One key to building a successful custom harvesting business: “Keep your customers happy,” says Wes Hopkins of McClellan Farms, Inc., Delavan, WI.

“It's like any other service business,” says Hopkins. “You want the same customers coming back year after year. That way, you get to know each customer's routine and you learn what he wants and expects. That makes you more efficient. You can do a better job of planning and projecting.”

Hopkins and partner Tom McClellan launched their custom corn-alfalfa harvesting business about six years ago as a companion enterprise to a 380-cow dairy. They now have 20 clients and harvest about 9,000 acres of haylage and 3,500 acres of corn silage in a typical year.

Here are some steps Hopkins recommends for keeping customers coming back year after year:

  • Communicate early and often. Throughout the season, he reminds clients about the importance of keeping lines of communication open.

    “One of the most important things is to remind them that they should call us at least a week before they want us at their farms rather than the day before,” says Hopkins. “We also meet with them after each job to get their impressions about how things went. We want to let them know that we're genuinely concerned about the quality of feed we're putting up for them.”

  • Lower expectations. You might be capable of chopping 100 acres per day, but promising clients you can operate at that rate every time invites trouble.

    “Things happen — equipment breaks down, the weather throws you a curve, etc.,” says Hopkins. “Up front, you're better off telling the client you can do 70 acres a day. If it ends up better than that, he'll be pleasantly surprised.”

    The same concept applies to scheduling jobs.

    “It's a lot less stressful for everybody involved if you're realistic. Having to call someone to tell them that you're going to be two or three days late is simply no fun.”

  • Coach employees. Crew members are frontline troops when it comes to representing your business to clients.

    “Things don't always go smoothly on the job and crew members can get frustrated,” says Hopkins. “We remind our guys that they can vent or complain as much as they want, but only when they get back to our shop and we're talking among ourselves. On site, everybody is better served when you keep things positive.”

  • Apply a light touch. Slow-paying clients are a source of frustration in many, if not most, service businesses. Letting your frustration get out of control usually won't get you paid faster or help you build a long-term relationship with an otherwise worthwhile client.

    When Hopkins finds himself in that kind of situation, he starts by adopting a mindset that something unexpected came up for the client or that the client was busy with other things and simply forgot to mail the payment. The mindset carries over when he contacts the client.

    “I don't assume that he's trying to rip me off. I'll ask him if he received my bill or if he's been having trouble with mail delivery. Then I'll ask if there's anything I can do to help him make the payment. I've found over the years that things always work better when you treat people with respect.”

  • Follow up. On his last visit to each farm during the harvest season, Hopkins conducts an informal review with the client.

“We ask for his opinion on how things went overall,” he explains. “What did we do right or wrong? What can we do differently next year? That gives us ideas on how we can improve on what we're doing. We also ask him what he's planning for next year. It gives us an idea of whether or not we'll be working with him again.”