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265506

Ag Dealerships Evolve to Meet Customer Demands

The form and function of ag equipment have seen some drastic changes, and we’re not just talking horsepower and working width. The technology behind the equipment – from how it operates in the field to the way it communicates with the outside world – continues to evolve. Customers, too, have changed. Product information is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Combined with social media, chat rooms, and multiple websites, producers can conduct detailed research before they ever set foot in the dealership’s door.

At the front lines is the critical link between the manufacturer and end user, the dealer. Along with the equipment and the customer, dealers have evolved. Additional products and advanced equipment technology have dealers adding to their offerings to meet the growing demands of customers.

Justin Blanchette knows this very well. As precision ag equipment manager at AHW LLC, adoption of technology by his customers continues to have an impact on his service offerings.

“I’ve been involved in the ag equipment industry for 20 years. At first, I was unsure how customers would adapt to the new technology we offered,” Blanchette says from the dealership’s base in Champaign, Illinois. “Today, our tech support is as important as our mechanical support.”

The advanced technology on modern equipment has had a profound effect on his dealership. In 2008, AHW’s precision ag department was made up of a couple representatives responsible for assisting customers with their technology needs. In 2012, the dealership established a technology support center – the AHW Solution Center. Today, the dealership employs 20 individuals who are 100% dedicated to assisting customers with such things as telematics, precision agriculture, and equipment interfaces.

“When we first opened the center, we were unsure of customer perception,” he says. “Now, I don’t know how we could operate without our Solution Center. We can respond to customer questions faster and offer immediate solutions.”

It’s been a crowning achievement for the dealership, and one that provides Blanchette’s customers a support system that is immediate and local. “While we may be working with our customers remotely, we are still local, so we know the customers and their operations. Yes, it was a significant investment, but it’s something we needed to do to better serve our customers.”

Remaining relevant

As new products come along, dealerships continue to adapt. It’s not always easy, and it can be a significant investment. Yet, it’s imperative to remain relevant to today’s customer. “We are in a solutions culture, where producers are looking at things beyond equipment for answers to their needs,” says Kevin McCalmon, manager, ag channel development for Deere. “Our focus is to ensure our dealers are doing what is necessary to serve these expanded demands and to service their customers. Equipment is just part of the equation.”

Bart Freeland, precision ag manager at Delta Group, says staying up to date is a constant battle. “We subscribe to chat rooms, have a Facebook page, and keep up with electronic media as best we can so we know what producers are talking about, especially when it comes to new products or equipment,” he says. 

“Customers have always been savvy when it comes to new technology or new equipment,” says Justin Atwood, customer support manager for Landmark Implement. “Today, they can spend hours researching new products. We have to make sure we remain up to date, as well. It’s a long way from just having a sales folder behind the counter as the only source of information.”

Dealerships have raised the bar when it comes to products and services, says Melinda Griffin, director of network development for Case IH. “At Case IH, we have a strategic plan that, at its core, is to improve dealer capabilities and health. It’s our job to deliver the tools and services that help our dealers succeed.” Dealers have increased support to ensure that products, services, and training are current.

One area that’s seen significant investment is training. “The message to our dealers is that producers are more sophisticated, and customers are demanding that they be able to meet their technology needs – not just sell them a new tractor or implement,” Griffin says.

Case IH’s Pinnacle Program provides specific measurements in several areas of a dealership, including sales, marketing, operations, parts, service, and advanced farming systems. Guidelines are provided under each area, and dealerships are then rated. “With the assistance of our dealer advisory group, these areas of measurement are continually evaluated and modified as needed,” she explains. “It’s an intense program, but it helps our dealers remain current and helps them bring value to their customers.”

Bob Shanks, president of MN Ag Group, says their dealership has a point person strictly for precision farming. “Our specialists keep up with everything regarding precision farming technology at the highest level,” he says.

This serves several purposes. “Our salespeople know about our products, but it is difficult to be an expert on every new technology,” he says. “That’s especially true if a customer needs tech support in the midst of harvest. Having a point person who has specialized knowledge of the product takes some of the pressure off of our sales staff, gets our customers immediate service, and keeps them up and running.”

proactive, not reactive

Advanced technology on today’s equipment is also changing the way dealerships interact with customers as they need assistance. Modern telemetry means service technicians can work with producers while in the tractor – without ever setting foot in the field. Or, a service technician can know what service needs to be done on a piece of equipment before hitting the field. That saves time for the dealer and the customer.

“We can get service alerts even before the operator notices something is amiss,” Atwood says. “Working remotely, we can walk an operator through a question or problem immediately, and they don’t have to wait for us to make a trip to the field. That keeps them from sitting idle at the end of the field not knowing which button to push.”

Real-time data that is securely shared can also tell someone remotely that something is wrong. “Many producers have different operators using equipment, and they may not know that something like down pressure on their planter may be too heavy or too light. We can alert customers, allowing them to verify if it is correct rather than having emergence issues with their crops,” Atwood says.

“More and more, we are able to be proactive when it comes to equipment, rather than reactive,” McCalmon says. “We continue to see dealers take advantage of this technology, allowing them to be more efficient with their time. For producers, it means faster and more efficient service.”

some things haven’t changed

While their product offerings may be different and their service departments have a high-tech feel, one-on-one contact with the customer remains a core part of the dealerships. No matter what technology comes along, dealers don’t expect that to change.

“Our dealerships remain our face in the market,” says McCalmon. “We take pride in what our dealerships offer to our customers, and we value the relationships they maintain with their customers. As we expand our products to offer total solutions for the farm, it’s imperative we maintain that contact to understand customers and what they need. We want to be able to offer them solutions – not just iron.”

Atwood says the dealership puts a priority on customer interaction. “We have technicians who are specialized, and we have salespeople who engage with our customers. It’s a team effort, and we put a priority on getting all our team members out to spend time with our customers,” he says.

Freeland sees the changing landscape of the customer. “We have customers who fall across the spectrum of technology adoption. In general, as the younger generation moves into management roles on the farm, we will have to ensure we are offering them the right products and services,” he says. 

While consumer online businesses continue to grow at a dizzying pace, often displacing brick-and-mortar businesses, dealers say the relationships cultivated with producers are a key difference. “There’s still value in being on the farm,” Freeland says. “We need to be able to know the producers and their needs before we can offer solutions that will help their farms.”

Today’s dealership is more high tech  and will continue to advance to support the ever-increasing amount of product offerings. “We will have more specialists to assist our customers,” he says. “We still need that relationship, though. It’s still about trust.”

Finding the Right People

The pressure on dealerships goes well beyond what they can offer: They must find the right people to service their customers as their portfolios expand.

“One area we have identified and work closely with dealers on is finding and training the people who will not only service their customers but also maanage their operations in the future,” says Melinda Griffin, director of network development for Case IH. “It is definitely an area we’re closely monitoring.”

Bart Freeland, precision ag manager at Delta Group, says the past few people who have joined his dealerships have come from the information technology area. “We can train them to become tractor technicians,” he says, “but the newer technology today requires people with specific skills. It’s our job to identify those people and invest in them so we can service our customers.”

Investment in the right people is significant but important. “We continue to develop our employees and invest in training to keep them up to date,” says Bob Shanks, president of MN Ag Group.

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