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DIRECT CONTACT ON CALL
CONNECTING AG BUSINESSES WITH A WHEN-YOU-NEED-IT SALES FORCE
Personal face-to-face selling has always been one of the most important elements of a company's marketing mix. In fact, by the end of the 1990s, U.S. companies were spending more than $200 billion annually on personal sales efforts, which is more than twice as much as advertising. The importance of directly contacting agricultural decision-makers is increasing as agribusinesses become more relationship-oriented with their diminishing customer base. Also, many of today's products are technically complicated, requiring a face-to-face explanation.

And, as industries and businesses continually become more compressed and contracted, companies are seeking new and innovative ways to reach their customers. Not just more efficiently, but as effectively as possible.

Direct Contact, Inc., Chicago, has become that new and innovative way, extending and strengthening the sales efforts within agriculture. Direct Contact is owned and operated by Terry Bowen and Tom Wingate, seasoned veterans of the crop protection industry. Their vision of connecting ag businesses with handpicked, highly qualified and experienced independent sales representatives has grown dramatically.

After only five years, Direct Contact, Inc., is now uniquely structured with more than 2,600 independent contractors throughout the U.S. who are ready, willing and able to jump into nearly any sales or marketing situation. According to Bowen, president of DCI, his company is creating a win-win-win situation for a variety of clients.

"First and foremost, we serve as an extension to the agrimarketers' service teams, sales teams, and marketing teams," says Bowen. "Secondly, we're bringing a great opportunity for people who have been involved in agriculture for 10, 20, and even 30 years. These professionals are still very well connected and have a desire to stay connected, but don't necessarily want to work full time. The third 'win' is bringing this opportunity to companies who are looking for new alternatives, which allows Direct Contact to meet our clients' various sales, service and marketing needs."

BUILDING RELATIONSHIPS

Bowen and Wingate are not new to the agricultural scene. Each has nearly 20 years with former ag chem giant, Sandoz Agro. Bowen served as a finance and information technology expert, and Wingate as a sales and management executive. As their former employer continually adjusted for the smaller number of growers, downsized, then subsequently was absorbed into a major conglomerate, they realized how critical personal relationships are.

"As manufacturers call on their distributors and dealers, it consumes so much of their time that there's very little left to actually meet with the end user - the person making the decision about what to buy," says Wingate.

Wingate added that with fewer growers, companies are becoming more sophisticated and seeking new ways to directly reach decision-makers more efficiently. He says that's simply going to take people who know their business, understand the value of professional maturity and the importance of building relationships.

Consequently, Wingate and Bowen have put together a model designed to help build customer relationships through independent contractors. Both readily admit that occasionally an initial apprehension among the companies' sales force occurs. However, once the job begins, apprehension is replaced with a tight bond between their contractors and the field sales force.

"We're not in the business of replacing jobs. We're in the business of increasing sales by building relationships...and that starts with our clients' sales force," says Wingate. "Once the field reps see how we're helping them reach their sales goals, making their jobs more secure and even building their business, the concern quickly changes to excitement.

"That's why our business model has become so successful," continues Wingate. "With just a one-or-two day training session for our contractors, it's impossible for us to reach the same breadth of knowledge and experience of our clients' sales force. What we bring are people who are experienced in their industry, and likely already are very familiar with the features and benefits of the client's products."

PROVIDING SUPPORT

With clients and projects ranging from New Jersey to California, and most places in between, DCI is as geographically diverse as its assignments. Whether the job is to sell more products, provide services or support those services, Bowen and Wingate said the company best suited for them is one with a real need to create support for existing products, services or new product launches.

For instance, one of their most recent projects is selling a corn rootworm insecticide. Bowen says they have contracted 25 professionals to actually sell the product in a new market area. Direct Contact measures the days they work, how many gallons the growers commit to, and the average customer calls per day. From this, the company can determine potential market opportunities.

Other projects are more service oriented, such as calibrating corn planters for Bayer's Aztec 2.1 granular insecticide business. This fits well with DCI's capabilities, and provides a perfect alternative for Bayer, who wants to keep its sales force focused on more valuable sales activities.

Jon Mixson, Aztec product manager says, "Our intent in engaging the services of Direct Contact was to allow our sales people to focus on communicating the value of our product, while DCI managed the tactical implementation of calibration in a seamless effort with the sales people."

"When you figure how many man days it takes to calibrate planters, Bayer saw the benefits we brought immediately," says Wingate. "This is one of those value-added services the manufacturers are doing for their customers. But, it needs to happen in March and April, at the most critical time of the year. That's when you need your sales people in front of the dealers and growers, not calibrating planters. So this provides a great return for them."

REACHING GROWERS

For Eden BioSciences, Bothell, Wash., Direct Contact's targeted approach was a great help. "Being a relatively new company with new technology and limited market presence, we needed a focused plan to reach a targeted group of growers in a targeted geographical area regarding a specific crop," says Dan Burdett, business unit manager of Eden BioSciences.

"Direct Contact assembled an experienced team, defined the project plan, immersed the team in training and, finally, presented research data to growers, which was monitored by Eden on a daily basis via a private Web site." He further touts the benefits of Direct Contact's targeted focus saying, "DCI is so focused and targeted that they are not going to get bogged down in the other issues that might affect the internal sales force. They are the perfect sales force. They only do exactly what you want them to do; thus, complementing the internal team."

Burdett says DCI saved the company time by creating a valuable list of potential grower-customers. The Direct Contact efforts also created awareness for Eden's new product. "After the DCI project, I now know that every vegetable grower in New Jersey has been called on by Eden BioSciences and what the grower response is. That is incredibly valuable information," Burdett explains.

UNIQUE VALUE

The seasonality of agriculture is another thing that makes the Direct Contact concept so unique...and valuable. "Companies are realizing they need to gear up for the peak seasons, but often times can't justify hiring additional full-time employees," says Bowen.

"Instead of one employee giving you 12 months, Direct Contact can provide 12 months of work in only the months they are most needed," he continues. "For instance, last year, a number of workers accomplished 2.6 years of professional assistance for one company in a period of only two and a half months. Helping companies maintain their focus when they need it is becoming huge."

Direct Contact offers yet another notable service in that clients have access to DCI's service through the company's secure Web site 24 hours a day, seven days a week at www.directcontact.com.

"In the ag business sector, we recruit staff, and design and manage special sales, service and marketing projects from start to finish in a very seamless fashion. That's quite unique in this industry. One of our key strategies is to rely on information technology. We strongly focus on processing the contact reports we get from our contractors immediately. Often, we're finding we can provide better information, more quickly on what's happening in the field than our clients' own sales force. And that truly has become one of our most distinguishing services." AM


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