Social distancing has forced many Canadian businesses to shift their workforce to a work-from-home setting, and agricultural industry is no exception. In agriculture, however, social interaction is part of the fabric — from product delivery, to agronomic advising, or troubleshooting ration adjustment. All of these activities require the support of suppliers who traditionally have spent much of their time on-farm, in the barn, or at the kitchen table. So how are agricultural sales and support staff adapting during these times of social distancing?

To learn more, I spoke with several leaders from the agribusiness industry, each representing different sectors and levels of the distribution channel. The goal was to learn how salespeople are adapting to work with customers while practicing social distancing.

Communication has always been important, but today it’s more important than ever. Finding new and effective ways to communicate has been a high priority for Steve Rongits, agronomy manager with FS PARTNERS, an Ontario-based ag retailer. Rongits says his crop specialists began communicating with customers very early to establish protocols around things like contact, delivery, and custom work.

Right now, the FS PARTNERS team is focused on ensuring customers have everything they need, so they’re able to get started with spring fieldwork. This means calling ahead before deliveries to see if there is anything else a customer requires, so the number of trips to the farm can be limited, for example.

While communication with customers is critical, Rongits also emphasizes the importance of having excellent communication internally. He says their salespeople are continually communicating with their colleagues in operations to ensure everything is clear and gets done according to the expectations that were set with customers.

Rob Flack, president, and CEO of Masterfeeds, an animal nutrition company, underscores the importance of continuing to provide quality products while ensuring the safety of people. Because animal nutrition products are often custom-formulated and require taking feed samples, some things just can’t be done remotely, so finding a balance is essential. Flack says, “Our people must continue to give the best advice regardless of how we communicate. They must also make sure customers are following that advice. So when in doubt, call.”

Flack says that while customer safety is a high priority, equally important is the safety of his team. “Our mills need to keep running so we can supply our customers,” says Flack. “We are closely monitoring the health of our employees and have strict protocols in place at our locations to ensure the health and well-being of our staff.” (article continues below video. Click to listen/watch!)

To assist with communication, many agricultural businesses are relying on traditional tools such as email, phone, and text message. But given the nature of the situation, other technologies are starting to be used more extensively. Aaron Chicilo, sales effectiveness manager for Bayer Crop Science, says their sales team is starting to use more video applications to interact with customers. “This situation has required people to adopt technology faster than they otherwise might,” says Chicilo, who is encouraging salespeople to interact with their retailer and farmer customers using applications like Skype, FaceTime, or Microsoft Teams. Chicilo says this is particularly important when trying to troubleshoot with things that require a visual, such as calibrating custom seed treating equipment.

Other tools, such as field management software programs, are also helping to facilitate communication. Chicilo suggests that programs such as Climate FieldView enable farmers, retailers, and manufacturers to share information with one another to help diagnose problems and review production information remotely. Rongits says his team at FS PARTNERS has spent the greater part of the last few seasons helping customers to understand better and use digital tools, which is now proving to be valuable.  Rongits says, “We feel that the use of these types of programs puts our crop specialists in a great position to work with our customers without having to be on their farm.”

One theme that was evident in the discussions I had with these sales leaders might not be evident to all: the impact changes to the work environment are having on people. While salespeople are clearly sensitive to their customers’ situations, it is equally important that customers recognize the magnitude of changes salespeople are going through and how it might be impacting them behind the scenes.

“Agriculture is a people business,” says Flack. “It’s about people and people interaction. Many salespeople are used to spending their days on the road and can easily get stir-crazy having to be at home and on the phone all the time. They want to be visiting with customers but can’t. But we are making good use of the tools we have available to communicate with customers, like Skype and Zoom, and this is helping to maintain the personal interaction.”

There are also significant changes to the physical work environment. Salespeople are still being asked to do their traditional work activities, but in a completely different physical environment using tools they may or may not be familiar with. Complicating the work-from-home situation is the fact that many salespeople have children home from school or spouses who are also working from home. This requires significant adjustment.

This point was driven home during a conversation with Steve Cowan, sales director for Crop Management Network, an independent ag retail business at Camrose, Alta.  Steve and his wife just had a baby boy last month. Cowan says it’s nice to be home with his young family, but working from home requires a particular discipline. He also mentions the fact he misses the interaction he would typically have with his work colleagues.

Cowan is concerned about his staff.  He says, “The most important thing we need to consider is that all of our staff are people and they have families. They might have young kids, older parents, or grandparents and are worried and stressed about how COVID-19 could affect them and their health. Many have school-aged children who are now at home and are needing to be home-schooled. We have been more focused than ever the well-being and mental health and know we need to be very understanding of our employees’ needs, which have changed dramatically.”

While much uncertainty surrounds the future, this situation will undoubtedly change the way customers and salespeople work with one another in the future.  Not only will it change how we communicate, but it will also speed up the use of certain types of technology. What likely won’t change is the importance of people. Of all things, this situation emphasizes the importance of strong customer/supplier relationships. Salespeople who have made an effort to build relationships by getting to know their customers are in a position to work seamlessly through this difficult circumstance because a trusting relationship exists.

I think Steve Rongits put it best when he said, “When the dust settles, and we reflect on this experience, hopefully, our customers will look back and realize the good work we did for them through this time of crisis.”

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