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Ranch business evolves from a handshake to a webinar

B. Lynn Gordon Published on 24 October 2014
Deal on a handshake

Agriculture has always been known as a people business. For decades, business deals were done with a handshake, no paper trail needed.

Agribusiness reps travelled thousands of miles to make personal visits to ranches, feedlots or other clients. Window time, as it was referred to, meant logging many hours in the car to sell their product, work with their teams and build their client base.

What impact are today’s new communication technologies having on the agricultural industry?

I visited with two animal health industry representatives to hear their pros and cons of how they have adapted and conducted outreach with these new technologies.

“The agribusiness industry has come a long way,” says Kenton Carlson, Novartis territory manager. Carlson remembers that early in his agribusiness sales career with another company in the 1980s, he would stop at pay phones three times a day to retrieve voice mail from internal and external customers.

Plus, his company’s operating system wouldn’t support two programs open at a time; soon he realized he could crunch numbers quicker on a legal pad and calculator.

In the past, the focus of the sales industry was meeting customers face-to-face; on-site farm and ranch visits or visits to animal health suppliers (co-ops, veterinary clinics, etc.) were priority. The goal was to build a personal working relationship, Carlson explains, but today it’s not always that way.

Technologies adopted for efficiency
Increasing travel costs, decreased sales staff, larger territories and more products to sell has, for example, forced the animal health industry to work more efficiently and effectively.

The result: adopting new communication technologies such as email, webinars, Skype, conference calls, texting and sending or accessing information via cell phones, smart phones and tablets.

“We use all types of communication, about every type that is available, multiple times on a daily basis, both from colleague to colleague within our teams and also from corporate to field and field response back to corporate,” says Jeff Kafka, senior sales representative, Elanco beef team unit.

Kafka emphasized the primary reason is the money/costs saved; it also increases speed in response time, especially when information is needed in a timely fashion.

Carlson reiterates we have embraced technology in order to reach our customers. “Just last week, I downloaded Wi-Fi videos of a consultant veterinarian and producer testimonials so I will be able to utilize them out in the field with my clients.

I can show the videos to clients/other veterinarians and don’t have the expense of bringing the experts on-site; the technology works so well it’s like we are watching the presentation live.

“In today’s instant world, our field staff must be able to access our company information immediately and easily. Last year, our field reps all received iPads. We have our entire literature library and multiple apps now available to serve our customers almost instantaneously,” Carlson says.

Poor cell phone coverage in rural areas and busy veterinarians result in lost calls or phone tag and today can be remedied with a quick text, which hastens response time to customers or co-workers.

Technology has not diminished the value of salespeople and field service, rather multiplied the resources we can provide, Carlson believes.

Kafka says, “We must use all types of communication technology with our customers, clients, consultants and producers; no type of technology is exclusive, but it also depends on the customers’ preferences.” Kafka explains that most customers appreciate a combination of technology and face-to-face interaction.

They appreciate the instant exchange of accurate information, a record of communication exchange, along with saving their time and ours, but they still have that desire for face-to-face communication at times, which we must consider and honor.

Technology changes the way of business
“With the positives come challenges as well,” says Kafka, “You obviously lose that human interaction and creative thought process.” Sending information back and forth in the form of instant communication is efficient, but there are cases where the communication becomes so instant people can make incorrect assumptions.

Texts, emails and even responses over conference calls are not always interpreted correctly. In addition, when you are trying to multi-task, reaching people with so many different forms of communication sometimes can foster mistakes. “It’s hard to be an expert of the portfolio of all the new technologies.”

When face-to-face with someone, you can see their reaction/body language and can tell if they understand your point or not, Kafka emphasized. When you lose that face-to-face interaction, customers often wonder if they are still the focus of your business or if your focus is only technology.

You must work hard to let them know why you can’t always visit their feedyard or ranch on-site.

“Technology can also result in isolation for both the sales staff and the customer,” he added. “When you spend time on the computer or on conference calls day in and day out interacting with your clients or team, you miss that personal connection.

“Your customers can feel isolated as well because agriculture is a people business, and ranchers and feedlot operators don’t enjoy excessive time on the computer, either.”

“Our clients continue to demand more and challenge us as an industry and professionals to keep ahead of the pace and take these technologies or information back to them,” says Carlson.

However, developing these technologies can have expense as well, especially if they do not end up being highly adopted. For example, Carlson recently visited with a producer who reviewed multiple videos on a product in their decision-making process on which product to purchase.

Several companies developed and promoted these videos. The end result is: Production of technologies can add up as well.  end mark

B. Lynn Gordon
  • B. Lynn Gordon
  • Agriculture Leadership Specialist
  • South Dakota State University Extension

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