Selling equipment to a first-time customer who doesn’t have operation experience could be a recipe for disaster. As dealers, we have a responsibility to ensure the safety of our customers, while keeping in mind the dangers of liability and litigation.
Let’s first acknowledge one of the difficulties of our business: customer knowledge. A lot of us deal with two different customer bases, farmers and hobby farmers. It can be difficult to change focus when dealing with one group and then shifting to the other.
Farmers know and understand machinery, some of them better than we do. Some could be offended if we require training.
Rural lifestyle customers are on the other end of the spectrum and there has been a gradual shift in their exposure to machinery. In 1993, when I started in the business, most potential small tractor customers seemed to have some experience with equipment. For instance, their parents owned a farm or they spent time on a grandparent’s agricultural operation. Today, those connections have mostly ended. Today’s rural lifestyle customer generally has had no experience with equipment and they may even be purchasing a product they’ve never driven. They may be too embarrassed to admit that they don’t understand how to operate machinery.
We’re accustomed to dealing with customers who understand our product. We may wrongly assume our new customers have some knowledge of the equipment or would ask questions if they didn’t. If we deliver them a product with no training and they end up injuring themselves with it, could they claim negligence on our part for not providing them with warnings about dangers?
So what should we be doing? At the very least, on every single piece of equipment we sell, it is critical that the customer receives an owner’s manual. My tractor has a manual that’s 58 pages long and over a quarter of it is devoted to safety information.
Second, make sure to tell tractor customers that the equipment has inherent dangers and that the thorough reading of the owner’s manual can help keep them safe.
Third, many manuals have a section where customers sign, acknowledging that they’ve received the manual and had safety information and the warranty explained to them. They sign it, a dealership representative signs it, and copies are made for their respective files. If there is no such document, consult your attorney to have a generic one drafted and make customer signatures mandatory on every major transaction.
These first three items are basic initial steps to help protect your dealership. Having documentation in the customer’s file proving your due diligence should be a mandatory responsibility for your sales department. It requires time, a precious commodity, but prioritizing the process is well worth the effort.
Take this concept to the next level by offering training on major equipment purchases. You may provide this training yourself, but there are so many areas to cover that omitting a topic could negate the effort. In other words, if you spent time explaining all of the dangers of tractor rollover and PTO entanglement, but omitted advice for operating on the open road and the customer had an accident there, could you still be held liable?
Consider augmenting your efforts with that of an outside resource. In Missouri, for example, Show-Me Farm Safety training, is sponsored by the University of Missouri; American Farm Bureau Federation; the Missouri Highway Patrol, Department of Labor and Department of Transportation; and the Missouri Cattlemen’s Assn. Here’s a link: https://FarmSafety.Mo.gov/Farm-Equipment.
Video safety training is also available at my website: asktractormike.com/tractor-safety. This type of training is comprehensive and could remove part of your liability responsibility. Add a provision in the customer documentation that they were told about such training prior to delivery.
In the end, there’s nothing that can eliminate the risk of liability. However, covering the basics at the time of sale, especially with inexperienced operators, can minimize exposure. Future columns will deal with other types of liability and discuss how blurred the lines can be when assessing safety and litigation risks.