June 20, 2024

Selling on the farm: Ag sales professionals share experiences

NOBLESVILLE, Ind. — Agricultural sales professionals shared their tricks of the trade at the Young Farmers and Ag Professionals Conference in Noblesville.

The panel that answered questions consisted of Jeff Demerly, owner of Demerly Ag Plus; Eric Farrand, vice president of global sales for United Animal Health; Marv Ulmet, salesman at Bane-Welker Equipment; and Shari Westerfeld, vice president for the U.S. pork business at Zoetis.

How do you communicate with farmers?

Westerfeld: "Agriculture, in general, is becoming more consolidated, decision-makers and those who surround those decision-makers. So, how I look at it is the networking side, understanding who has maybe relationships with those agricultural professionals to where we can start to understand how we can build that relationship, as well.

“Understanding about the business, so if we do cold calls, that we don’t go in say, ‘Tell me about your business.’ So, that we go in more with a better understanding of, ‘Hey, I’ve seen this or that about your business.’ Maybe there are unique things about that person’s business that you want to bring up in those initial discussions to try to find that common ground.

“In agriculture, probably more than any other profession really out there, a lot of business is still based on we want to do business with people. So, if we like the people we are doing business with, then we uniquely try to find those things where we have common ground together to make those decisions.”

Farrand: "The livestock side is probably drastically different than the crop side. In the pork industry, we have 175 entities that make up 90% of the pork industry. On the poultry side, 10 entities make up 90% of the poultry industry. So, we know who those people are, and they know who we are. We have pretty connected salespeople that have done a lot of networking already. It's really about being relevant.

“The dairy industry is where the pork industry was 50 years ago, where relationships can be built with consultants, with veterinarians that currently hold that relationship. If we can bring value to those consultants that are working with the farms, then we can be relevant by working in that way.”

Ulmet: "There is a reason why I'm a Farm Bureau member. There is a reason why I'm a county president. I've always been an advocate for agriculture. Many years ago, I had an older gentleman come up to me at the state fair and he says, 'What do you do for Farm Bureau?' I said, 'Well, I pay my membership.' That's when I found out how much more there was to it.

“Networking on the state and local levels, I’ve been able to meet several farmers and producers. It’s all about networking. This is a face-to-face business. You want to be able to trust and be around the people in your community.”

Demerly: "You've heard of the popsicle and Eskimo theory in sales? You've got to believe that you have the best popsicle. That's where it starts. It starts with your business model and who you are. I believe in that. I believe that I bring some of the best solutions to my clients and my farmers that I work with. Therefore, that gives you an opportunity to cold call. That gives you an opportunity to go, 'This is why I am here and this is what I do.'"

Westerfeld: "If you're not differentiating yourself or your business or your products when you go in and make that call on that producer, they're not going to want you back the next time. So, it's really about how do you continue to gain momentum in that relationship. Really, that's by bringing value and understanding what value means to me is much different than maybe what value means to Jeff."

Farrand: "I was visiting with a diversified farm here in Indiana. They have 5,000 sows and also have crops. I was visiting with their manager that is only involved on the livestock side. I asked him, 'How many salespeople call on you a week?' He said, '11.' So, when you think about relevancy, you can get pretty tired of people calling on you. I wouldn't want 11 people calling me a week.

“It’s not about you. It’s about them. One of the best sales managers I ever had said, ‘Prepare so well that at the end they would be willing to pay you for your time, that they got so much out of it that they would be willing to pay for the time they spent with you.’”

Demerly: "I was sitting in the combine this fall. The farmer left. He's like, 'Hey, can you run the combine tonight?' So, I hopped in the combine, part of my service, trying to be relevant. Running the combine, because I'm still a farm boy at heart, I was tickled to death that he was going to let me run his machine. Then I looked over at this empty buddy seat, I was in the time of my life and I could only imagine the salesperson sitting there trying to sell me corn for the next year. What a step back. What an opportunity to go, 'Hmm, maybe I need to rethink my approach when I go out and try to sell to somebody?' What type of experience would you want as a customer?"

Ulmet: "I want to bring the customer an experience that they haven't experienced anywhere else."

How do you balance that communication?

Demerly: "Don't be afraid to try something new. That's probably the biggest advice I would offer. I started my own YouTube channel."

Westerfeld: "It really is about how that account wants to interact with us. You have to ask those questions, because each individual even within an account could be vastly different. Some people may like texting. Some people may never take their phone in at night. Some people may prefer emails. Some people may prefer a phone call still.

“Our accounts should really drive our approach, because they’re going to be very customized, based on how each account wants us to work with them. Some people may never want us on their farm. Some people may want us there in the barns right beside them.”

Ulmet: "I never had Snapchat before I came to Bane-Welker. I have more farmers north of the age of 50 send me emojis in Snapchat than I would have ever guessed.

“I was never one for texting details. I wanted to talk to people. But now people are busy enough that they want you to send the details in a text and then they’ll call you about it.”

Is age or another demographic an important variable to consider when analyzing your target audience?

Demerly: "You can attempt to focus and channel your customers toward, 'This is how Jeff Demerly communicates.' Don't. It's not going to work. You're going to have to be more dynamic.

“I’m more of a face-to-face guy. The texting thing drives me crazy. But I can call and call and call one of my clients and he will never answer. The second I text him, he will text right back. That’s just the way he wants to communicate. I have to get over that. I have to adjust. It’s going to be your responsibility if you want to be successful to adjust.”

Ulmet: "My business is all driven basically by Q1 and Q4 programs for equipment. We have trained the farmer that's the only time to buy and that's when 75% of the product is sold.

“And then also remembering to pump the brakes whenever you find out someone hasn’t had a good growing year. I go north of 24 and things are pretty good. If I get in southeast Indiana, I’m just asking about, ‘Hey, what are you doing different on your operation today because you had 90-bushel corn and 25-bushel beans?’”

Farrand: "As farms obviously are getting bigger there are multiple influencers, multiple decision-makers many times. You have to figure out how each of them wants to communicate differently, depending on what role they have, whether it's a technical role, or it's a production role, a financial role."

Westerfeld: "Some of your customers could be super-analytical and they really want to see all the data, they want to absorb it, take their time, they're not going to make quick decisions. I don't think it's as much age as it is maybe that person and how they need to process decisions. Do they make quick decisions? Slow decisions?

“Some people like to talk all about your kids and the weekend for half an hour before they get into maybe what you’re even there for. Someone that doesn’t want to be a timewaster, if you come in talking about their kids and your basketball and all this kind of stuff for a half-hour, they’re probably not going to let you back on their farm.”

Farrand: "There are some people you have to do that. You have to talk about their kids and the weekend. If you don't, they'll be thinking the entire time, 'Does this person not like me? Does this person even care about me? You're just trying to sell me something.' So, you have to read them and you have to adjust and flex to what they want."

What is your strategy to keep organized?

Demerly: "I make sure I send out a lot of Christmas cards. You get to know their kids, their ages and where they are and what they're doing. There's a beautiful thing called Facebook and social media these days. Honestly, I'm trying to find how I fit in their operation, because that's the goal.

“I want to be a person really at the dinner table. I want to get that far, that when they make a big generational-type decision that they think of Jeff Demerly being a part of that. In order to do that, I’ve got to get to know them on a personal basis. Even though it’s business on the front side, I love every single one of my customers, and I mean that, I really do. I live beside them. I take it pretty seriously.”

Farrand: "Sales isn't for everybody. There are some phenomenal salespeople. They truly do love their customers."

Ulmet: "I'm more concerned about that second sale down the road than the one that's today. There's a neat thing on an iPhone. If you scroll up through that person's contact, you can put notes in there. So, every time someone calls me and says, 'Hey, six months from now I'll be interested in this product, or maybe a year from now,' I'll put that in my outlook."

Demerly: "Listen to that voicemail before you call them back. They took the time to leave you one."

Looking back to when you got started, what do you wish you knew then that you know now?

Demerly: "Don't give it away. That's hard early on in your career. That's hard when you're hungry. That's hard to do when you're doing a new product and you're tying to get it launched. But there's value in what you do. You have to believe in that.

“You have to believe in yourself. You have to believe in your product. You have to believe in your company and who they are and know that there’ll either be another customer or that customer is going to be there in the future.”

Ulmet: "The biggest thing is if you don't know the answer, tell your customer you don't know the answer and get back to them."

Farrand: "Don't get too hung up or worried about a quota, or sales number. If you're doing the work for the right reasons, you'll hit your number. If you obsess over your number, you're going to do the wrong things. You're focusing on the outcome. Focus on the work you have to do to get to the number and you'll get to the number."

Westerfeld: "You're going to go in to a potential account or a customer that knows a heck of a lot more than you. So, if you sit across the table from them and you act like you know more than them because you want to be smart and you want them to want to buy from you, that's the wrong way to approach it. I tell everyone, 'Don't sell anything until you know why they're not buying it from us today.'"