An effective, efficient sales force can make all the difference in a volatile, risky marketplace. As agriculture’s economic risks have increased over the past five years, large seed and chemical manufacturers have realized their sales forces have needed to change to accommodate the more complex needs of its dealer and farmer customers.
The motivation for each company’s restructuring of their training programs vary, but the outcome is similar. Each company has deepened its connection with its customers and enhanced its sales force.
About three years ago, Pioneer Hi-Bred noticed that its sales structure was more successful in Europe and around the world than in the United States. Outside the U.S., sales training was more personal and tailored more specifically to the customer. Inside the U.S., the sales approach was more broad. When sales outside the U.S. began to show significant results at the same time that U.S. sales were struggling, Pioneer realized it needed to shift its approach within the U.S.
“Pioneer shifted its training for U.S. sales representatives as a result of the success of more personalized service outside this country,” said Todd Frazier, business director for Iowa and Missouri, Pioneer. “Pioneer developed the Right Product, Right Acre philosophy, and we shifted our training to teach our sales reps how to individualize their service for the customers’ specific needs.”
To accommodate its shift in philosophy, Pioneer realized it was going to need a significant number of employees to effectively cover its territory, Frazier said.
“Pioneer split its North America sales areas into many more sales districts, and we’re still evaluating areas and making new ones,” Frazier said. “From 2009 to 2010, Pioneer went from having 38 sales areas to 43. For example, Iowa now has five sales areas, where just a year ago it had four.”
That kind of shift required the company to hire additional sales reps in order to make the new strategy effective. Frazier said that Pioneer had more than doubled its field support since 2007, when the company began to shift its priorities.
“With the shift in strategy, we really began examining, and still do, what the right number of sales reps are for the county we serve,” Frazier said. “We’re still evaluating what the needs are of our customers so that we can respond with the right number of sales reps to provide individualized service.”
With all of the additional sales support needed to accomplish its new goals, the company realized it was going to need better training for its employees.
“Sales staff now do monthly in-field training sessions in season,” Frazier said. “In addition, they are trained year-round on agronomy and our services in workshops and online training. Additional training includes logistics, bulk seed, crop insurance or other precision farming tools, depending on the needs of the territory they serve. Our goal is to have our employees be well-rounded in all the services we offer.”
Gaining Expertise From the Start
Pioneer isn’t alone in ramping up its sales force. Dow AgroSciences also foresaw the need for more trained sales people and has made a significant investment in adding to the sales force and support in the field.
To compete globally and nationally, Dow AgroSciences realized it needed to raise the bar on its training, said Ben Kaehler, general manager for the Dow AgroSciences Seed Affiliates. He said the company chose to focus on training at the summer intern level.
“Some companies hire employees after a day-long interview process,” Kaehler said. “But with an intern, we have 90 days to evaluate an employee. That system works so well that a large percentage of our employees come from the internship program.”
The benefits of enhancing training at an earlier level, Kaehler said, helped the company to better recruit and hire more diligent sales people into the company.
Another way Dow AgroSciences has helped differentiate its sales force is that it keeps its new recruits together through its training program. “We keep the employees in the same groups throughout their training when they first start with the company, whether they are college graduates or seasoned veterans,” Kaehler said. “This allows them to foster a team atmosphere and to benefit from their shared and individual expertise.”
Redefining The Marketplace
Bayer CropScience has ramped up its sales force 20 percent in the last few years, similar to other seed and chemical companies.
“The problem all seed and chemical companies are facing, which will impact their decision to hire more sales or not in the future, is the devaluation of glyphosate prices,” said Jim DeLong, vice president of Commercial Operations, Bayer CropScience. “There aren’t going to be as many active ingredients coming on the market in the next five to 15 years. The products already in the market will eventually decrease in cost over time. So, the way for these large companies to survive and gain market share is through hard work and enhanced services and that personal connection. Competing will no longer be about who has the better mouse trap; it’ll be who goes the extra mile for the customer and becomes a partner in their business.”
In order to meet that challenge, Bayer has focused its strategy on improving the talents, skills and experience of the staff they have now.
“The company has spent a quarter of a million dollars developing a new training and development program for our employees,” DeLong said. “It’s a huge investment in our people.”
Building on the company’s corporate-wide training and development program, it enhanced its sales training in 2006-07. “To develop our curriculum, I hired a full-time trainer who had years of experience working for the U.S. Department of Agriculture,” said DeLong. “He helped develop training modules and simulations.”
“This level of training shows that we care about our employees as a company and as an individual,” DeLong said. “This is Bayer putting its money where its mouth is.”
Focusing on Quality Not Quantity
Syngenta has focused on enhancing the knowledge, skills and training of its current sales force while developing a more effective process of on-boarding new employees to the field organization.
Grant MacDonald, head of the developmental sales representative program, Syngenta, pointed to the same factors as DeLong, indicating that Syngenta also faces the challenge of growing market share in a marketplace that will have fewer new product introductions, as well as products that may come off-label soon.
So, instead of investing in more sales reps, Syngenta has invested in more training for its sales reps. That investment decision has been driven by three other factors.
The first and most important driver, MacDonald said, was the opportunity to attack in season opportunities and offer customers help. Having extra trained people allows Syngenta to get boots on the ground when there’s an outbreak of disease or dealers are stretched too thin during peak times of the year.
Another driver is bringing creativity and innovation to the business so that Syngenta doesn’t have to limit itself to hiring people with only an ag background. Finding employees with the desire and drive to succeed in helping customers cannot be taught, but agronomy and crop knowledge can, MacDonald said.
The Baby Boomer generation will be retiring soon, and the need to replace the people and retain the knowledge capital that eventually will leave was also a significant consideration for training more employees to fill the shoes of long-term employees, MacDonald said.
To meet those drivers, Syngenta developed its Developmental Sales Representative program, which provides new field sales employees hands-on experience through a network of business-driven projects. Training encompasses customer relations, distribution channel, agronomy and crop experience, application methods and direct experience with a retailer.
“Although salesforce numbers have remained stable, on average, I have about 12 Developmental Sales Representatives in training waiting for territories to open,” MacDonald said. “With a sales force of about 275 sales reps, that’s about 4.5 percent.”
He said the company hires 10 to 15 DSRs per year who go through a structured 12- to 18-month program.