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STRAIGHT TALK
THROUGH PEER SELLING, GROWERS SHARE EXPERIENCES AND COMPANIES INCREASE SALES
"Enjoyed hearing what other growers were thinking." "Really interested to learn that others have similar problems." "Liked the concept; it was better than dealer meetings I've been to."

These quotes are a sampling of remarks from growers who participated in peer-influence selling teleconferences. They took part in the sessions to learn from the experiences of others about a companyís product or service.

"The purpose of peer-influence selling is to educate potential customers about a product by having them interact with others who have used that product and are happy with the performance," says John Finegan, president of Beck Ag Com Inc., Wyomissing, Pa. His company has conducted its AgTelecom programs since late 1996.

Teleconferences ultimately accelerate the adoption of a product or service, Finegan adds. "Studies by Purdue University show that growers base a lot of their decision making on discussions with peers," he explains. "Farmers listen to other farmers, vets to other vets, dealers to dealers. Theyíre a major source of information about products."

Taking another approach to peer selling is The Idea Farm Inc., a subsidiary of Total Research Corp. The Princeton, N.J.-based company was launched in April 1999. "What differentiates us is that we are using the face-to-face approach," notes Mark Nissenfeld, Ph.D., president and CEO. "Face-to-face meetings give us a little more flexibility to meet clients' needs and make an impact. We can use graphs and multimedia types of presentations."

Richard Wathey, Ph.D., vice president, marketing and program development for The Idea Farm, says that although organized peer-selling meetings have not been widely employed thus far in the agricultural industry, the technique has proved to show a successful return on investment in the pharmaceutical and other life science segments. "They contribute to improvement in market share that more than pays for the meetings."

Finegan notes that up until 10 years ago, all peer influence meetings in the pharmaceutical and related industries were in person. "Then companies began to go to teleconference programs because it sometimes was difficult to get participants to come to a dinner meeting," he says.

MAKING A CONNECTION

A typical peer-selling teleconference from Beck Ag Com involves 10 to 12 participants and a moderator. "Of those, 10 or so have not used our client's product or are low users. We also include a couple of advocates - people who have used the product successfully," Finegan says.

All moderators of Beck's AgTelecom programs have experience in agriculture. "Each AgTelecom project is customized to fit our clientsí needs. We put together a guide, not a script, so the moderator keeps the group on target with the three or four major objectives we've identified beforehand with our client," Finegan explains.

Beck Ag Com recruits participants from a client's database. The client also identifies possible advocates for the teleconference. Clients can request that the growers be from a specific area, such as southern Illinois, or they can use a larger region, such as the Corn Belt.

Growers, vets or dealers who agree to participate receive a package with information about the product via regular mail or e-mail. The latter route is convenient and inexpensive and allows for program recruitment up to the day of the conference, Finegan notes.

At the designated time, participants are called and the moderator begins the program. The guide materials are used for visual reinforcement. The moderator generally begins by asking participants about their experience with the product. "We steer the discussion to the advocates first so we start out on a positive note," Finegan says.

But that's not to say participants do not bring up objections. "If someone hasn't tried the product because it doesn't pencil out for him economically, for instance, the moderator is trained to turn to a product advocate to learn from his experience about how the economics work on their farm. This is more powerful than if the moderator tries to overcome the objection," Finegan notes.

Toward the end of the session, the moderator recaps what was discussed and conducts online polling. Using their touch-tone phone, participants respond to questions about whether the program was worthwhile, if follow-up materials or a sales call are desired and if they intend to try the product based on what they've learned.

Following the teleconference, participants receive a thank you, additional product information and sometimes a 30-minute phone card in appreciation of their time. "We don't pay participants. We position the session as a way for growers to get credible assistance in making critical buying decisions or help them solve problems," Finegan points out. "We also do not pay advocates. They usually are willing to share their experience and feel good that we ask them for their input. Advocates usually participate only once, as we donít want to take advantage of their willingness to spend an hour with us."

After logging all of the polling results, Beck Ag Com can add these comments to a client's database. "We report back to clients weekly about what we're hearing," Finegan says. "This allows them to see if their product positioning is on target and whether our programs are hitting the mark."

Participant feedback about the teleconference has been positive. "We've gotten great feedback," Finegan says. "Growers like the approach because it is unique, they can learn in an interactive form and ask questions. They've grown tired of going through junk mail, and it's increasingly difficult to get the top tier of growers to live meetings."

Benefits for clients also are evident. "They get significant short-term return on their investment in addition to setting realistic expectations for product performance. This increases participant product usage over the long term," Finegan reports. "We've looked at participants vs. nonparticipants regarding product adoption. We definitely move the needle when growers participate in these programs."

Vernon Benes, Beckís director of national accounts, knows firsthand the benefits of having growers listen to their peers instead of company reps about a product. While working at DeKalb Genetics Corp., he was involved in marketing Roundup Ready corn in its second year.

"We were trying to influence growers and use people who had success with the product," Benes says. "We used testimonial ads and held AgTelecom programs."

He reports that growers who participated in the teleconferences adopted Roundup Ready corn at a higher rate than the control group of nonparticipants. "Growers rank other growers as the most reliable source of information."

GAINFUL GATHERINGS

The Idea Farm works closely with clients to determine the purpose of peer selling. "Usually it is to increase sales, but if it is a new product, it could be to educate people about its existence," Nissenfeld says.

Ten to 12 participants are recruited from the client's database. That list generally is supplemented with other lists so the group includes growers who are not customers of the client. "We aim for a mix of people in a given geographic area with good experiences with a product and others who are uncertain about it," Wathey says.

Participants receive follow-up calls and reminders about the meeting, which takes place during the time of year and day that is most convenient to growers. "We generally do not send out material ahead of time because we know how busy growers are," Wathey adds.

On the day of the meeting, growers gather at a local hotel or restaurant. "Some participants will be willing to travel 60 miles, while others prefer 25," Wathey notes.

Nissenfeld points out that the group generally does not include advocates. "We like to include a little bit of everybody," he says. "Moderators don't know beforehand about who will be there and their use of the product."

At the beginning of the meeting, participants complete a brief questionnaire about product usage, how long they've farmed and other issues. "This serves as an icebreaker," Wathey says.

Idea Farm audio-tapes the session so the client can listen to it. "The candid, informal talk is invaluable," Wathey says. "Often when speaking among themselves, a peer group will raise issues that the moderator or client hadn't thought about. This informal discussion adds a significant depth to the meeting."

At the end of the session, participants complete a questionnaire about the usefulness of the meeting and ways to improve it. Participants are pleased with the sessions. "They're a very laid-back, informal chance for growers to get together."

RESPONSE FROM THE FIELD

Do sales reps feel threatened by peer-influence selling? Not so long as they are educated about the purpose of this marketing tool. "The last thing we want is to be viewed by sales reps as a threat to their existence," Wathey says. "We want to be viewed as an assistant to them."

To establish a good relationship, clients need to inform their sales force about the objective of peer selling. "Until people are briefed, they can be concerned," Nissenfeld reports. "But once they see the effectiveness of our meetings, they become our biggest advocates."

At the end of their sessions, both Beck Ag Com and The Idea Farm ask participants if they want a sales rep to call on them. But this does not mean the rep should do so the following day. "They can call participants, but they need to be subtle in their approach. We want participants to continue to feel comfortable in being candid with us because we are perceived to be a third-party educational resource," Finegan says. AM

 

Debbie Coakley is a free-lance writer based in Warrenville, Ill.


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