Cultivating an image of yourself as a professional business person can help you find and retain customers, says Steve Shep-herd, an Onida, SD, custom grain harvester and board member for U.S. Custom Harvesters, Inc.
He recommends the following tips to help you and your crew show just how qualified your business is to handle your clients' work:
- Don't oversell.
“If a customer asks about a particular service and you don't offer it, let him know up front,” Shepherd says. “If you make a commitment and have to back out on it down the road, you'll pay a price.”
- Maintain equipment.
Customers pay close attention to the condition of equipment and make judgments about you as a business person based on what they observe, according to Shepherd.
“You don't have to have the newest and/or biggest equipment. But if your equipment is pretty banged up when you pull into the yard, the customer might conclude you have a bunch of cowboys working on the crew. He may start wondering if he really wants to do business with you.”
- Stay in touch.
Unlike custom forage harvesters who typically see their customers several times during the harvest season, Shepherd sees his combine customers just once a year. He makes it a point to phone each client at least once a month during the non-harvest season.
“It's a way to show them we value their business,” he says. “We'll ask if they were satisfied with the job we did and whether they saw anything we could be doing better. As the year goes along, we'll talk to them about any changes they might be making in their cropping program and what that means for how we serve them.”
- Be a diplomat.
Misunderstandings and disagreements between custom operators and their customers are bound to happen from time to time, says Shepherd.
“You need to address those kinds of things right away. If you've made a mistake, acknowledge it and move on. Avoid being overly defensive or too emotional. Usually, things work out if the other person sees you're treating him with respect. If you let things get out of control, it can hurt your reputation in the area. News travels pretty fast out in the countryside. You don't want an angry customer sitting in the local coffee shop telling all of his friends he had a bad experience working with you.”
- Groom the crew.
“If somebody on your crew gets out of line, the customer doesn't say ‘Bob or Jim sure messed up,’ ” ex-plains Shepherd. “He's more likely to say ‘Shepherd Custom Harvesting can't control its employees.’ You have to keep reminding the guys on the crew that they're representing your business at all times. That's true in the field, on the road, in the farmyard and at the restaurant or hotel in town when you're on the road.”
USCHI Looks To Feds For Insurance Program
U.S. Custom Harvesters, Inc., is pushing federal officials to set up a program that will offer business interruption insurance, says Steve Shepherd, an Onida, SD, custom combiner on the USCHI board.
“What we're looking at is something similar to the kind of protection against weather disasters that farmers can get through the federal crop insurance program,” he says. “Like farmers, we're at the mercy of the weather. Unlike them, we don't have any way to insure ourselves when there's a major crop failure.”
Shepherd says widespread droughts throughout a large part of the country two years ago prompted USCHI to begin researching prospects for establishing a business interruption insurance program.
“In our own case, we lost exactly half of our business that year because the crops were so bad,” says Shepherd. “It was awful. We had no way to generate income. An insurance program wouldn't have enabled us to make a profit, but it would have allowed us to at least cover our expenses.”
USCHI representatives have made several trips to Washington, D.C. to lobby USDA officials. So far, they've encountered a fair amount of resistance that Shepherd attributes to a “me-too” factor. “They're afraid that if they set up a program for custom harvesters they'd open up the floodgates,” he says. “They'd be hearing from a lot of other groups wanting the same kind of thing, and they don't want to deal with that.”
Along with pushing for a federal program, Shepherd notes USCHI is looking at prospects for working with private-sector insurance companies to set up a program.
Last year, the group worked with one Wisconsin agency on a limited, trial program. “We found some bugs in it once we got going,” he says. “But it did give us a starting point and we found some things we think we can build on. We're not ready to give up on it just yet.”
— Rick Mooney