by Cindy Snyder
The old maxim - people buy from people - is as true today as it ever was. But as agricultural companies continue to consolidate, keeping a full-time sales force on board to fill the seasonal nature of the agricultural industry is a fixed cost many companies are evaluating closely. For some companies, turning to a contract sales force that can be hired to work on specific projects or in particular geographic areas for defined periods of time allows their remaining full-time representatives to concentrate on higher value activities such as building business and channel support.
"Our people are not meant to take the place of a company's or client's sales force," explains Terry Bowen, president of Direct Contact Inc., Chicago. "Our people augment and extend the reach of the client's sales force during critical times of the year into geographies they might not otherwise be able to reach or by making many more in-person contacts in geographies where they do have representation."
In the seven years Direct Contact Inc. has been in business, it has completed more than 98 projects for agricultural companies in the crop protection, animal health and seed sectors. Working with a database of more than 3,000 independent contractors in the 48 contiguous states, Direct Contact can provide a company with the right people at the right place at just the right time. Most projects average two to three months in duration, while several have run for nine to 12 months.
Some companies have turned to DCI to recruit and hire independent contractors for projects that are seasonal in nature, such as calibrating planters or servicing equipment used for liquid insecticide applications. At least one company, BASF, has expanded that initial relationship into another seasonal project - claims resolution. In 2003, BASF used 16 independent contractors engaged through Direct Contact to handle product performance concerns. In 2004, BASF more than doubled the number of independent contractors to 37.
Rick Chamblee, manager, technical service group for BASF, says that using independent contractors from Direct Contact Inc. allows the company to get out quickly and address any concerns a grower or customer may have about product performance.
"I just can't say enough about how important it is in today's business to respond to customer concerns very quickly," Chamblee says.
DCI takes care of all the recruiting, hiring and managing of the independent contractors. Being freed from the payroll and management issues is a plus when that many independent contractors are engaged.
Extending their sales representatives' reach is another reason companies turn to DCI.
Roger Wilson, Charlottesville, Va., was one of the 11 independent contractors hired by DCI to help a major animal health company successfully launch a new fly control product for beef and dairy cattle. He says the company's representatives and the independent contractors quickly developed a strong relationship because the representatives recognized the independent contractors served as "not only their arms and legs but also their eyes and ears in the field."
"You know the parameters of what they're trying to accomplish. If you assist them in assessing the marketplace, if you can compare your product with the competitor's, if you tell them what's happening in the field - these are all the sort of up-to-date kinds of information they are just thirsty for at all times," says Wilson.
The team made more than 4,000 calls during the new product launch period on targeted farm stores, which worked out to five in-person calls per contractor per day.
RELATIONSHIPS ARE KEY
Relationships are key to making the DCI business concept a success, says Tom Wingate, vice president of DCI. "Successful projects are always very focused with specific objectives. Communication is key between our team and the client's field sales group. It's amazing how quickly relationships are built on trust, confidence and experience."
Recruiting highly qualified and experienced sales people is the first step in developing that critical relationship.
Wilson sees the concept of hiring independent contractors as a sort of internship at the end of a career. He says it's a way for people who have 20, 25 or 30 years of success at making calls, representing themselves and representing a product to put that knowledge to work for a company. "There's a work force out here that's trained and ready and still very interested in representing companies."
Relationship building doesn't stop with the client's sales force; it extends out to the client's customers.
Krebs explains it this way, "I think it's super-important that guys like myself be viewed as someone they can trust, someone they don't have to second guess or wonder who this guy is and is he going to do the right thing."
"The marketplace is one where there's constantly shrinking numbers of personnel," says Wilson. "People - be they distributors or retailers - they're glad to see a body, especially if you're comfortable with your material. Face-to-face contact is always more effective than e-mail or phone calls or direct mail. People still buy from people." AM
Cindy Snyder is a freelance writer who covers agriculture and business. She is based in south central Idaho.