Jared Nobbe, division manager with Sydenstricker Nobbe Partners, a 28-store John Deere dealership in Missouri and Illinois and the 2021 Dealership of the Year, and Colin Hlavinka, director of sales for Hlavinka Equipment Co., a 5-store Case IH and AGCO dealership in Texas, sat down during the North American Equipment Dealers Assn. Dealer Conference in Dallas to compare notes on the best approaches to selling to the next generation of customers.

Jared Nobbe: I’m with Sydenstricker Nobbe Partners. We’re the combination of William Nobbe & Co., which was my family, I’m the fourth generation, and the Sydenstricker family who’s in the third generation. We merged on Jan. 1, 2020, so we both had 13 stores and then when we came together we had 26. Since then we’ve added 2 more.

Colin Hlavinka: I’m with Hlavinka Equipment Co., we’re on the fourth generation owners now, celebrating our 85th anniversary this year. We're a small dealership on the Gulf coast of Texas. You can say Louisiana to the Mexico border, about 100 miles in along the coast, primarily Case IH, that’s historically been our main brand. We recently added the AGCO line, but cotton, corn, rice, cattle — the whole mix of everything and we're in a position to possibly look at growing now. 

The thing that we always look for is that the older generation is ready to let the next generation make decisions. That goes back to the science of selling, psychology and the signs and everything that you’re looking for because some of those are very overt and obvious, and some of them are very hard to pick up. One thing I went over with our sales group that was interesting is, during a meeting I attended they reviewed a study on what one of the first decisions the generational turnover lets the next generation make and it’s seed. So I’ve told the group, when you’re out there visiting with the customers, when the next generation starts making the seed decision, that’s the first step in that process.

“When that younger generation comes in, they’re looking for more of an advisor than just relationship selling…”

But once that transition has taken place, what we found is — it’s crazy — the next generation, they just want to be treated like a buyer. It’s really no different, but they don’t want to feel shunned. It’s kind of hard. They’ve got to take care of their internal business before we can, but once that’s done, you just treat them like you would any other buyer.

Nobbe: It’s a really interesting point because one of the things that we see is knowing when to make that shift. Right? So honoring the customer that’s been with you for 20 or 30 years but doing it at a time where you acknowledge that this younger generation is coming in and making more decisions. When do you make that shift? We sometimes find that the younger generation will prefer to see a switch in a salesperson or an account manager, just simply because they want a different style and want to set their own path from their parents or their grandparents. It just makes it interesting.

One of the things we’re seeing is if you look at our more successful salespeople that have been with us for 20, 30 years, they’re primarily relationship sellers, right? They’re developing this relationship with the customer and their product knowledge is good, but they don’t necessarily have all the answers, especially with regard to technology. 

That works with dad or grandpa and this relationship that you built. When that younger generation comes in, they’re looking for more of an advisor role than relationship selling. It’s really a difficult transition for us to make and for our salespeople to try to work through becoming a relationship advocate but also understanding the technology and being able to be an advisor.

Quite frankly, for that reason, we’ve had the best luck with moving people in our Integrated Solutions (IS) department into salespeople. In that IS role, they’re able to build up some advisor trust, not asking for a sale for the most part because they’re there as a partner. Then they grow into sales, and now they’ve earned the trust over time. 

Hlavinka: That’s actually the path that I came up through. The pulling the rabbit out of the hat that you do when you’re in the precision group, when you do that two or three times with the customer, you have a customer for life. It’s interesting you talk about the relationships and the changing of a guard and salesperson aspect because I struggle. The industry wants us to paint boxes into territories and this is your area and your focus. We’re lucky enough that we’re small and nimble. I haven’t had to do that because the way I see it, the customer is going to do business with who they want to do business with.

“The one thing that they despise is labels…”

If I paint this box and say, “You, Mr. Customer, are in this box, and so you are going to get this salesperson that’s in the same box.” If it’s a good fit, great. If it’s not, both of us are going to lose. I’ve had challenges with salespeople where they get their feelings hurt because “that should be my customer.” I look at it the same as anyone else. I’m going to do business with who I want to do business with, and if they’re not wanting to do business with you, the only solution is to look in the mirror. Going forward, I think it’s imperative that we allow the customers to kind of dictate that to a small extent.

Sales Approach

Nobbe: I think back to this idea of relationship selling. We had a salesperson, who is retired now, but he was an unbelievable salesperson and his M.O. was having water and soda and just stopping by and visiting customers. His customers loved it. Again, they wanted to see him. It was a good visiting time. As our customers are taking on more acres and more responsibility and grain marketing, those kinds of things, they don’t want people to show up unannounced. They’re asking for appointments. They want you to be respectful of their time. And so that way of selling is still right in some pockets, but it’s shifting over to a much more formal approach. Customers want you to be there at 9:00 a.m. on Tuesday morning, and you’ll have 30 or 40 minutes and then they’ll need you to get out of there. They don’t want you to just stop by. If you do, you’re probably going to frustrate them and they’re not going to want to do business with you.

Hlavinka: The thing I’ve noticed that’s really interesting — and anybody who has kids will realize it — is the amount of business that’s conducted via text. I’m kind of a half digital, half analog guy — I enjoy both. Some of these younger customers, you call them and leave a voicemail and you don’t get anything, no call back. But if you text them, in 2 seconds you get a reply. Going forward, you just have to accept that as the normal way of doing business and just be flexible.

I’ve stopped pressing because I’ve got to be careful that I’m not pushing the wrong behaviors while trying to buck the trend. I look at a text message as “Is supper ready?” Yes, quick answer. We’ve got people now who are conducting an interview via text message. That’s been the biggest change I’ve seen and just getting comfortable with that, and then having the technology and the customer experience on the dealership side to support that.

Nobbe: I think text messaging is really interesting, and on the sales side we see it, but it’s also “Don’t call me when my part is in or when my tractor’s done, just shoot me a text and I’ll be in there.” And again, for our younger employees, they like it, they get it, that’s how they’re going to interact. But for some of our older staff who have been with us for 20 years, they’re not as helpful with that text message side. And to Colin's point, kudos to all of our employees for adapting and learning this different way. It’s imperative, but we all know that change is hard, so they’re pushing through it to better serve our customers.

Hlavinka: What I see as one of the biggest challenges is when you’re going to do a customer event or a meeting, the variation in customers is so diverse that you have to go from mail outs to direct customer visits to phone calls to social media to texting the invitation out, and know which person prefers which method. It’s really forcing us to make the customer experience more personal to each person. That’s it in a nutshell — a good salesperson’s job is to know their customer.

Nobbe: I think too, we’ve started adapting a lot of e-signature and frankly it’s much easier for us, but a customer who is maybe younger will have no problem buying half a million dollar combine via an email to sign a purchase order. 

What is a ‘Young’ Customer?

Nobbe: So that’s a really hard question for me to answer right now because I’m a millennial by definition, but I feel like I'm closer to a baby boomer because I’m not a social media guy. I prefer to talk to people on the phone. I think back to what Colin mentioned earlier, I think it really depends on the personality traits. I have customers in their 50s who would just prefer text and do everything through digital means. And then we’ve got customers in their 20s who are still wanting that call. So it goes back to the account, you’ve got to know your customer and you’ve got to understand how they want to do this and adapt to that.

Hlavinka: The one thing I found talking to younger customers is they despise is labels. And let’s face it, there’s some negative ones out there. I’m technically the last year of a generation X. I think the thing we have to be very careful with is putting people in boxes. I’ve got some farmers who had some type of tragic accident on the farm and at 20 years old were thrust into the decision making process of the entire farm. They’re a young farmer, but they mature at such a rapid pace that they’re on par with guys 25, 30 years their senior.

It’s interesting and the one question I ask a lot of our producers is, do they want their next generation on the farm? A lot of them do, but they’re leaving it up to the kids. When we see the next generation interested in that, that’s where we try to engage them and make them part of the process. In my head, I think I’m still 18 years old, and then when I do something stupid, my body tells me I’m not. 

You can put people in some relative buckets, but we have some great 20-year-old producers who could possibly outperform some 40- or 50-year-old producers. That’s the part about agriculture that everybody enjoys because it’s so diverse and it is a relationship industry, and you have to focus so hard on it.