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In the course of our work at the Center for Food and Agricultural Business, we talk with a lot of agricultural producers about selling - what they like, what they don't like, what they want, what they aren't getting ... one recent conversation was particularly interesting. When asked about a positive sales experience, one mid-career, 3,500-acre Midwest corn and soybean producer was quick to tell the following story.

Dr. Jay Akridge
This producer was considering a new product and had contacted the firm supplying the product to talk further. The firm's sales rep called the producer, and set up a 40-minute appointment at a convenient, neutral location. The farmer said that the presentation and discussion of the product was the best he had ever experienced - direct, hard-hitting, based on the underlying economics, and aimed squarely at the product he was facing. The farmer indicated that the sales rep had used a computer model loaded onto a laptop to demonstrate several "what-if" scenarios. He felt the rep's technical knowledge was exceptional - he "knew it cold." Overall, the interaction was "a full step" above anything he had experienced - and he knew at that time that this was "the right guy, the right company, the right solution." It was about three to four months before they closed on the deal, but "it was just a matter of time." In summary, the producer said, "sometimes you just want to see what is out there. Relationship selling is fine. But, sometimes you want to feel like a little kid who has just been to meet the Wizard of Oz. This is it ... this is the solution ... I wish I had seen it before."

What marketing and sales manager wouldn't want his best customers to say that their interaction with his sales reps was like a trip to meet the wizard? What marketing and sales manager wouldn't want his best customers to say that his sales force was a "full step" above any other they had worked with? The goal of cultivating an exceptional sales team is clear, but knowing how to get there is often less so.

As this story and many other examples illustrate, there isn't really a magic bullet that will help you achieve sales excellence. Our research shows that five of the top traits in an agricultural sales person are: 1) honesty, 2) high level of technical competency, 3) provides good follow-up service, 4) provides relevant/timely information, and 5) brings the best price. Most of this is blocking and tackling &%151; basic stuff. One key to delivering a trip to the wizard is for your sales staff to deliver on the fundamentals at a very high level. Easy to say, but harder to do on a consistent basis across a sales force, and most definitely a competitive advantage to those who are able to deliver.

Digging just a bit deeper into producer attitudes, our commercial producer study suggests that more than 80 percent of commercial producers see significant differences in service quality across local suppliers, but only about 60 percent of these same producers see significant differences in the quality of information. For both services and information, the larger the operation, the more discriminating the producer. This seems important on a couple of levels. First, the service quality finding suggests that if we truly are better at servicing the account - prompt appointments, keeping promises, delivering accurately and on time, etc. - they notice it.

The quality of information finding is a bit trickier. Producers do not appear to be as discriminating - currently they just don't see the same differences they see for services. This suggests that it may not be enough to deliver information that is "better" - more tailored, more timely, or more relevant.... Our research suggests that an aggressive effort to communicate the difference in information quality is also in order - show producers how and why your information is better than that of other suppliers.

As you reflect on the interactions of your sales force, or your dealer's sales force, has with customers, what will it take to be a "full step" above the competition? Are there tangible, service-related areas where you can improve and distinguish yourself? Should you focus on the information you provide? Perhaps more importantly, how do you inform the producer that you truly are a better information resource than your competitor? In the end, the Wizard of Oz wasn't successful because of the phony "great and powerful" image that he created. He was successful because of his ability to recognize the needs of each individual traveler on the Yellow Brick Road, and then with complete sincerity address those individual needs. Not a bad metaphor for a high performing sales force.

Dr. Akridge is the James and Lois Ackerman Professor of Agricultural Economics and Director of the Center for Food and Agricultural Business, Purdue University.


ASTA Management Academy XIX
March 6-10, 2006

Sales Management and Leadership
June 26-27, 2006

Selling to Large Farmers
July 17-28, 2006

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