Components of a Successful Retail Customer Relationship

Three stops on the roadmap to a successful ag retail customer relationship

In the rapidly evolving world of ag retail and crop production, growers’ specific needs are always changing based on one or a few of the myriad variables they face year in and year out. Their ag retail partners have to keep up with those changes to maintain long-term customer relationships. But there are a few common components of a successful retailer-customer relationship that never go out of style.

Active, open communication, respect for growers’ changing on-farm capabilities and dependability in securing the products customers need are three massive pieces of the foundation of a strong, productive relationship between an ag retailer and his or her customers. They’re all things that Aligned Ag Distributors (AAD) owners and independent regional ag retailers around the country prioritize in maintaining their presence at their customers’ farm gates.

“My father founded this company as a custom application business. But today, we are doing business that’s not even close to custom application,” according to Bob Willard, AAD owner and President of Willard Agri-Service in Frederick, Maryland. “Our growers are smart businesspeople. In the old days, we didn’t know how to handle it when they bought their own sprayers. We’d just say goodbye. But those are the guys who have stayed in it the longest, and we’re doing a lot of things to better serve them.”

Why open communication matters

You can’t solve problems if you don’t know they exist. That’s why so many AAD owners prioritize customer communication. But it’s a two-way street; Ian McGregor thinks of it as “overcommunication” as he connects frequent customer conversations and outreach to his efforts to maintain a proactive stance in solving grower problems and providing what his customers need as president of The McGregor Company based in Colfax, Washington.

“We put major value on our connections to our customers. We try to overcommunicate with our customers about the challenges they see and what’s relevant to them, making a concerted effort to ask the right questions,” said McGregor, whose company provides agronomy, seed and risk management services to growers around the Pacific Northwest. “I can recall often sitting around a table with customers and debating what they need from a service perspective. Before we assume what a customer does or doesn’t want, we simply ask them. It helps us stay relevant from both product and service standpoints. And it helps us make sure we do things that help our growers be as profitable as possible.”

That kind of communication philosophy exists from the top down at Pasco, Washington-based Two Rivers Terminal, LLC. President and CEO Roy Young sees open communication as fundamental to not just customer service but also internal operations. It’s enabled his company to adjust to sometimes abrupt marketplace disruptions — like the COVID-19 pandemic — to minimize their influence on his company’s operations and, in turn, his customers’ success in the field.

“We like to call our company a ‘bottoms-up’ company. Anyone can come into any member of the management team’s office, sit down and have a visit. The doors are always open. We feel like that type of communication has been really helpful in the last two or three years,” Young said. “It’s enabled us to make adjustments on the fly and inform all our personnel on a weekly basis. Communication with all of our employees is so key, especially in any crunch-time situation.”

The flexibility that kind of communication creates for Young’s team at Two Rivers is a major component of Ernie Roncoroni’s ability to deliver products and service to his diversified grower customers at Woodland, California-based Grow West. Communicating frequently with customers, especially in preparing for busy field application timeframes, helps the Grow West president and CEO ensure he’s got the products his growers need, when they need it.

“These days, you’ve got to adapt to every situation and continually be in communication with customers. With the pressures everyone is facing with things like product availability, we have to change our strategies — like hedging and buying in advance as far as we can — to make sure we have what our customers need,” Roncoroni said. “A lot of customers can take advantage of early pricing if we have open communication and we both know the product supply situation at any given time. Good communication helps us pivot and move when we need to.”

Respecting growers’ expertise and capabilities

As farm sizes increase, so have expanded farm-level agronomic capabilities. Large growers are adding both personnel and equipment to take care of jobs for which they traditional relied on their ag retail partners.

“We really try to segment the business so if growers are integrated to the point where they have their own application equipment, air drills or maybe even an on-site agronomist, that’s fine,” McGregor said. “While it fundamentally changes the basis for our service, we evolve so we don’t dilute what we provide. It causes us to grow in different channels.”

Growers’ evolution has caused ag retailers like Willard to evolve services, in some ways, so they look entirely different than they did just a few years ago. It’s all about the partnership in which retailers’ services and products match customers’ needs.

“When we started finding it tough to make money in our traditional business, we found new ways to offer value to customers,” Willard said. “We have programs that complement our customers’ evolving capabilities so we don’t lose their business. It just changes.”

In Willard’s case, the company has created a program called Load N GO that creates customer access to the retailer’s chemical logistics and facilities even when they own and operate their own sprayers and application equipment. Such programs not only offer relevant products and service, but also helps Willard create new efficiencies in the retailer’s equipment fleet and operations.

“Today, we’re about 38% custom application, and Load N GO and various other programs have helped us get there. Our traditional business model meant we didn’t sell products unless we put them in the ground. But that’s changed,” Willard said. “Programs like Load N GO mean way less equipment and fewer people in the field.”

At the end of the day, such changes at the retail level are all about one thing for Young: Respect for the grower customer and what he or she is doing to stay successful on the land. That’s why he prioritizes listening first, then catering agronomic service to each grower’s on-farm capabilities.

“If a farm is successful, it’s because they’re good businessmen and have substantial expertise in their occupation. For us to send people in to disrupt what they’re doing where they’re already successful and established and financially doing well, that’s a real disservice and that’s not what we’re about,” Young said. “What we’re about is going on and finding out what they’re doing to be successful and offering suggestions that can enhance their program. We’ll continue to hang our hat for the respect for farmers and business partners and do what we can to help them continue to be successful.”

Be the dependable, reliable partner

The relationship between an ag retailer and his or her grower customers ultimately boils down to having the right products and services in the right places at the right times to maximize crop quality and output. Maintaining that relationship is never a simple prospect for the retailer, but one thing is fairly straightforward: Making sure you’re dependable and reliable. Though challenged by things like recent logistical hurdles in securing product, Willard said he’s always doing whatever he can to ensure he’s meeting growers’ expectations.

“You’ve got to do what you have to do to get product. A lot of these are products farmers can’t do without, so we have to have it. Sometimes that means we have to take an  unconventional approach to make sure we have what they need,” Willard said. “We have spoiled our customers over the years and expect us to have everything and within a couple hours. We have to be able to jump and react.”

That’s where ownership in Aligned Ag Distributors has been a massive benefit to Willard, Young and other retailers.

“Going to market through AAD has enabled us to stay up with our main manufacturers on crop protection products, and that’s served us really well,” Young said. “We are able to interface with them on almost a daily basis to make sure we are in the best position we can be from a product standpoint.”

Such engagement with product manufacturers through Aligned Ag Distributors has enabled Carl Hoff, president and CEO of Richvale, California-based Butte County Rice Growers Association get more proactive with purchasing and managing product inventory. In the end, it helps him stay in the best position from a product standpoint for his customers. It helps him always be ready.

“On the advice of AAD, we have bought forward much more in the last year and a half than we have before. We are definitely buying ahead and carrying inventory when farmers need it,” Hoff said. “We’ve been able to have the product we needed and that’s a big deal. We’ve had supply availability hiccups and not everything works perfectly. But for the most part, we have product when our customers need it.”