Marketing Matters Understanding what makes your rural lifestyler customers tick will lead you to an up-tick in equipment and attachment sales By Michael Turley & Dan Kirkpatrick.  While they aren’t in the market for Class VIII combines or 500-hp 4WD tractors, those 5- to 10-acre homesteads dotting the rural landscape with greater frequency these days represent a tremendous opportunity for dealers willing to re-think the way they market their stores, products and services.

Your dealership can be positioned to capture its own slice of the expanding hobby farm and rural-lifestyle pie if you’re willing to invest the energy and effort to:

• Better understand rural lifestyle customers and the key differences that set them apart from commercial farmers.

• Identify rural lifestyle prospects you can convert into customers.

• Reach out to these prospects and customers to build lasting, profitable relationships.

Inside the Head of the Rural Lifestyler

Introduce your 'country lifestyle specialist' to your database of customers and prospects through a post-car mailer, email blast, and on your dealership's website.

As consumers, rural lifestylers are more likely to be drawn to dealers that appear to value their business. This is where the layout of your dealership’s lot and store design play such a critical role. Combines, 4WD tractors and large row-crop tractors literally and figuratively dwarf consumer-type products such as lawn and garden tractors, compact tractors, ATVs and utility vehicles. Moving these smaller machines to the front — and displaying as many as possible — conveys to rural lifestyle customers that you’re serious about the consumer market.

Many rural lifestyle customers will be first-time equipment owners who likely don’t know the difference between a power takeoff and a three-point hitch. A dealership that can effectively ease their anxieties about equipment selection and ownership is likely to earn a customer for life. And these rural lifestylers are much more likely than farm customers to pay full retail for your expertise.

Realize too that the value equation is different for rural lifestylers than for farmers. While growers place a greater emphasis on the bottom line — price, value and return on investment — rural lifestyle customers want a positive ownership experience that comes from knowing they can rely on you to deliver the whole package, from product to training to service and after-sale support. In many instances, rural lifestyle buyers may have a particular brand in mind prior to a purchase, but more often than not, the tipping point will be the sense of assurance they get from a dealer who they believe will be with them every step of the way.

Identifying New Prospects

While an attractive store and a lot full of consumer-type products are important, you need more to lure new potential rural lifestyle customers to your dealership.

Several new magazines targeting the rural lifestyle segment have appeared on the scene over the past few years. Publications such as Living the Country Life and Rural Life offer circulation lists that can be a valuable resource for helping identify leads in your market area. You can

contact these publishers to rent a list of qualified names for a specific area or zip code for a nominal investment — usually in the ballpark of $100 per 1,000 names. Equine organizations and publications, such as The American Quarter Horse Journal, can also serve as a valuable resource for developing a targeted database of rural lifestyle customers.

You may also want to consider developing relationships with local or regional agencies that specialize in the rural real estate market. United Country, for instance, supports nearly 650 franchisees across 44 states. Partnering with a local firm can be invaluable in helping you identify new rural lifestyle customers moving into your market area.

Another partnering opportunity for your dealership exists with feed stores and non-competitive farm supply outlets. You may want to consider joint promotions — field days, open houses — that help both operations enhance their presence and expand their reach within your area’s rural lifestyle customer base.

Building Profitable Relationships

Once you’ve identified new potential rural lifestyle customers, you need to start the process of reaching out to these potential buyers to reinforce how serious you are about earning and retaining their business.

As previously mentioned, this audience of mostly first-time equipment buyers places a premium on the expertise you provide. If you don’t already have one on staff, consider hiring a sales rep who specializes in the rural lifestyle segment. Introduce your “country lifestyle specialist” to your targeted database of customers and prospects through a postcard mailer, e-mail blast, and on your dealership’s website. Use these promotional opportunities to offer a value-added service such as a free equipment-needs assessment and consultation.

When talking equipment with a hobby farmer or rural lifestyle customer, focus less on a specific product’s features and benefits and more on the chores and tasks the buyer wants to accomplish. More often than not, the top priority for rural lifestyle customers is finding the right tools to help them get their jobs done quickly and easily.

There’s also tremendous value in displaying equipment — compact tractors, garden tractors and utility vehicles — with a wide range of attachments and accessories. A buyer in the market for a compact tractor equipped with a front-end loader, for example, may come to the quick realization that he or she could also benefit from bundling that purchase with a posthole digger, tiller and rotary mower.

After the sale, pay attention to all the little things that — added together — contribute to a great overall ownership experience. Deliver the product and provide hands-on operational training. Follow-up with a hand-written thank-you card. Call your customer once a quarter to make sure the product is meeting his or her expectations.

Whether it’s product sales or aftermarket service, never lose sight of the importance of being easy to do business with. Most rural lifestyle customers are professionals who work 8-to-5 jobs. Are your store hours designed more for your convenience, or for your customer base?

If the rural lifestyle segment is truly important to your business, you’ll probably want to move to expanded hours at least a couple nights during the week and on Saturday. If you don’t, there’s a good chance you could lose these buyers to another dealer or a big box outlet down the road.

When developing your marketing plans for 2008, take a close look at opportunities that allow you to keep your name in front of customers and prospects, and that showcase your dealership’s capabilities. These could include anything from e-newsletters to strategic local sponsorships to a rural lifestyle open house with educational sessions on equipment selection and maintenance.

Finally, remember that your most-effective form of promotion is the positive word-of-mouth a satisfied customer delivers on your dealership’s behalf. Pay special attention to every rural lifestyle customer that walks through your door, and word will quickly spread that yours is a store that understands the market.

Michael Turley is the one-time marketing consultant for Montana Tractor and current executive vice president for Osborn & Barr Communications. Dan Kirkpatrick, associate director of public relations for Osborn & Barr, has more than a dozen years of experience working in the ag and power equipment industries.