Seed World

Many Challenges in Selling Seed in the Middle of a Pandemic

Planning is the key to avoid sales mistakes.

Selling seed to grower customers, either established or new, is always challenging. Add in the reality of trying to sell while masked and socially distanced and the task can be quite daunting. The key to selling seed successfully during the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a number of seed sales professionals, is proper planning.

“Make planning your success strategy,” says sales training expert Rod Osthus of the R.C. Thomas Company. “COVID is scary and has hurt people in many ways. You must first understand that all of the obstacles a salesperson faces are only real if they are not addressed. Every single obstacle can be addressed by planning.”

Being unprepared is a sales effort killer, says Clint Bounds, general sales manager at Stine Seed Company. 

“The time you have with the grower is very valuable, don’t throw it away,” Bounds says. “You need to be prepared to answer their questions and show them the advantages of your company.” 

Sellers need to plan ahead and be ready to overcome any objections and be ready to close, Bounds adds. “I have been with salespeople that don’t think the grower will make a decision that day and are not prepared when they are ready. This doesn’t look good to the grower. They want to have the confidence they are working with a seed advisor that is prepared and ready to help at all times.”

Osthus outlines five important strategies for a seed business during the COVID crisis and beyond.

1. Customers have a critical need for leadership. Tell customers what they need to know.

2. Determine appropriate levels of communication with customers.

3. Determine the modus operandi with suppliers.

4. Define processes that can be accomplished remotely or eliminated.

5. Follow Center for Disease Control (CDC) protocols and help customers follow them.

A Few Common Mistakes

A strong sales plan is critical to seed sales success. Still, mistakes can occur that will throw cold water on the best of plans.

“Some of the most common mistakes sales staff make when selling seed begins with their mindset,” says Ryan Parkin, director of sales and marketing with Beck’s Hybrids. “Most tell themselves that they are going to try and sell this farmer something today. This puts an immense amount of pressure on the salesperson to achieve results. The farmer can tell that the salesperson wants something from them. The farmer then goes on the defensive, responding with objections that makes the salesperson’s job more difficult.”

Other common mistakes noted by Parkin include talking too much and not actively listening. Active listening will often reveal how the salesperson can help the farmer.

“All of these common mistakes continue to be made during COVID,” Parkin says. “The salesperson needs to start with the mindset that they will learn how they can help this farmer today. When the farmer realizes the salesperson genuinely wants to bring real value to the farmer, the farmer is less defensive and more open-minded in allowing the salesperson to provide solutions. Other mistakes are assuming the farmer is not ready to make seed purchasing decisions and the farmer does not want to meet with sales staff in person.”

Bounds says not listening is a common mistake made by many salespeople. “Some salespeople get so excited about what they have to offer they tend to spend too much time telling the farmer about the company and products instead of asking questions to find out what the grower actually needs,” he says. “If you ask the right questions you will find out what they really need to know. The salesperson may be spending time on a product or program that will have no benefit to the grower.”

Bounds adds that another problem involves not asking the right questions. “If you ask the grower questions about his operation, and take time to listen, you can find out a lot about what they really need. A salesperson’s job is to bring the grower’s operation a product or service that will help improve their profit/acre. If you ask enough questions, a lot of times you can find the things they are lacking with other companies. If you have a good solution, that may be your way on to the farm!”

Bounds also notes that after a grower has been sold seed, it is important to follow up before planting to make sure they remember how the product should be placed and managed. 

“There may be several months between the time of purchase and planting,” he says. “If the product is not managed properly, there is a stronger chance they will not want you back on the farm because of poor seed performance.”

Bounds also says that salespeople need to focus on value, not price. 

“Some salespeople assume this is the most important thing to the grower or it is the easy way onto the farm.  The grower has to be confident in what he is buying and see value in the salesperson and the product. We have lower retention with growers that buy based on price than those that value what we offer. You won’t always be the best price.”

A lack of pre-call planning is a critical mistake too often made by seed salespeople, says Bruce Howison, vice president of sales and marketing at Wyffels Hybrids. “Experienced salespeople will, before the call, think through their objective and the outcomes they expect from the call.”

Howison says that listening, particularly in the current environment, is another problem. “We can’t necessarily understand what a customer is going through, what is happening with the grower’s day or with their family. It is important to pause and consider where they are at.” 

He adds that salespeople need to be ready to recalibrate their approach and expected outcome based on what they have learned.

Wyffels Hybrids employs a full-time professional development manager that helps new sales team members develop their skills. 

“Make sure your salespeople have time to develop their customer relations skills,” Howison adds. “Listening and understanding your customers is more important than ever today. We need to know how customers want to communicate. Are they comfortable meeting face to face or would they rather communicate by email, Zoom meeting or some other method? Customers are very responsive to this.”

New Ways of Selling Seed

The pandemic in 2020 changed, for the foreseeable future, the way seed companies market their products. Old ways have been suspended. New ways are being tested and revised.

“Sales, ultimately, is about connecting with people, building trust and becoming a trusted advisor,” says Parkin. “Large group community sales and educational events are a great way to connect with a lot of farmers all at once. Since in-person events have been challenged, the sales force now has to increase efforts in having more one on one meetings in a compressed time frame. The use of telephone calls, not just texts, and the use of virtual tools to conduct business have increased. All in all, with few exceptions, farmers still prefer the face to face socially-distanced meetings despite COVID. Some sales calls and educational events have also taken place using virtual tools.” 

Bounds says Stine Seed salespeople are prepared and more cautious about how a grower may feel meeting face to face. 

“So far, most growers have been okay with meeting our salespeople as long as they are following specific guidelines such as wearing a mask or staying six feet apart,” he says. “Calling ahead is more common now rather than pulling onto the farm unannounced. We want to respect the grower’s feelings and not put them in an uncomfortable position.”

“Wyffels salespeople are doing a balance of virtual meetings and belly to belly selling,” says Howison. “The one thing that has gone away because of COVID is what we call the extended sales call where you might sit and visit with a customer for a couple of hours. We tend to get down to business faster.”

Howison adds the dependency of the grower on people they trust has gone up. “I think we are going to have higher customer retention than we have ever had because people are saying they want to do business with someone they trust. They don’t want to have people cold calling and they don’t want to change things up in these times of uncertainty.”

The importance of customer relationships has taken on a new meaning under COVID.

“At Wyffels,” Howison says, “the annual post-harvest dinner has been replaced by handing out bagged dinners at a drive-through event. It is very difficult to acquire new customers this year as growers don’t want to have strangers wandering onto the farm. The right thing to do is make sure customers are safe.”

The Rise of the Virtual Sales Call

A seed sales beat involves driving seemingly endless miles of dusty roads and pulling into farmyards either announced or unannounced. In 2020, however, the need to protect customers has altered the sales approach.

“It is dangerous to assume that every farmer is willing to meet with a salesperson in person,” says Scott Downey, Professor of Agricultural Economics at Purdue University. “There should be more of an emphasis today on setting appointments and making sure it is okay with the grower to meet. The downside is it may allow customers who don’t see value in meeting with salespeople to have an easy excuse for not meeting. It is pretty easy to keep a sales person off the farm. The consequence of this is difficulty in approaching new prospects. I hear that this is the biggest challenge sellers are facing today.

“A few companies I am aware of have tried to do some virtual sales calls using Zoom or other tools,” Downey says. “It is hard in many places to do video because of bandwidth issues. The response from growers to virtual meetings, however, has been surprisingly positive.”

“It is really hard to make sales calls virtually,” says Howison. “We are in a relationship-based business and lose the personal connection with virtual meetings. Most of our customers still prefer face to face meetings as long as we follow safety protocols.”

Howison adds that making virtual calls on prospects is even more difficult. “Trying to develop a relationship and earn a grower’s trust is hard to do on a Zoom meeting.”

Parkin notes the use of phone calls and newer virtual tools to accomplish sales goals have increased during COVID. “Virtual internal and B2B company calls and meetings have increased significantly.”

Virtual prospecting is hard, according to Downey. 

“But it forces salespeople to think about when they need a meeting and what is in it for the customer to be part of the meeting. Information about your products is not enough. If they want information about your products, it is pretty easy to find it online. If it’s just talking, there’s probably not much in it for the customer. We have to practice sharing screens with information that could be useful. Having a video showing your standability in the area is way more powerful than a picture ‚Äî and you can do that online. You can have charts and graphs, but if you don’t have a catalog to flip through you have to have some other tools ready.”

Selling Seed to the Seeds Sellers

Land-grant universities, such as Texas A&M, expend a good amount of energy marketing the genetics developed by their plant breeders to seed companies. In the current COVID-19 environment, how those genes are marketed has taken on a new look.

“We do a lot more phone or video meetings than we may have in the past,” says Lileen Coulloudon, marketing strategist for Texas A&M AgriLife. “We are working on revamping our website to make it more user friendly and easier for seed companies to find what they are looking for.”

Coulloudon says that her networking as a marketer is now conducted via phone calls or video meetings and webinars at the various seed conferences. Conferences are mostly all virtual now and will be for the foreseeable future.

“Where we would have had seed companies visit in-person at field days to view new wheat varieties, for example, it was done virtually this year,” Coulloudon says. “In previous years we would have had large tour busses full of seed company reps and it would have been an all-day affair visiting the various plots.”

Coulloudon adds that seed company visits that had been planned for many months were cancelled or done virtually. 

“There were European and American seed companies that were going to view the hardy hibiscus in the fields this past summer, but they had to view the various flowers and plants via photos and video conferencing.”

Coulloudon says that AgriLife’s annual donation of hibiscus plants no longer used in their breeding program was different this year. 

“These plants were used as a fundraiser for our community to fund a future hibiscus festival. Instead of having an event where people came to a place where we had all the plants, the plants were taken to a location and people bought tickets virtually and then drove to the location and there was curbside delivery to your car. It was touchless and nobody had to get out of their car or go in a building or be with a group of people.”