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Customer Relationship Management (CRM) has been around long enough to experience cycles. With an early emphasis on managing times and touches with customers, CRM later evolved into an information technology term, or the computer mechanics that track those touches with customers. Some young executives possibly are unaware CRM is more than software.

Now two innovative firms are putting the relationship back into CRM. Beck Ag Com Inc., Omaha, Neb., is the leading U.S. provider of Word of Mouth (WOM) marketing and sales strategies in agriculture. AgCall, Calgary, Alberta, is the market frontrunner in designing and implementing CRM solutions that include on-farm sales calls with contract sales professionals, managing in-field research, handling performance inquiries, telemarketing and other related services -- the focus is on providing a personalized brand experience.

At first glance the two could be competitors. However, company leadership realized commonalities and saw how each company could complement services that the other offers. That vision is now reality as a strategic alliance between Beck Ag and AgCall was created to provide unique, complete marketing and sales solutions for clients and their customers.

"This partnership between AgCall and Beck Ag provides marketers with one source for fully integrated WOM marketing and sales strategies designed to accelerate adoption of products and/or service offerings," says Gordon Butcher, president of AgCall. "The two sales and marketing consulting organizations now can provide marketers with even stronger sales and marketing solutions."

"It's rather revolutionary," says John Finegan, CEO of Beck Ag. "We saw we had clients in common and opportunities to complete the circle. Clients tell us it takes five to seven calls to close a sale. We know this can be condensed into one to two calls when you engage peers in a Beck Ag forum and have a follow-up sales call from a client's sales representative or from Ag Call's sales professionals."

This alliance comes as WOM marketing is becoming a larger part of the overall marketing and sales strategy inside and outside of the boundaries of agriculture.

"Marketing in general has been moving to a more personalized approach since the advent of customer relationship management," says Finegan. "And more marketers in the ag sector are becoming aware of WOM marketing. Effective WOM marketing and sales strategies strengthen a company's relationships with its customers and develop the loyalty marketers desire. That's what creates long-term profitable business relationships."


AgCall and Beck Ag have built their businesses on knowing and engaging customers and their experiences. These two companies seem to acquire in-depth customer connection effortlessly. How do they do it?

WOM marketing is defined as "communication about products and services between people who are perceived to be independent of the company providing products or services in a medium perceived to be independent of the company." The Word of Mouth Marketing Association (WOMMA) presents a simpler definition: "the act of consumers providing information to other consumers."

Beck Ag and AgCall create the strategies that make these definitions come alive. Using patented AgTelePanels, AgTelecoms and other tactics designed in unique, voice-to-voice forums, Beck Ag creates an environment where shared experiences help prospective customers verify the value of the product or service discussed. The dialogue, professionally moderated and sometimes featuring experts, accelerates the decision-making process to buy, resulting in faster and larger purchases.

Butcher says many AgCall specialists are producers themselves. "This heightens credibility of our representatives and lowers prospects' resistance because they're dealing with peers," he says. "When you multiply this with the power of Beck Ag's peer-to-peer or WOM strategy, successes for our clients greatly multiply.

"We're bombarded with upwards of 5,000 promotional messages a day," Butcher adds. "It's critical to have prospective customers ready to receive -- and act -- upon a marketer's call to action. We help make that happen."


Finegan and Butcher quickly point out that the solutions they provide strongly complement marketing communications plans. "Agricultural marketers are stellar at awareness building," Finegan adds. "Especially with new products, the need to verify is greater. Our strategies help prospects to verify their purchase decisions.

"In order for a WOM strategy to work, we must have the awareness and familiarity that marketing communications generates," Finegan says. "We all go through an awareness and verification phase before we buy anything, especially higher-ticket items. Beck Ag's and AgCall's approaches provide the needed forum for validation and verification, which results in acceleration of the decision-making process and ultimately adoption.

"Forward-thinking agencies realize the need to engage experts," he says. "Their core competency is building and maintaining awareness, while ours is driving the adoption process and carrying those strategies through retention."

Ross Harvey, director of strategic services for AdFarm in Calgary, Alberta, says the results generated by Beck Ag and AgCall reach far beyond a single event.

"We've implemented a variety of approaches, from grower roundtables to AgTelePanels," he says. "We like word of mouth or peer-to-peer marketing because it diversifies how we deliver our messages. It's measurable. It creates spin-off opportunities in channel communications, direct mail and point of sale, as well as others. More importantly, WOM marketing fills a tactical void. It complements rather than replaces advertising and sales.

"Our clients appreciate the ability of WOM marketing to target. By sharing experiences between users and non-users, or even users and users, a huge amount of credibility is added to the message," Harvey explains.

It also builds awareness and sales. Research conducted by Beck Ag shows participants in WOM programs consistently recognize marketing communications materials such as ads and brochures at a higher rate than prospects and customers who are not part of a WOM program.

More importantly, sales continue to increase after a WOM marketing event. Purdue University research shows increased sales of $26.70 for every $1.00 invested over a three-year period. (see sidebar at left)


WOM marketing strategies can apply during any stage of a marketing cycle:
a) Launch phase -- when there is a need to build a low advocacy base
b) Growth phase -- when the advocacy base is stable, yet sales increases are needed
c) Maintenance phase -- when the product/service is profitable but there is a need to stave off competitors
d) Repositioning -- when an older product needs to be revived or a new use for an existing product is to be introduced
e) Issues management/crisis management -- when there is an opportunity to educate customers with facts about issues such as labeling, environmental awareness or when media attention has been raised
f) Product performance management -- typically crop protection and seed offerings generate some performance-related inquiries from customers. AgCall and Beck Ag have combined to offer a turnkey solution for their clients to manage these potentially negative situations and turn them into sales opportunities that can retain and even grow customer business. Their approach integrates on-farm visits with opportunities to learn from experienced product advocates.

Whatever the stage of the product life cycle, Butcher says fully understanding the situation is paramount to creating strong WOM marketing and sales call strategies.

"The real strength of our partnership lies in the fact that both companies first work to realize client needs and challenges, then we custom build a solution," he says.

"This can be from pre-launch stage through advocacy building and to retention. The strength of this approach allows clients to have the tools needed to acquire customers and retain them for a long time."

Finegan concurs. "We provide a hybrid of marketing and sales. We can come in toward the end of the marketing phase (awareness building) and right at the beginning of a sales strategy," he says. "If a customer/prospect participates in one of our forums and receives a follow-up call from the client's sales force or an AgCall sales professional, there's a much higher probability the sale will close at that time. It is an effective way to drive adoption."

In addition to innovation in marketing strategy and sales tactics for clients, WOM affords new opportunities to Beck Ag and AgCall. Butcher concludes, "Because we are willing to further explore the market and are truly dedicated to helping customers succeed, and succeed, our partnership will allow customers to realize the power of word of mouth through the synergy we offer." AM

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