Friday, February 28, 2014

Celebrate National Ag Day!

by Michelle Kowalewski, Extension Educator, Susquehanna Co.

March 25th is National Ag Day, a time when producers, agricultural associations, corporations, universities, government agencies, and countless others across America gather to recognize and celebrate the abundance provided by American agriculture.

This year's theme for National Ag Day, sponsored by the Agriculture Council of America, is "365 sunrises and 7 billion mouths to feed."  American farmers are working harder than ever, and it shows!  Today, each American farmer feeds more than 144 people.  And, the need for food produced in the United States is dramatic.  Agriculture is the nation's #1 export and vitally important in sustaining a healthy economy.

As the world population soars, there is even greater demand for food, fiber, and renewable resources produced in the United States.

The National Ag Day program believes that every American should:
  1. Understand how food, fiber, and renewable resource products are produced.
  2. Value the essential role of agriculture in maintaining a strong economy.
  3. Appreciate the role agriculture plays in providing safe, abundant, and affordable products.
  4. Acknowledge and consider career opportunities in the agriculture, food, fiber, and renewable resource industries.
Ag Day is a good time to reflect - and be grateful for - American agriculture!  It's a teachable moment.  Consider holding your own Ag Day event, write a letter to the editor about the importance of agriculture, create a public service announcement, or even reach out to your local schools and educate youth about agriculture.  We are finding more and more that consumers want to know where their food comes from.  This event creates a great opportunity to open the door to consumers in educating them about the farmers that produce the food they eat.

2014 marks the 41st anniversary of Ag Day, so make it a tradition in your community and use it as a marketing and promotional tool for your agribusiness!

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Do You Know Your Customers?

by John Berry, Extension Educator, Lehigh Co.

Do you know who your customers are today; who they will be ten years from now?  Successful marketers do.  Consumers are constantly changing, from their ages and attitudes, to their incomes and ethnic mix.  In order to successfully meet consumers' wants and needs, we must anticipate and respond to them before a demand for a product or service even exists.

Plan to Keep in Touch
Email lists are one method of staying in contact
with your customers on a timely basis.
One key advantage of direct marketing is contact with customers.  People seek the personal attention that is available from most farm retailers.  The benefit to the grower/marketer is first-hand knowledge of customer wants.  Make the most of this direct customer contact.  At the very least; ask your customers to record their name, address, and email in a notebook that is kept near the check-out.  Also consider collecting other electronic media contacts customers may be utilizing.  Once a notebook is started, you now have a mailing list.  This can help maximize promotional efforts.

Customers will develop a personal connection to your market if they are kept informed.  Is opening day next week?  Is there a huge crop of melons coming ripe?  Why not send an announcement to your regular customers?  Offer a discount on quantity purchases.  This type of effort is well received.  It helps you move product and it establishes loyalty in your customers.

Try to Keep Ahead
One way to prepare for tomorrow is to study changes in consumer demographics.  What do households look like?  What do consumers like to do with their free time?  Which consumers have the highest disposable income?  What would they be willing to spend it on?  How are these factors expected to change in the future?

Planning for the future is usually a guess.  To increase the confidence in this guess, try to base it on as much fact as possible.  The amount of information already gathered and analyzed is staggering.  The local library, township authorities, the department of transportation, and your Extension office can be possible sources of trend information.

Did You Know?
Here are general statistics from the Census Bureau.  Remember, these are for the entire population.  Try to answer some of these questions with the data that is specific to your customers.  By the year 2015, households without children under 18 will outnumber those with kids by 14 million.  The projections for the types of households we can expect are as follows: Couples without children, 32%; Women living alone, 17%; Men living alone, 14%.

How might this impact your customers and their shopping behavior?  The average person spends less than 50 minutes a day preparing meals.  Those with a microwave oven spend 45 minutes, while those without a microwave spend 59 minutes.  Clean up time averaged 7.7 minutes each day.

How do you fit your product into microwave preparation and easy clean up?

I like doing what I know how to do, and I find adapting to change is seldom comfortable.  However, exceeding the demands of most retail consumers is a moving target.  Effective direct marketers learn to change and adapt.  The efficiency of adapting can be increased by considering the possible developments of the future before they arrive.  In the final spare moments we may have before the spring season is upon us - let's spend some time and effort developing a deeper understanding of what drives our current shoppers and developing a better guess of who our future customers might be.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Manager - The Hardest Job!

by John Berry, Extension Educator, Lehigh Co.

I enjoy the comedy of Bill Cosby and remember his thoughts on being the boss.  His observation goes something like "I've seen the boss's job...and I don't want it!"  For many farm business managers, the tasks of effective management may not come with ease.  As we seek to more effectively utilize and grow our business skills, let's remember some of the differences between being a manager and not being a manager.

Good managers create, not consume, workplace energy.  Recall the four "classic" functions of management - Plan, Organize, Lead, and Control - that you learned in school?  Although these basic functions are fine for taking care of most of your day-to-day management duties, they fail to reflect the reality of many workplace situations, and discount the power of a valuable manager-worker partnership.

Today's manager needs an additional set of management functions that are based on forging a strong employee-employer relationship:

Energize.  Managers often need to be masters of making things happen.  You can be the best analyst in the world or the most highly organized executive on the planet, but if the level of excitement you generate can be likened more to a dish rag than to a spark plug, then you may never have what it takes to create a truly great environment.  Great managers create far more energy than they consume.  Instead of taking energy from the organization, the best managers channel and amplify energy to the organization.

Empower.  Great managers allow their employees to do great work typically by empowering them to excel.  This is a key management function because even the greatest manager in the world cannot succeed all by themselves.  To achieve organizational goals, managers depend on the skills that their employees are capable of delivering.  Effective management is the leveraging of the efforts of every member of a work group toward a common purpose.  If you are constantly doing your employees' work for them, not only have you lost the advantage of leverage that your employees can provide, but you are also putting yourself on the path to stress.

Support.  The key to creating a supportive environment is establishing openness throughout an organization.  In an open environment, employees can bring up questions and concerns - in fact, they are encouraged to do so.  When employees see their managers are open to new ideas, they are more likely to offer suggestions and new ideas.

Communicate.  Information is power, and as the speed of business continues to accelerate, information must be communicated to employees more and more rapidly.  Constant change and increasing turbulence in the business environment necessitate more and constant communication, not less.

Management is not what you do to people; it's what you do for them.  We often give short shrift to the social fulfillment components of work.  However, much research exists that shows employees value the soft aspects of their jobs just as much (and sometimes more) than economic rewards.  Managers who truly manage their employees - who energize them, empower them, support them, and communicate with them - will attract and retain key employees because of the trust and commitment they actively seek to build.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Is Customer Service on Social Media for You?

by Sarah Cornelisse, Sr. Extension Associate, Dept. of Agricultural Economics, Sociology, and Education

I'm sure you've all seen them - the stories, comments, or other posts on Facebook, Twitter, Google+, or another social platform from people dissatisfied with some aspect of a product or a service from a business. More so than ever, consumers are turning to social media to share their annoyances and horror stories.  However, they also turn to social media to connect with brands and businesses - to seek information,  ask questions, and resolve problems or concerns.

A 2012 Nielsen report provides some insight to consumer views regarding customer service via social media, or "social care."  Their findings include:
  • Almost half (47%) of social media users engage in customer service activities through these networks. And of that 47%,
  • Seventy percent (70%), do so on a monthly basis.
  • Thirty percent (30%) prefer social care over contacting a company by phone.
  • Facebook, through both the company's page and the user's personal page (29% and 28% respectively), are where users are most likely to comment or ask a question.

If your business has an existing presence on social media and is looking for a competitive edge, or just to improve your relationship with your followers, taking on social care may be something to consider.  However, it does require commitment.  Here are some tips I've come across for using social media as a customer service channel.
  • Be proactive. Listen and participate in conversations. You can learn so much from simply listening to what your customers, or the public, are saying on social media.  If a conversation is happening and you can add to it, do so.  Through active listening, you'll be ahead of the curve in knowing what's important or of concern to them.
  • Focus on social interaction as a competitive differentiator. One reason the buy local movement is popular is because consumers like to know the person(s) from whom they're buying.  You can bring the same focus on relationships to your online interactions with consumers.  When you're separated from individuals by a computer screen it's easy to put off replying until a more convenient time or to send short, clipped responses. However, by being personal and personable, you can build trusting relationships with your customers and followers that they will appreciate and value. 
    "When executing social media customer care, canned responses are unacceptable. Responses must be personal, and it’s essential to strike the right tone." (Source)
    Additionally, if consumers see inconsistency in your social care, they'll know that you're not committed to them.  A study by Conversocial, found that 88% of respondents said that they would be less likely to do business with someone who didn't answer questions on their social media pages.  This leads us to the next tip...

  • Define a process and framework for dealing with customers. How, and when, will you respond to requests?  What's your strategy for dealing with complaints? Creating a response map (see example below) may be useful, as you'll want to have a consistent response strategy for everything that comes your way, even praise.   With some aspects of your response strategy, such as response time, it may make sense to make this known upfront to your customers with short notices on your social media page, or through an automatic reply.
    When complaints are involved, be sure these points are addressed in your response framework:
    • Understand what's behind the complaint before responding.  Sometimes, the complaint made is just the tip of the iceberg, and the real issue lies deeper.  Ask the complainant clarifying questions as appropriate if you suspect this is the case.
    • Follow through on all channels.  If a conversation moves from one channel to another, say from Facebook to email, make sure you indicate that this has taken place.  This will allow others who have seen the start of a conversation know that you are in contact with the original poster.  You may also want to post the final resolution, or answer, on the original channel for others to see and for the complainant to verify that they have been assisted.
    • Follow up after problems have been solved.  Once you have provided a solution or rectified the situation, follow up after a reasonable length of time to ensure your customer's satisfaction.
It is possible to provide excellent customer service using social tools, just check out this customer's experience with Netflix

"If you’re not engaging customers during the entire product life cycle through social media, you’re missing out. Because someone else will."
                   - Dennis Stoutenburgh, co-founder of Stratus Contact Solutions

Note: Where businesses or trade-names are mentioned, no endorsement is intended.