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Comparing corn to geraniums is akin to comparing the proverbial apples to oranges. But what is common between the seed corn industry and the floricultural crop market is the critical need for suppliers to support their sales with service that keeps customers coming back.

Two companies that pride themselves on their customer service efforts in these diverse and highly competitive markets are Fielder's Choice Direct, which sells hybrid seed corn and alfalfa exclusively through consultants via the telephone, and Ball Seed Co., which sells ornamental seeds, seedlings and cuttings to greenhouse growers through independent reps supported by in-house specialists.


Because seed technology is changing so rapidly and new products are continually being introduced, it is more critical than ever for a company's sales force to stay tuned to customer needs and determine which products meet those needs.

"Customers have more seed choices than they've ever had, and they expect more from their suppliers," points out Dennis Schlott, vice president of sales for Monticello, Indiana-based Fielder's Choice Direct, which is owned by Landec Ag Inc. "Customers rely on us not only for seed information, but also for decisions about herbicide selection, pest control and other cropping practices."

Schlott says the company's customer base looks a great deal like the universe of farmers, as reflected in the U.S. Census of Agriculture data. "We have a similar distribution of customers in each acreage range: small numbers of large-acreage farmers and many customers in the middle to small end," he observes. "Our system can service large and small customers well."

He reports that Fielder's Choice, which started in the mid-1980s, ranks ninth in total market share in terms of volume sold. The company offers 75 corn and alfalfa hybrids. New for 2003 are 29 corn hybrids: 11 Roundup Ready® hybrids, six YieldGard® hybrids, four stacked-trait hybrids and eight non-trait conventional hybrids.


Thirty-five seed consultants assist customers with hybrid selection. They are available to take orders or answer questions by phone 15 hours a day, Monday through Friday, 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. (CDT or EST), as well as Saturday mornings.

When a customer calls, a personal consultant pulls up on the computer screen information such as purchase history and yield goals. The company also aggregates data from customers who use yield monitors and can inform them how Fielder's Choice hybrids are performing in a particular area. "We talk to about 600 farmers a day, so we know what's going on in the field," Schlott says.

Consultants maintain contact with customers by periodically phoning them. "We typically call after they receive their seed to see how delivery went, at planting, around emergence time, at pollination and in the fall," Schlott notes.

In addition, Fielder's Choice provides agronomic support from more than a dozen seed consultants, most of whom are crop advisors certified by the American Society of Agronomy. "We try to provide an immediate answer over the phone," Schlott says. "But if we can't, we send one of our agronomic professionals to the field."


Selling seed via the phone saves customers money because Fielder's Choice doesn't have the overhead of a traditional seed company. "We can deliver at a lower price to end users with an above-average amount of service and performance," Schlott says. What's more, prices are unbundled, so customers get the same price whether they buy one bag or 100 bags.

The company also does mailings to customers. For instance, Schlott says growers receive notification of when their seed ships. And when a customer requests additional information, Fielder's Choice taps its library of documents and mails material such as how to maximize nutrient value or how to utilize YieldGuard hybrids.


Twice a year, the company surveys customers about its service performance and products. A recent independent marketing research study revealed that Fielder's Choice ranks high in terms of offering hybrids that are a good value, offering competitively priced hybrids and providing opportunities to shop for products direct from the company.

The company also scored well for handling requests and keeping commitments. "Providing good information and making sure our consultants keep their promises is key in establishing trust with customers," Schlott notes.

He acknowledges that some people contend a company cannot maintain strong relationships with customers via the phone. "We've found that to be the opposite," Schlott says. "Our expert consultants and computer system make all the difference in the world."


The time-sensitive nature of the floricultural crop market makes customer service particularly critical. "We are in the business of buying and reselling," says Jan Patranella, senior director of customer and supplier relations for Ball Seed, based in West Chicago, Ill. "Our company is based on people and how well they do their jobs by matching customer needs with the supply from our vendors, and making sure the right products are delivered at the right time."

Ball's customers are wholesale greenhouse growers across North America who finish growing ornamental seed, seedlings or cuttings, plant them in flats, pots or baskets, and deliver the products to their retail customers such as mass merchandisers, professional landscapers, and home and garden chains. Patranella says the company works with suppliers across the country to make sure a good quantity and quality of plants and seed are available to growers.

Ball dates back to 1905 when the current owner's grandfather found he could get seed from his company to customers faster than competitors could. Through the years, Patranella says, Ball has continued to base its business on customer service and product/service innovation. "It's our job to make sure our customers are successful, particularly in a now-or-never situation."

Spring is an especially important time, when demand for bedding plants, potted plants and baskets is high. This means seedlings and cuttings need to be shipped to greenhouse growers beginning in November. "If growers don't have the right products at the right stage to make the holidays and spring flowering dates, it can cost them," Patranella points out.


Charged with the job of working closely with customers are three groups: Ball's 60 sales representatives, who act as on-site consultants for growers; technical specialists, who provide cultural updates and assist customers with production issues; and the customer relations team, which ensures that each order moves promptly and accurately.

To make the process as smooth as possible, Ball began using an SAP integrated software system four years ago. All sales reps and internal employees are now online. "This has been a big improvement to make sure we provide up-to-date cultural and variety information, inventory and order status to customers," Patranella says.

In addition, the SAP system keeps track of customer information such as product purchases, volume, pricing programs and data on what products are arriving which week for production scheduling. The customer relation specialists have all the information they need at their fingertips when growers call, Patranella notes.

The inventory management system also plays a critical role. "Only a few years ago, a lot of suppliers didn't know their inventory. They just took the order, and when it was time to ship, they found out whether they had enough geranium cuttings, for example," Patranella explains. "We've worked hard on having better, more accurate inventories online for customers."

But even when the right products are shipped, things can go wrong. Shipments freeze and trays of plants get crushed. "If something happens, we know how to locate additional material. We have a backup plan to make sure our customers' greenhouse benches are always full," Patranella says. Ball also handles claims with the carriers.

Ball's customer service hours are long by industry standards. Customers can call from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., Monday through Friday, and from 8 a.m. to noon Saturday. "As a national company, we cover a lot of time zones and need to have extended hours," Patranella says.

And when customers call, a person - not an automated system - greets them. "Our goal is to have someone answer quickly, take care of them right then and not have to call them back," Patranella reports.

Ball maintains contact with customers in person as much as possible. "Our sales reps play an integral part in making sure we're on track, giving us feedback about products and sharing cultural information with growers," Patranella says.

But even if a rep is the best in a territory, it doesn't do any good if Ball can't deliver on its commitments. "Our in-house specialists give our reps a lot of support," Patranella notes. "We have a real team-type approach to customer service." AM

Debbie Coakley is a freelance writer based in Warrenville, Ill.

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