HOW COMPANIES CAN USE THE INTERNET TO BECOME MORE VALUABLE TO CUSTOMERS
by Debbie Coakley
So your company has had a Web site for several years now. And perhaps it’s generating what you consider to be a decent amount of traffic. Where do you go from here? It’s time to make the Internet a true customer relationship management tool.
"By simply putting up a Web site, companies are improving customer service because growers can access the site at their convenience 24 hours a day, seven days a week to learn more about products and services," says Joe Dales, senior vice president of Farms.com, a provider of e-business solutions for the ag industry. "But agribusinesses can go a step further and improve communication with producers by customizing information for them."
Farms.com, which started in 1996, offers an independent information Web site (www.farms.com), as well as a marketplace for producers and their customers to meet to sell and buy products. On Nov. 1, the Memphis, Tenn.-based company launched my.farms. The personal information service, which is accessed from the Farms.com home page, allows a farmer to select from an extensive menu (including farm type, market quotes and links) and input data about his interests to develop his own my.farms page. Then each time he goes to the Farms.com site, he simply logs in with his password to access the page.
For instance, hog producers can select information about the hog industry and the crops they grow. "This helps streamline the information producers need to help their specific operation," Dales says. "It saves them valuable time."
While much of the my.farms site is free, farmers can pay a monthly subscription fee to have access to market commentaries and in-depth analysis of the ag markets. "Farmers also buy and sell livestock (swine and cattle) for a transaction commission or use other fee-based services like our AgCareers site," Dales explains. "Or, they can take an online course in business or computers from Farms.com University."
During the first month, hundreds of farmers signed up for my.farms. "Our site is an example of how companies can continue to expand and refine their Internet presence," Dales says. "A month before we launched my.farms, we previewed the site and gave visitors an opportunity to complete an online survey about it. We’ll continue to solicit visitor feedback to find out their likes and dislikes and how we can improve."
He adds that Farms.com will launch several innovative Web-based marketing, decision support and risk management services in the future.
VantagePoint Network LLC, Fort Collins, Colo., also is in the business of customizing information for customers. Deere & Co., Farmland Industries and Growmark formed the company in 1999. VantagePoint Network provides information and management systems to link business partners in the agricultural industry value chain.
The company has a public Web site ( www.vantagepoint.com) that offers free information such as ag news, weather and 15 future exchanges worldwide, including the Chicago Board of Trade. Producers and merchants can subscribe to the private site and use the crop management system to build field-level plans and store farm production data.
VantagePoint can then customize a member’s account with information specific to his operation. "This includes local weather, commodity futures and local grain prices," says Greg Holzwarth, president and CEO.
The company recently began delivering a Precision Weather service, which allows the member to get specific rainfall, wind and temperature data for each individual field. Another new service is Production Planner - a program that calculates and optimizes a series of field level production plans.
The primary goal? "Growers can associate agronomic data to each field map, which helps them improve their planning and farm smarter," Holzwarth says. He notes that each producer controls the use of his information. If a producer wants help with his crop recordkeeping, he can access the system through a retail subscriber of his choosing. He notes that retailer members have a secure application so they and their growers can communicate back and forth and maintain field-level records.
"Producers can grant their retailers real-time access to cropping programs, operation schedules and preferences, giving retailers access to powerful information that can improve their sales and services," he adds.
For example, dealers can extend their agronomy services through VantagePoint’s crop management system. "They can customize a selection of cropping programs for each customer," Holzwarth says. "Then they can post these within the grower’s VantagePoint account and allow him to analyze each cropping program at various breakeven scenarios."
Two-way communication is a necessity to make the system work. "In order for growers to put information in their VantagePoint account, they need to feel they are getting something in return," Holzwarth explains. "They also need to have confidence that their information is private and secure."
Holzwarth anticipates that after a period of time, growers will see the value of comparing on an anonymous basis how they’re doing with others farming similar land. He says this kind of benchmarking should lead to improved yields and increased profitability.
"Additionally, producers are soon, we believe, going to be offered income incentives to share their detailed production data with food processors and input manufacturers," Holzwarth notes. "Food safety and premium quality crop traits are becoming important issues with consumers. Manufacturers can use the same data to cut their inventory and logistical costs.
"In the end, we see VantagePoint Network as providing farmers with a very personal, localized and powerful communication tool to collaborate with and draw on the expertise of their trusted advisors and suppliers," Holzwarth says. "The result is closer, more effective working relationships between farmers and their local management team."
Rooster.com, (www.rooster.com) based in Bloomington, Minn., was launched in March 2000 as a provider of electronic services to the ag marketplace, including local farm retailers, cooperatives and manufacturers. Cenex Harvest States Cooperatives, Cargill and DuPont were the initial investors. Since then, ADM, the Andersons, Bunge, IMC Global and the Louis Dreyfus Group have joined the investor group.
"Rooster.com has the industry and technology resources and expertise to help all participants in the food supply chain take more control of the way they conduct business for long-term efficiency and success," says Bill Pool, director of brand marketing. "Currently, our Web site also offers a comprehensive package of ag news, weather and information so producers can make better business decisions."
In December, the company introduced E-business centers, which allow dealers and elevators to create their own Web site utilizing custom templates. "Dealers and grain elevators will have control of the information content, product and service offerings, local news and weather, and other business decision tools," Pool explains. "Producers will be able to browse, search, decide and transact when they want, because the E-business centers never close."
Dealers can use the Web site to gather information from their customers electronically. Then they can use the E-business center platform to provide agronomy, dairy, fertilizer or other reports to customers via e-mail. "Dealers can segment customers based on their cropping practices or informational needs and send them very specific, timely e-mail solutions," Pool says. "Previously dealers relied solely on newsletters or personal sales calls to determine and respond to customer needs."
Pool views Internet communication as a complement to, not a replacement for, traditional means of communications. "The individual face-to-face time dealers and farmers spend is still incredibly valuable. But the Web enhances and supplements it."
Pool says manufacturers should encourage their dealers to establish a presence on the Internet. "Once the capability is there, it allows suppliers to deliver information about their products and services to dealers in unique ways," he explains. "It’s a lot more cost-effective and timely than sending a brochure or sell sheet."
Dealers in turn can deliver the information they receive from their suppliers to their customers via their Web site or e-mail. "For instance, if a supplier provides general information about usage of an herbicide to their dealer network, each dealer can subsequently add usage information specific to their local area to the message each of their customers receives," Pool notes. AM
Debbie Coakley is a freelance writer based in Warrenville, Ill.