bringing in.”
The precision department at H&R Agri-Power receives a monthly profit and loss financial statement for each location. The precision department receives credit on parts, labor and all new Case IH equipment sold to show the value they bring to the business. The statement also shows expenses like salaries, training and travel. While a new hire isn’t making the company money immediately, that person can easily see how their work will be profitable in the future.
“It’s a report card and conversation point,” Rust says. “We go through the metrics to see what’s working, what isn’t and what things we can work on. Separating out your PF department and showing them what they’re actually doing has a lot of value when you’re at a dealership like ours.”
9 AgriSync Alternatives Suggested by Dealers
Nick Rust of H&R Agri-Power and other non-Deere dealers will be transitioned off AgriSync this year, following John Deere’s acquisition of the customer service platform. If you’re looking for an alternative for your dealership, we share 9 alternatives in this popular web article. Click here to explore the options.
The dealership also pays the precision specialist an incentive off the gross contribution margin. Rust says it’s another way to drive each person to continue improving.
Committing to Communication
Rust admits it’s a fine line between over and under communicating with employees. He’s working on doing more proactive communication, especially with the dealership’s other departments.
“The PF knowledge in our parts, service and wholegoods is sometimes lacking,” Rust says. “As a company, the bigger we get, the more important it gets to spread the workload. If we did a little bit more proactive communication about spreading that PF knowledge, it would make our lives easier.”
Rust is also working on separating phone support from field support to better help customers in season. H&R signed up for AgriSync in 2020 and is now looking for a new alternative as all non-Deere dealers are losing the service this year.
As a Deere dealer, Greenway will continue to use ExpertConnect as it has been. Bullington says staff use the app as 4 different teams — internal sales and precision ag, external sales and precision ag, internal service, and internal and external parts. The structure gives new employees somewhere to turn whenever they have a question.
“What happens at the parts counter is a customer walks in mad because something’s broken and wants an answer now,” Bullington says. “The worst thing for a new employee is not having any backup. This instantly gives them a number they can call to ask a question and get that customer happy.”
Rust also looks for ways to build a support system and communication among the precision specialists spread out among H&R’s 18 locations. In 2021, he started hosting an annual meeting with a team-building activity at the end. H&R paid for employees to stay in a hotel in Hopkinsville and rented a limo to take everyone to Topgolf in Nashville.
“When you have a big team, getting people together outside of work has a lot of value, especially for the younger generation,” Rust says. “It develops relationships among guys who sometimes feel like they’re on an island.”
Precision Farming Dealer Summit Session Videos
Relive the “best of the best” ideas from the Precision Farming Dealer Summit through replays of the 2022 conference general session speaker presentations, made possible with the support of Laforge Systems.
The videos offer you multi-camera coverage — including the slide presentations — from these informational and thought-provoking sessions.