One day Will Hatcher got a phone call from a woman interested in buying hay. "Where have you been?" she asked. It seemed, Hatcher told growers at last week's Midwest Hay Business Conference & Expo in Kansas City, MO, that he wasn't doing a good enough job of promoting his product. The woman lived only 30 minutes away and hadn't known the business, Allendale Farms, existed.
But Hatcher, from Cumberland, VA, was being hard on himself. He offered hay growers many valuable tips to get their products in the public eye. So did J.J. Granstrom from Holstein, NE.
Hatcher and his dad, Roger, sell 1,000-1,500 tons of hay and straw per year to customers 30-50 miles away. Besides offering 4 x 4' round bales for sale, they can rebale large round and large square bales into 42-lb bales to load directly into customer vehicles.
Granstrom produces big bales, some using a multibale baler that can make one single big bale or up to eight small ones within each big bale. They're delivered to dairies and feedlots, some 1,200 or more miles away, on trucks he and his dad, John, own. They baled 15,000 tons of alfalfa and wheat straw last season.
Hatcher carries his cell phone everywhere and is prepared to answer it 24/7, he said. He keeps business cards handy and magnetic signs with the farm name and phone number on delivery trucks. "Truck ads have been a huge success. I've had people speed up alongside me and jot down that number," Hatcher said.
Direct mailing postcards to customers, telling what types of hay are available, also works. But include the year on the postcard and be "more vague but truthful" about prices. "We put hay prices on," Hatcher said of the first few cards mailed out. "But how often do prices stay still?"
Hatcher bought an existing mailing list and pared it down before sending out postcards. Granstrom got a list of feedlots from the state cattleman's association and contacted every feedlot on it. "We got enough real good leads off of that. Those people talked with other people at cattlemen meetings and we got our foot in the door."
Photo Christmas cards of his family, plus small gifts, are a hit not only with Granstrom's customers, but with their employees who help unload hay.
Granstrom also writes down information as he talks with potential clients. "We've got a sheet of paper that we fill out how many cows they milk, if they're feeding with a pitchfork or feeding a TMR, how many kids they've got. When we call them back, we get the sheets out, look at them and ask questions. You learn what people expect from you. And how picky they will be with the hay -- like who will put up with some weeds." They also write down the best times to call customers.
Radio ads are a success for Granstrom, but not Hatcher. Regular newspaper ads that circulate in the areas the men market in also work.
Then there's word-of-mouth advertising. "It's the single-most positive and detrimental thing for any business," said Hatcher. Both businessmen stressed the importance of being honest about what and how hay is produced and, as Granstrom put it, "giving in" in a dispute. Or, as Hatcher phrased it, "The customer is always right."
"It's repeat customers who make you the money," Granstrom pointed out.
His dad goes the extra mile in drumming up new customers -- literally. He takes two weeks each year to travel through an area where they have customers. One year he dropped off business cards at a Kentucky barber shop. "We got a new customer from that."