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THINKING OUTSIDE THE BOX
PLOT TOURS GO VIRTUAL
Seed dealers play an increasingly critical role matching new hybrids to climate, soil type, tillage practices and the grower's targeted end-use. With rapid product turnover and wider offerings of special traits, how can they stay savvy enough to build confidence with high-anxiety buyers?

Traditionally, Mycogen Seeds, like other major plant genetics companies, has relied on plot tours and other face-to-face meetings to update dealers on concept hybrids and varieties in development. But in recent years, the company was hitting snags in its attempts to lure time-challenged dealers to field events during the growing season.

Recognizing the need to augment face-to-face training methods, the Mycogen Seeds Agronomy Services team broke new ground last year when it created the Virtual Plot Tour (VPT) alternative learning program. The CD-ROM-based software application takes the traditional plot tour and much more right to the computers of busy seed dealers.

First and foremost, the VPT contains in-field product video and agronomic narrative on each Mycogen Seeds hybrid. In addition, it provides an array of informational pieces from Mycogen's agronomy technical department, including tech sheets, grain characterization, herbicide management suggestions, hybrid characteristic ratings and product positioning guidelines.

"The electronic format is a good avenue for supplementing in-field training or as a multi-layered stand-alone virtual learning tool," says Stephen Smith, Mycogen Seeds Agronomy Services manager. "Because many ag retailer dealers handle multiple brands, they find it costly and inconvenient to free up staff to attend field days. By providing dealers with this in-depth training alternative we help them pursue learning at their own convenience, and it differentiates our brands from the others," Smith adds.

PARTNERED WITH ADAYANA

Smith's team worked with Adayana, a performance solutions company in Minneapolis, to produce the VPT.

"Adayana offers a unique combination of agricultural, educational and technical knowledge that was needed to connect the in-field video with a lot of stand-alone pieces so a dealer can quickly access product-specific information in a reasonable, logical format," Smith explains.

Mycogen Seeds dealers were already using an Adayana-produced management training tool.

"We were aware of the changing demographics and psychographics of resale dealers, knowledge that was essential as we integrated technical information with easy-to-understand hybrid positioning by familiar and trusted district agronomists via video," says Rob McClelland, general manager of agribusiness and food for Adayana.

The VPT was distributed last December to 300 "strategic" top-selling Mycogen dealers. "It was not positioned as a replacement for plot tours, because we're still seeing about 70 percent attendance at dealer field days. Our objective over time is that it will truly complement and supplement our dealer training efforts," Smith continues.

UPDATED FOR 2006

Based on dealer feedback, Mycogen and Adayana made several major updates in the VPT for the 2005-06 selling season. The Pre Call Product Planner was developed to expand dealers' product positioning capabilities. By answering four basic questions about a grower's operation prior to the sales call, dealers can print out a professional-looking proposal that lists recommended hybrid traits for a specific farm or field. Video segments positioning new hybrids have been added.

The revised VPT was introduced at the Mycogen Seeds national sales meeting in July and subsequently demonstrated in a "train-the-trainer" format for 30 days at district sales meetings. It was made available in early August to about 750 dealers who represent about 90 percent of the company's revenues.

What's next? Smith says his agronomy team will continue to listen and react accordingly to dealer feedback.

"If it continues to be as positive as what we've heard so far, we will likely expand the VPT to our other product lines, including soybeans, alfalfa and canola," says Smith. AM

Ron Ross is an agricultural writer residing in Minnesota. He can be reached at mrross@redwing.net.

SIDEBAR

MYCOGEN VPT -- A HIT IN THE FIELD

Mycogen Seeds field agronomists and dealers see value in a Virtual Plot Tour (VPT) as a training tool as well as an effective sales motivator. "I've been pleased to work with dealers who printed out specific technical information from the CD-ROM to help personalize a sales call. It's a lot more convenient and looks more professional than making photocopies from a sales brochure," says Sean Jordal, district agronomist for northern Illinois.

"It's really a good opportunity to get our message to the storefront dealer who may have a half dozen seed companies competing for a piece of his time. The CD-ROM gives us access to that dealer because we're providing easy-to-use information needed to sell seed, in a user-friendly, interactive format," Jordal says.

"Dealers, especially busy ag retailers, tend to seek out marketing information as they need it," adds John Long, Mycogen Seeds western Iowa district agronomist.

"They don't usually go into the selling season completely familiar with our product line, even if they did attend summer field days. If I can provide an interactive tool with which they can drill down and get multiple layers of information, they're more likely to use it and ultimately sell more of our product," Long says.

Long thinks the Pre Call Product Planner segment added for 2005-2006 will sharpen a dealer's professional image in the eye of the customer. "It will help the dealer do a better job of matching genetic traits to customer needs. What we have lacked in the past was an easy-to-use question/answer format with which to pinpoint products that are a good fit for a particular farm."

Jon Erickson, district agronomist for Wisconsin and eastern Minnesota, says the VPT reduced the time he was spending on day-to-day training chores. "From my observations, I think a lot of dealers will automatically head for the computer instead of pulling out the cell phone when they have an agronomic question about a hybrid. And when they get more comfortable with the CD-ROM, they'll have fun taking customers through a virtual plot tour on the spot."

Erickson's goal this year is to continue training more dealers on the many ways they can use the CD-ROM program, so they better understand its full potential in closing orders. "As we go forward, it will become a primary learning and sales tool," says Erickson.

Sean Stewart, owner of Stewart Seeds, Ft. Dodge, Iowa, and a full-time Mycogen Seeds dealer, also believes the virtual plot tour is a good sales tool.

"The video portions are really attention-grabbing. No other company has provided anything like that. It helped me sell my complete quota of a brand new Mycogen hybrid for 2005. Growers are sometimes reluctant to try new releases, but they could see the hybrid growing in the field on the video and judged it to be a good yielder," he says.

South central Minnesota independent ag retailer Darrick Wegner also used the CD-ROM last spring to target 2005 seed sales for Tilney Ag Center in Lewisville. "It is a good tool for training our salesmen, and we also loaned it to some of our growers. It probably tipped the scale in our favor in some instances," he says. Wegner's company markets four seed brands.

Wegner still likes to visit test plots to see new hybrids "in the flesh" and have one-on-one visits with a company agronomist, but sees added value in the VPT. "This program will make it easier and faster than traditional marketing tools to narrow down the right selections for a customer," the dealer adds. AM


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