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Profitably Selling Specialty Products Requires a Product 'Champion'
Ag machinery is changing, so is the type of people needed to sell and service it.
Operating a farming operation isn't what it used to be and neither is the equipment. Whether it's livestock or row crops, agriculture has become an increasingly sophisticated enterprise. From tillage to planting to fertilizing, advanced technologies and techniques have become the name of the game as farmers continue looking for ways to reduce inputs and improve yields.
More often than not, the dealer is the producer's first point of contact in their search for ways to improve their operations. In many cases, it's the dealership staff that provides the farmer his first glimpse of what's new and better out there in the complex world of agriculture technology, equipment and systems.
Now, introduce an entirely new customer base of LPOs and hobby farmers with an entirely different set of wants and needs, and it's clear that the onus is on the dealer to have a staff with the talent and knowledge to serve these divergent markets.
Today, nearly two-thirds (60%) of farm equipment retailers say they employ "product specialists" or "champions" in sales to keep up with the new directions of agricultural machinery and systems. Another 10% employ a "resource person" who specializes in certain technologies or markets to back up the sales team.
"The only way to make a shortline work today is to find something that works and have a sales force committed to that product," says Steve Lefeld of Lefeld Implement, Coldwater, Ohio. "We have tried several shortlines in the past and many have failed to meet expectations after a year or two because no one takes it and pushes it. We all think it will sell on its own, but it won't."
To cover all the bases as well as the new directions the market is taking them these days, Eric Schnelle, president of S&H Farm supply, Lockwood, Mo., says it takes talent, training and attitude.
"Success of a shortline product is only as good as the enthusiasm of the sales team. We have stocked great products in the past that wouldn't sell because the sales force wasn't excited about the product. A dealership must have at least one salesman who fully understands the product, pricing structure, finance options, etc. A salesman must always sell with confidence. Customers immediately know if the salesman is an expert on, or is excited about, a product.
"This can be the difference between the product being successful or stagnant. Since we sell many shortlines, we have had specialized salesmen for several years. All of them also sell our main lines but specialize in mix wagons, planters, ATVs, lawn mowers or outdoor wood furnaces. This only works if you have a sales team that works together and is willing to refer a sales lead to the shortline specialist," says Schnelle. "In most cases, these products carry the same commission compensation as other products. As far as training, we send each individual to the manufacturer's sales or product training."
"Somebody must be in charge of any new venture to ensure success. Otherwise nobody will ever properly market new lines," says Jamie Waldrip, Green South Equipment Co., Madison, Ga. "You must both properly compensate the person and give him time to work with the new line."
In other words, when it's everybody's baby, it's nobody's baby.
Dealers are recognizing that as their customers have become more sophisticated and diversified, they, too, need to follow suit with their store personnel. Many have discovered the long-term benefits of doing so.
"I added sales personnel this past year and have seen the benefit of targeting compact tractor markets as it also increased sales of accessories and compatible equipment," explains Bill Chupp, Chupp Implement of Pryor, Okla.
Like other businessmen, dealers sometimes need to see it to believe it. Dave Teigen, regional manager for Bonneville County Implement, Idaho Falls, Idaho, is one who has become a believer.
"I am a firm believer in designating key employees to manage a market segment. For example, AMS specialists, sprayer specialists, hay specialists, small tractor specialists. There are so many retail/wholesale programs as well as advances in the industry that it's impossible for everyone to champion every new product or market segment," he says.
It was his dealership's struggle with a seemingly basic piece of equipment that demonstrated the value of assigning a staffer to focus on it. "We were having trouble penetrating the windrower market until I designated a key individual to understand and demo the product," he explains. "That person has not only tripled our windrower business because of his dedication and knowledge, but has become someone the company calls on when they have questions regarding performance. His increased knowledge and responsibility frees up my time and has allowed him to grow professionally, personally and financially."
Alex Lush, Swanston Farm Equipment, Rockwood, Ontario, says that his dealership has run into only one minor snag since assigning specialty areas of responsibility to its sales force.
"We segment sales people in the following way: ag/golf course, consumer products/landscapers, and light construction/industrial. There haven't been any significant issues other than the ag salesman crossing over occasionally into other types of equipment and his weakness or lack of knowledge shows. Overall, however, it is a successful strategy for us."
Travis Emitte offers another example of how it works for Lawrence Tractor of Tipton, Calif. "With our feed wagons, we have one dedicated salesman who only sells wagons and tractors to make a total package. We also designated one technician to learn all about the machine and he teaches the others as more work comes in for this equipment."
Emitte admits that "the workload has increased and training is another cost because we've never sold this type of equipment before. We had a steep learning curve to support the products," he says.
Training is Vital
To effectively utilize a product or market specialist, training is critical. If used properly, this key person also serves as the "go-to-guy" for the rest of the staff as questions and issues arise, as well as for training the rest of the group. In addition, dealers are using the point person to handle nearly every task associated with a particular product or market segment.
Training breeds confidence, and confidence is the cornerstone for all good sales people, according to Dean Habrock, St. Joseph Tractors, St. Joseph, Mo.
"Salespeople will sell what they have confidence in and what customers ask for. If salesmen are confident in a product, they become passionate about it," he says.
Paul Lamm of TNT Equipment, Sandusky, Mich., has found that with the onset of new technologies, training has become more important.
"Without the proper training and knowledge, it is very hard to sell any product. We have several product specialists for our GPS products, and their knowledge is the reason we are as successful as we are in the GPS market."
For Valley Implement of Sterling, Colo., their product specialists don't sell directly, but handle issues that may arise within his specified field of expertise.
Dennis Wagner, sales manager explains: "What we have done is assign an individual to certain specialty lines. He goes to all of the training and then trains the sales staff. There are not enough units sold for everybody to be a specialist, but they all must know the basics. This individual handles the stocking levels and if there is a particular problem he is called and takes care of it. His compensation package includes a higher base pay as his job is to help out the salesmen as opposed to selling."
The 'Go-To' Guy
Whether he or she is called the point person or a resource person, as ag equipment becomes more complex and higher priced, customers need the confidence to know they are investing in something that will provide a good return on investment. That includes knowing their dealer has staff that can help them out of a jam.
Birkey's Farm Store employs such specialists in the areas of precision farming and spraying, two technologies that are relatively new to most growers.
"When we have individuals assigned to lead and direct these products, it no doubt makes it easier," says Mark Foster of Birkey's in Attica, Ind. "Our goal is to have the sales team be the point person in these areas. While we have hired a precision farming specialist, he is there to assist in any way he can, but we still want the salesperson to be involved. The specialist is the resource person who provides training and knowledge. They assist the salespeople in closing the sale as well as providing the knowledge necessary to help the customer make the right decision.
"The same goes with sprayers," says Foster. "We have an individual who is the point person, but we utilize our distributor and its staff when it comes down to discussing specifics about the product. I don't believe we would have had the success in either of these two areas had we not had individuals heading up those product segments," he adds.
Darren Mead, Deems Farm Equipment of Nevada, Nevada, Mo., has seen similar results in his dealership's efforts to market zero-turn mowers. "We have seen great results from having a salesman be the 'go-to-guy.' He keeps himself and the technicians up-to-date on training and has helped make the specific brand popular in our trade area. We all deal with them and sell them, but we go to him with questions," says Mead.
Clayton Thornber, manager of Service Motor Co., Fond du Lac, Wis., says he's seen the results of having a product champion focus exclusively on the dealership's growing consumer market as well. Failing to create the kind of "consumer atmosphere" necessary to attract these customers, he says, "I put a young man exclusively on consumer products sales. Today, he generates 20% of our wholegoods volume and about 30% of our wholegoods gross margin."
Few dealers who have utilized a product champion will argue "with" or "against" its effectiveness, but Mark Taylor of Northern Plains Equipment presents the real challenge. "No question it takes an individual who is dedicated to understanding the product, believing he has the best product and being able to transfer the passion for that product to the prospect. The difficulty is finding that person."
Finding the "right" person is another question for another day.