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Focusing on the customer has been a basic principle of Pioneer Hi-Bred International Inc., Johnston, Iowa, since its beginning in 1926. To illustrate this, the company's mission statement, known as "The Long Look," emphasizes the importance of the customer in its Four Statements of Business Policy (see sidebar). The fourth statement reads: "We try to give helpful management suggestions to our customers to assist them in making the greatest possible profit from our products."

This statement is the root of Pioneer's customer service efforts. But there is more to building customer relationships than just selling products and shaking hands; Pioneer's goal is to understand a producer's complete business system and offer solutions to improve each unique operation.

Pioneer states on its Web site, "We believe that if we are to get the greatest possible repeat business from our customers, we must help them get the greatest returns from the products we have sold them." Pioneer strives not to influence all of its customers' decisions but to listen, learn and advise on the best possible solutions. The company achieves this through many tools, and in particular, through its people and technology.


Jeff Johnson, global design manager, Pioneer Hi-Bred International
Pioneer's sales training and development prepares and supports the field sales professionals, who are the frontline contact with customers. Jeff Johnson, global design manager for Pioneer, says the goal of sales training and development is to improve conversations between the customer, retailer and sales professional. He explains that Pioneer's training initiatives develop skills to aid these conversations.

Johnson says it is important to remember that the business is constantly becoming more sophisticated. Similarly, the Pioneer sales force is also more complex. "There is a certain level of sophistication that is required to handle the relationships and technology involved," he says.

Johnson explains that the extensive staff of regional, area and district sales managers, as well as field sales agronomists, develop skill sets such as diagnostic and technical support, product knowledge to help farmers make informed decisions, and more in-depth knowledge that allows the sales personnel to provide helpful management advice to producers. This education follows the philosophy of Pioneer, as the company's Web site states, "Our sales personnel are encouraged and trained to assist our customers in realizing the greatest potential from our products..."

"At Pioneer, we teach sales reps how to ask questions to understand how customers make decisions so that they can package data in a way that is most helpful to the customer," Johnson says.

The company looks at this approach as more than selling products. It is important that Pioneer sales reps gather various forms of data to develop a deeper understanding of a producer's operation, more than just his or her seed or crop protection needs. They are to understand a customer's entire business system in order to help make the best decisions for the overall operation. Sales reps understand that each decision made will have an impact down the road, says Johnson.


With all of the information that a sales rep collects from each customer, there must be a sophisticated system that stores and analyzes the data. Laptop computers serve many purposes, and with Pioneer's Field Information System (FIS), for example, sales agents can sort and search product and agronomic data to customize offers to each individual operator, says Jerry Harrington, sales and marketing public relations manager for Pioneer.

In addition, Pioneer's Agriculture Information System (AIS) program makes agronomic information available to sales reps via the Web or a CD-ROM that can go anywhere. According to Harrington, the AIS system provides sales agents and customers "nearly everything you'd want to know about corn and soybeans and other seed crops Pioneer sells."

Pioneer customers also have access to precision ag expertise and applications. Through the company's Field Information Mapping (FIM) program, sales agents can collect data and map customers' fields with multiple layers. Then, to maximize the benefit to the customer, Pioneer makes the maps available for viewing online.

Pioneer agronomists also are using technology to add value for customers. The Pioneer Field Information Exchange (PFIX) allows agronomists to capture field-scouting observations using a handheld PC equipped with GPS. Information gathered by agronomists is transmitted to a central database, and reports can be shared with other agronomists to alert them to potential challenges so they can better address customer needs. This includes input on weed and disease pressure, insect infestation, weather events and other agronomic issues.

Pioneer's technology and tools combine to create a great benefit for customers. "All of these pieces work together to provide the customer multiple points to access the Web and gather information to make the best decisions for the business," Harrington says.

But even the best technology is useless without the right people behind it. Johnson says the customer knowledge that the sales force possesses is key to successful relationships and business decisions. "The data is important, but humans make decisions, and we must know the way decisions are made. There are many different ways to manage an operation," Johnson explains.


The Pioneer GrowingPoint Web site and coordinating magazine is another way the company is disseminating its knowledge and information to the customer and providing added value. The Web site, which launched in the fall of 2000, recently added a few more customer-friendly features. Along with commodity market quotes and commentary, Wall Street Journal news and commentary, and real-time agronomic updates, Pioneer customers can now view their accounts and invoices online any time day or night. Another new feature allows loan customers to pay balances electronically, and customers can now sign documentation, such as technology agreements, electronically on the GrowingPoint Web site.

Bill Belzer, e-business manager, Pioneer Hi-Bred International
Bill Belzer, e-business manager for Pioneer, says all of these services provide added value and help make a farm operation more efficient and profitable. "Pioneer works at all levels to provide more value to the customer, through products, services and technology," he says.

To augment the customer Web site, Pioneer also publishes the GrowingPoint magazine. The publication provides additional information for customers and drives traffic to Web tools and features, such as calculators, H&R Block information, interactive NOAA reports and much more. The magazine mails to 180,000 U.S. customers and employees, and Pioneer creates a Canadian version as well.


But how does this technology and training benefit Pioneer? Simply, the one-on-one relationship that sales reps have with customers and the convenience of the company's tools is often what keeps producers coming back to the Pioneer brand.

"We work on an annual sales cycle, and customer service is very important to support the decision-making process and to retain customers," Johnson says. "We need long-term relationships and can't afford customer turnover. This is our bread and butter year after year."

Pioneer doesn't use these relationships only for customer retention. Harrington says, "Nearly every Pioneer sales employee spends some time in the field. We ride with sales reps and ride in combines with our customers. This not only builds relationships but also helps us to target our product offerings."

Another benefit to both sides is business efficiencies. Belzer says the online account access and payment technology and electronic documentation have taken away a mound of paperwork and generated greater efficiencies all around.

"The product is the foundation, but the ancillary services are also critical for our customers' profits," says Belzer. "Everyone benefits from the time saved and the better decisions that are being made." AM

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