Within dealerships, some of the most impactful, and often toughest decisions come on the hiring side. This is especially true when hunting for precision talent.
Experience, personality, ambition and confidence are sought after qualities, but rarely do new hires come equipped with everything an employer wants — nor should they.;
There is no perfect employee. But there should be a continuous pursuit of excellence and improvement — shared by both employer and employee. Visiting with several precision farming managers in recent months, they’ve lamented the dearth of quality specialists and expressed frustration over their inability to advance their business in the face of turnover.
Says one precision manager, “Everyone wants the rock star right away, but inevitably, you are going to start with rookies who need to be trained and developed.”
Finding and retaining precision farming talent has long been a challenge for equipment dealers, with many looking to expand or evolve the scope of their business.;
Proper onboarding, providing opportunities for relevant — yet diverse experience — and offering a clear path for advancement are keys to keeping a precision team intact.
Have a Plan
Having the best employees can make a huge difference with forging positive long-term relationships with both current and potential customers. So how does a precision dealer go about training and retaining great talent?
For Heather Hardy, precision farming coordinator with H&R Agri-Power, an 18-store Case IH dealership it starts with setting expectations for new hires.
Precision Hiring on the Upswing
Dealers have pumped the breaks on hiring plans in recent years, but plan to be more aggressive in adding precision specialists during the coming year.
According to Ag Equipment Intelligence’s 2019 Dealer Business Outlook & Trends report, about 18% of U.S. dealers are forecasting an increase in precision specialist hiring, a 6% increase over 2018.
The report, which tracks hiring and revenue projections for the coming year, reveals that dealers for 4 of the 5 major ag equipment manufacturers forecast at least 10% growth in precision farming hires in 2019.
Nearly one quarter of Case IH dealers project precision staff additions in 2019, nearly double the forecast for this year. New Holland is also forecasting significant growth, with 19% of dealers planning additional precision hires, nearly five times the percentage in 2018.
AGCO dealers plan to remain consistent with precision hiring, year-over-year, at about 16%, while 10% of Kubota dealers forecast additional precision hires in 2019. The biggest shift is John Deere dealers, with only about 1% projecting additional hires next year, compared to more than 24% in 2018, the top percentage among the five major ag manufacturers.
These are encouraging forecasts, but fulfilling them is predicated on dealers being able to actually fill current vacancies or new job opportunities with talented individuals. Part of the responsibility will fall on those employees who can lead by example with passion and professionalism.
“The worst thing that can happen is if a new employee show up on day one and no one knows what to do with them,” she says “We try to consistently train our people so they all have the same basic concepts to do their job well, even if they’re located in very different markets. I’ve created an onboarding checklist, which can be used by a store manager or me. Having that defined method for onboarding and training makes sure that the small details don’t get forgotten.”
She says the industry needs to do a better job of not creating unrealistic expectations, especially with regards to the hours precision managers expect people to put in and the effort that they expect them to give. At the same time, Hardy says there’s a lot of reassurance to college students that they’re not going to be the perfect precision specialist on day one, “but we expect you to work hard.”
“Sometimes, in this business, we set ourselves up with the unrealistic expectation that we just punch buttons and play with our cell phones and we’re not doing real work — that the troubleshooting is left to the service department,” she says. “There’s going to be some long days, and I think we have to set that precedence on day one, or we lead that new hire down a path that ultimately leads to their unhappiness.”
Having a defined onboarding process can forge trust between the manager and employee right away, and also define the role and initial responsibilities of a new precision specialist. Joe Sinkula, Integrated Solutions manager with Riesterer & Schnell, a 14-location John Deere dealer in Wisconsin, sets incremental objectives for new hires.
“Callout Everyone wants the rock star right away, but inevitably, you are going to start with rookies who need to be trained and developed…”
He treats on-boarding as a two-season process. “I’m not working in a call center where every 5 minutes, I get a new opportunity to redo everything I’ve done wrong. We’re working in experience where basically you have once a year,” he says.
He breaks on-boarding down into 5 areas: pre-work, first day, first week, first 2 months and ongoing. During the first week, he provide as much detail as possible. With a recent hire, Sinkula identified a mentor that wasn’t part of the department to help answer questions. In this case, it was someone from the sales department.
The mentor served as a source for questions on company policy and was in the new employee’s local store. “I’m spread out, with a bunch of guys. I don’t have time to necessarily be with each of them every day. So, I want our new hire to have that resource so he’s not calling me every time he has an internal question,” he says.
Tap Into a Talent Pipeline
Kenny Pekarek, precision sales manager with Nebraska Equipment a single-store Case IH dealership in Seward, Neb., helped launch and implement a precision-specific internship program in 2018.
The goal was two-fold: to provide hands-on experience for a local college student interested in pursuing a precision career and also tap into a pipeline of precision talent. Pekarek says the dealership has a longstanding internship program within its service department, which has served it well with developing new techs, but only recently replicated the program on the precision side.
Cross-training within an equipment dealership to equip service techs, salespeople and event parts employees to handle routine technology troubleshooting can ease the seasonal burden on precision employees.
It’s been a learning process on both sides, and Pekarek notes that one of the early takeaways has been to be up front with interns to avoid confusion. “One thing we found out the first year was to be careful when putting an intern into a customer conversation. That intern is green and even if he doesn’t know what’s going on, he might act like he does because he’s embarrassed or scared of disappointing the dealership or customer,” he says.
Supervisors need to be clear with interns that if they don’t know the answer to question, find someone who does. Pekarek says planting seeds of opportunity can start in high school or even earlier, especially if students have an interest and aptitude for technology troubleshooting.
Pekarek recalls attending a recent demonstration of the new Case IH 340 Magnum Rowtrac tractor with a new AFS Pro 1200 display. “I took the tractor to some good friends of mine and I showed one of the kids who was 21 or 22, how to run the display. I checked back in an hour and he knew how to run it better than almost anyone I’ve seen,” he says. “It’s a similar setup to the Pro 700, which he was used to, but he still just hopped in and took the initiative to start poking around and figured it out, which was impressive.”
Turnover remains a challenge for many precision departments, with a major culprit being rapid burnout.
Cross-training within an equipment dealership to equip service techs, salespeople and event parts employees to handle routine technology troubleshooting can ease the seasonal burden on precision employees. Hardy says it’s still a work in progress, but trending in the right direction.
“Sometimes, we set ourselves up with the unrealistic expectation that we just punch buttons and play with our cell phones and we’re not doing real work — that the troubleshooting is left to the service department…”
“I’ve seen a progression where jobs or phone calls that normally would’ve gone to my precision specialists have transitioned to a salesperson or the service department,” she says. “Ultimately, that will help with our burnout because we’re going to spread that work load out. We’re not quite there yet, but it’s something we can all work on and continue to improve on.”
McCullough Implement, a single-store AGCO dealership in Watseka, Ill., is less formal with its onboarding, but out of necessity, has employees wear several hats, making cross-training essential.
“We don’t have any training requirements for employees prior to them being hired. Everybody who’s starting a career as a mechanic or technician is going to have some idea of what GPS is, just based on the technology we have in our phones and cars today,” says P.J. McCullough, precision sales manager. “Once employees are hired, we do a walkthrough on an installation. There’s the saying, ‘See one, do one, teach one,’ so after someone helps them do one project, they should be able to do the next on their own and then be able to teach it to someone else.
“I don’t know if it ever works that quickly, but we do our training along that mentality.”
The ultimate responsibility is on the manager to proactively prevent burnout among their precision team, particularly when it comes to millennial employees.
“That’s a perfect opportunity for a manager to gauge their stress level and emotional and mental state. That manager has to step in and say, ‘Hey, take Friday off, take a 3-day weekend,’” Hardy says. “I’ve seen professionals talk about taking a mental health holiday and I think we’ve got to create some awareness with managers that precision specialists need mental health breaks.”
Precision ag recruiter and consultant T.J. Stauffer says he’s seeing more “reverse mentoring” situations where new precision hires bring an advanced understanding of technology to the dealership and educate older generation managers in different departments.
“I am a huge fan of having a peer level precision department,” Stauffer says. “I am anti being the lone ranger because that’s a recipe for failure. A peer level department doesn’t just collaborate with sales and service, but the service and sales departments also have shared responsibilities under the precision farming department.
“Precision farming touches every part of the equipment your dealership sells, so it should touch every part of your organization.”
In addition to structure, training and support, precision specialists also need progression. A challenge for many dealers is to provide opportunities for advancement or growth within a precision business.
“When we lose our veteran precision farming people, those 5 year Jedis, it’s almost always because of a lack of progression,” Stauffer says. “We have lost some of our best people because they felt they had no future in this business.”
But it’s not all about the money, he says. It’s about understanding there are steps in the path where precision specialists will grow in their level of expertise, be given more responsibilities, diversify and be cultivated as leaders.
“If you are an equipment dealer, can your precision farming specialist one day be a general manager?” asks Stauffer. “Can they get there from where they are now? Have you created a path, where just like a salesperson or a service manager, that precision manager can become a store manager?”
10 Training & Retention Tips to Maintain Precision Depth & Stability
The average employment lifecycle for a precision specialist is often only about 18 months — sometimes less. Dealers have to balance their ability to invest time and resources into developing talent, with meeting the day-to-day demands of the job.
Says one equipment dealer, “In my 50-plus years in the agricultural and construction equipment business hiring and keeping good employees has always been difficult. The difference I see with precision farming employees is that most of them have skills that can easily transfer to other tech areas that may offer more regular hours and more comfortable
“That’s why there is truth to the saying ‘Make your dealership the place most people find desirable to work and you can keep help.’”
So what are the most effective methods for maintaining productive, profitable employees? Our editors compiled these 10 experience-based bits of advice from North American dealers of all sizes and brands on how to develop a stable, successful and loyal precision farming staff.
- Reward your employees. This one is two-fold. Compliment them for quality work, and reward them financially, either directly or indirectly. Bonuses are nice, but taking the team out for an event like go carting or an escape room is really appreciated as well.
- A successful internship program can be extremely beneficial. Keep those relationships with the big ag colleges in your area. We actually have one of our employees who graduated from Purdue who has been asked to come back and speak to some of their agronomy and agricultural systems management (ASM) students. It was a great relationship-building opportunity that will secure us a very good pipeline of talent to come.
- Have new precision specialists ride along with experienced members of the team. This gives them real world experience and we are able to help them succeed by giving them examples. We also have new specialists ride along with the sales teams at their stores. When they spend time with their sales team, they learn a lot more about the sales process and developing relationships than just sitting in a weekly meeting.
- Be sure to give them tools to get out of a jam when needed. We use Slack, a real-time messaging app, and we are able to send a message to everyone on the team if we run into a problem. Everyone sees the issue and if they know the answer they can send the answer back. That helps everyone feel more comfortable to share their issues because they see all the questions that are asked by everyone, including the leaders in the group.
- One tactic that has worked for us is we’re pretty open with our books. If our specialists see a lot of money coming in they might think, ‘Hey, what’s going on? Why don’t you give me some of that?’ So I show them and I break it down for the whole company — here is our P&L. I break it down per-employee, so that way I say, ‘Your first year, we lost this much.’ They are more apt to stick around to help pay back some of that investment we’ve made in them.
- We hired 3 new employees right out of college and we’re asking ourselves — how are we going to keep them for 2, 3 or 5 years? You need to understand that the first year, you’ll lose a lot of money on them. The second year, you’ll break even. The third year is when it starts to make sense. We’re trying to figure out how we get them to 5 or 6 years and a lot of it is a ton of training. We have to spend a ton of time with them. We’re working through that right now.
- Employees have to be willing to learn and willing to be coachable. We do a lot of things, even on the hiring side, that weed out some people that we know won’t be good fits. I try to find certain personalities, but it’s not always easy. As we’ve grown, we’ve found two or three people who had already been working somewhere else that had some bad experiences so when they came into our environment, and I think they’ll stay for a long time. It’s the newer, sometimes younger employees who have never worked anywhere else, that don’t know how bad or rough it could be or how good they have it. Those are the ones we’re worried about.
- Diversify responsibilities and give new hires a taste of different departments — sales, service and maybe even parts. But wrap this around their education and development as a precision specialist. If they understand what everyone else at the dealership does, and others know what they do, that will avoid confusion and help everyone know where they should go for not just answers, but the right answers.
- From an income standpoint, you need to account for your investment of time vs. what you will get in return in the short- and long-term. We give our specialists a base salary with a lot of commission — the more they sell, the more they make. So, how hungry are they to go make more money? That has helped us with retention and not lose them to competitors offering another $2,000 a year.
- When I first started working for a farm equipment dealer, I knew very little about the business. The dealer provided me with several mentors who worked in different areas of the business. They were talented people willing to share their knowledge with me. Be willing to provide this type of dynamic to new employees and especially younger ones.
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