Precision farming can present a number of challenges, and how dealers approach those challenges can differ from one to the next. We sat down with 5 precision farming specialists, across all colors, to ask them how they measure customer satisfaction, how they meet the needs of their customers to integrate multiple brands, and what their biggest opportunities and hindrances are in the year ahead?
Q: How do you measure customer satisfaction and quantify the performance of your precision personnel, in terms of the sales and service of precision technology?
Spud Armstrong, precision farming manager, Ag Technologies Inc., Rochester, Ind. (independent store associated with New Holland dealership network): “We’re involved in a 6-store operation and our store handles all the precision business for the other 5 stores, which are New Holland dealerships. One thing we’ve always done, usually quarterly, is send out customer satisfaction surveys to anyone who has purchased equipment. We’ll pull a few random customers and send surveys.
“If someone has something to complain about, they’ll tell us. Usually, we’ll get the surveys back and everyone checks “good” and doesn’t put anything more than that. But if we get a comment, we take it pretty seriously. If anyone gives us any kind of feedback, we use that to judge how we’re doing.
“I always keep track year-to-year of total sales volume and compare the numbers. The last year or so sales have been down a little bit, but I don’t think it’s because customers aren’t buying. It’s because new equipment is coming with technology factory-installed and the dealerships’ new wholegoods sales are up a bunch. I look at that as a way to gauge staff performance because if we’re not doing our job, we’re not going to sell as much. I also look at repeat business. If customers are coming back, then I feel like we’re servicing them well.”
Jason Pennycook, precision farming specialist, Johnson Tractor Inc., Janesville, Wis. (Case IH dealer): “We measure customer satisfaction based a lot on repeat customers. We also look at turns and requests for training. If more of our customers like our training classes, they’ll want us to move to the next level of support, so they can get more out of what they have. I look at that as a sign that the customers are happy with the product we’re selling.
“For employee performance, a lot of that is based on of the numbers and sales year after year. As far as the precision technicians working on equipment, that’s a little harder to measure. Usually, we base their performance on not having repeat visits to a customer. Granted, the way technology works sometimes we think we have it fixed and have to go back anyway.
“But, problems resolved in one trip would be the best way that we can rate the service side. If we have a tech who goes out multiple times to the same customer, we double check to see if it’s a new issue or if it’s the same one or if it’s just some reoccurring bug.”
Matt Rohlik, integrated solutions manager, Haug Implement Co., Willmar, Minn. (John Deere dealer): “We get measured by a third-party service called Satisfied. They take a poll of how we’re doing. It’s basically a dealer scorecard that customers fill out.
“I also get to see all the feedback from customers who fill out John Deere surveys, which they get 6 months after they purchase a piece of equipment. We take those comments into consideration. Also, at the end of our precision classes, we hand out a scorecard and look at that feedback. If it’s a radical enough comment, we’ll do something about it right away. If it’s one of those things we need to hear a couple more times to make sure it wasn’t just a fluke, we’ll hold off toward the end of the year to see if we get any more.
“In terms of the performance of our precision personnel, I know what some of the dealers nearby do for sales and I know we rival what those dealers do. Our sales per person are pretty high, and we’re actually getting to the point now where we’re almost saturated. It’s more or less adding an existing system or package to what they already have.
Kris Goodman, owner, Precision Ag Solutions Inc., Dos Palos, Calif. (independent precision ag dealer): “We really just follow up after we finish with the installation. Usually, we’ll go back out and give customers secondary training on the product. Then we’ll follow up with phone calls to make sure everything is still going well.
“In terms of my personnel, our customers let us know pretty quickly if our guys aren’t doing a good job. We’re a small company, and all our guys are very well versed in the products we sell. So when we measure their performance, it’s based on customers’ feedback or lack of complaints. Then again, when I follow up with the customers as the owner, I always ask how the equipment is working and if they are satisfied with our performance.”
Matt Liskai, co-owner, Green Field Ag LLC, Gibsonburg, Ohio (independent precision dealer): “The ultimate form of compliment in terms of customer satisfaction is a repeat customer adding to his fleet or continuing to purchase the products that we offer. If he’s not happy with what we offer, he’s obviously not going to come back for more in the future.
“Another way I view customer satisfaction is if they tell their neighbors, ‘Hey, I’ve got some stuff that works really well and this is where I got it.’ Then those neighbors come to us to purchase. Word of mouth advertising, so to speak, is how we judge satisfaction.
“In terms of measuring the staff’s performance, it’s based on customer feedback more than anything. I don’t really judge my guys on sales. Obviously, sales are a big thing as far as keeping the business going, but one guy may work with five smaller customers and not have big sales. So how do you judge him by how much he sells per year? If an employee is really doing well, he’s going to generate a lot of sales.”
Q: How are you meeting the needs of farm customers to integrate multiple brands of precision technology, and what could manufacturers do to help minimize compatibility problems?
Armstrong: “Every brand has its ups and downs and I don’t try to sell one over the other. I try to sell and match whatever works for the customer’s situation. It makes it harder for us because we have to know more than if we had one system.
“ISOBUS is going to be our biggest hope for compatibility. That’s the only way we’re going to get everybody on the same page. Last year, ISO was rolled out in the spring. We got lucky and didn’t have any problems, but I know some neighboring dealers who sold some stuff and it didn’t work. It’s not that they did a bad job and I did a better job. I hope in years to come if manufacturers keep working on it, that’s where we’re going.
“A lot of our customers run multiple brands. There are maybe 5 customers that have all New Holland equipment, so I’m working on multiple branded farms a lot. We’ve also sold Apache sprayers to Deere customers who want to put their system in the sprayer and it didn’t work. I called Deere dealers and they were really reluctant to help me.
“Even on the dealer end, I try to be pretty open. If anybody calls me I try to help them and I expect the same back from them. But I understand that when we’re competing against each other, it’s hard to get that relationship, so I feel like the OEMs have got to step up to make systems easier for dealers to deal with.”
Pennycook: “Carrying multiple brands at the store is helpful. I spend a lot of time getting to know the precision technicians at the local John Deere and AGCO dealerships. There are a lot of times that customers are running one brand’s tractor with another brand’s planter, and we’ve got to be able to get along with the competition enough to work together to get everything hooked in and running.
“They can help with troubleshooting or some of the basic set up stuff that I might not know on their side. And it works in the other direction as well. If they have issues, they can feel free to call me and I’ll help them out, which is good for everybody.
“As far as manufacturers go, the biggest need is putting a little more effort into ISO. If everyone could get along on ISO and everyone gets to the point where it is plug-and-play that would be a huge advantage. They are making strides, but that is what they should be working on the most, trying to get ISO compatible so we can have that colorblind world where we can plug anything into anything.
“We make an effort if customers have multiple brands not to say, ‘Oh well, we don’t deal with that.’ We make a valid effort to make sure the customer gets what he wants because sometimes what they want and what you sell them are not the same thing. They might want something specific, so you work with the customer to get him what he wants and make sure he’s happy.”
Rohlik: “We are trained on multiple brands of equipment and work with dealers that are selling Trimble or Ag Leader or whatnot. We’ve got a good relationship in this area with the other dealers and are able to talk with those guys. The other thing we do is once a year we try to get a one-on-one meeting with those dealers and discuss how we can complement each other. “Not having a true ISO standard, is probably the number one problem we run into. We’ve got guys who have Hardi sprayers that are ISO compatible or guys who have Great Plains or AGCO planters that are ISO compatible, but it’s not to the point where every manufacturer is on the same page yet. When we truly have plug-and-play or we get to the point where we’re as compatible as the equipment in the European union, that will help minimize a lot of compatibility problems. I would say 5 years for sure, but it’s probably closer to 10 years until we’re at that point.”
Goodman: “We just do the best we can with what we have to work with. There are many products that work well together and some that do not. We might use one company’s flow control valves and another company’s display. The really good precision farming companies have adaptors and cabling that fit the majority of tractors, planters and sprayers, and when set up right, they will usually out-perform the factory installed products that might come with the tractors.
“I try to approach each customer by learning what they need and what their goals are, then offer what I think is the best solution to meet those goals. What products we offer might vary from farm to farm, based on their individual needs or goals. A lot of the compatibility problems stem from the tractor manufacturers, they don’t always allow third-party equipment easy access, or they charge a fee to get access.
“Our biggest struggle would probably be the different manufacturers not always working well with aftermarket equipment. If all the vehicles spoke the same language, it would be a lot easier for the guys building the hardware to make it work across the board.”
Liskai: “I try to get the customer in the best fit. Maybe one monitor will do a better job for yield monitoring, but not as good of a job steering the tractor. We merge them together. The ultimate goal is to have one display doing that, but that’s not always going to happen. The customer may be really happy with something old, so sometimes it can be a challenge with the limitation of what the yield monitors can do. We try not to put the farmer in more than what he needs. We give him a way to upgrade in the future.
“I’m not a big fan of ISO, but that seems to be where everyone is leaning. It doesn’t seem like ISO is truly ultimate compatibility. There are quirks in every implement that has ISO that need to be worked around. There are little bugs that you find here and there.
“They need to make an industry standard RTK correction like a radio, so that everybody can talk to everyone else’s base stations. They have encrypted signals here and there and if there was an industry standard for RTK, rather than everybody having their own encrypted signals, that would make everything easier for manufacturers to work off of.”
Q: In the year ahead, where are your greatest opportunities to grow the dealership’s precision farming business, and what are the biggest barriers to increasing profitability?
Armstrong: “I think water management has a lot of opportunity for us as a dealer because it’s such a high-dollar system. It’s like selling an auto-steer system, a full set up of clutches and hydraulic drive for a corn planter setup. We’re talking $30,000 for a water management kit. It does have its headaches because there’s a lot more that you need to know about how it all works. But if I can sell 5 systems in a year or year and a half, that would be really good for us.
“The other one would be data collection, anything with wireless transfer in data, or the cloud, will have a lot of merit to it. Everybody who’s bought stuff from us, is a candidate to buy this kind of thing. We’re more of a hardware-based company and we’ve never been in the agronomic side of precision, but I think we’ll be a little more involved with the data processing in the future.
“My biggest barrier is OEM stuff coming equipped with precision hardware. We were focused on selling the hardware, but now we’re selling the service more. We’ve been building service into the price of the equipment, and we’re going to have to come up with our own service contracts. Maybe a yearly contract we sign with the customers to service their equipment because there are guys still running 5 or 6 year old equipment that still need help and that’s a lot harder to bill.”
Pennycook: “The biggest areas for growth in the upcoming year are going to be boom control and boom height for sprayers, variable-rate control for sprayers, sidedressers and anhydrous rigs, basically controlling product and variable-rate for multiple areas. Most planters come equipped with all of that, but on the spraying and application side, that’s where the most promise for increasing sales is for us.
“The other area for growth is precision service packages, where we can recoup some of the money for our time spent on the phone. We can start billing some of that out, but in the spring and the fall, this can fall through the cracks because we’re going from one customer to another.
“With the downturn in the commodity markets this last year, there’s probably going to be more growers who may not be quite as eager to jump into something new right away. Precision equipment might not be their first purchase. If they need another combine, that’s probably going to come ahead of putting guidance on a tractor or putting automatic boom sections on a sprayer. That’s going to be a hurdle for getting new customers.”
Rohlik: “Data management. Just showing customers how to use it and the software, how it can maximize their business. We can line them up with their co-op or sit down together and basically have a three-way meeting with their co-op or their crop consultant, to help them enhance what they are doing. That’s probably one of the greatest opportunities.
“We have some softening of the commodity market, that would be one of the biggest barriers to increasing profitability. However, more than ever, when crop prices decrease you have to make the most out of every acre and precision farming is where it’s at. That’s your fastest return on investment; this is where you can maximize management zones, field specific information because you’re measuring it.
“Another area with potential is unmanned aircraft systems, or drones. We’re going to dip into the fixed wing and the copter versions. We’re showcasing them to our growers and may sell them to some municipalities and some other independent guys. As we step further into site specific management, UAVs are where we need to be looking at fields to help get an overall view of what is going on there, perhaps weekly or bi-weekly. The opportunity to get an overhead look at crops at any time is really neat, too.”
Goodman: “We are gradually growing each year mostly because of word of mouth, and that GPS equipment is quickly becoming a standard piece of equipment, rather than a luxury. We try to stay as educated as we can with the current technology and ahead of the game as far as the new technology.
“There’s really no golden door being opened anywhere, we just have to work hard and continue being the best at what we do. One obstacle for us goes back to the tractor manufacturers. Some of the tractors come with GPS equipment and it often gets hidden in the overall price of the tractor. Dealers might even give the equipment away, as a means to get a foot in the door and capture some of the market for precision products.
“The product doesn’t always work like it should, and often times won’t come with any support, but it is usually too late by the time the customer realizes it. That’s one of the biggest hurdles we’ll face. Another hurdle we are currently facing in California is the water crises. The current drought is impacting everyone involved in ag.”
Liskai: “In our area the field drainage side of the business is a big opportunity. There’s been a big push getting fields tiled correctly. Unlike some other areas of the country, we’re actually a little wet. It seems like we get a big rain event more often and we need to get that water off the field so we can get in there.
“We’re getting bigger and heavier equipment every year, so we need to make sure the fields are properly drained and minimize compaction and get the best yields we can.
“The biggest barrier would be all the OEMs selling the same thing we sell as an after-market option. Farmers buying a tractor that already is auto-steer equipped, that’s been driving some sales away for us.”