The following article is based on Scott Downey's presentation at the 2019 Dealership Minds Summit. To watch the presentation, click here.

Gone are the days of selling equipment purely on the basis of the capabilities of the product, says Scott Downey, a professor in the department of Agricultural Economics at Purdue University. 

One hundred years ago, at the dawn of the Industrial Age, he explains that buying and selling decisions were made on having a product that simply worked for the given task. Downey refers to this as the “product era.” 

Today, that’s changed. A plethora of products are available to accomplish any given farm task, and the goal of sales managers must be to relate the value of the equipment to the things a customer cares about. 

“What works today, and can drive buying decisions, is the biggest shift in any marketing function we know of in recent history,” says Downey. “Instead of presenting products, handling objections and closing, the most important things are building trust, asking questions, selecting the right value and being able to help buyers make decisions. These factors actually have influence in the buying process.” 

Learning from the Past

The sales approach with today’s customers has evolved, but lessons can be learned from those who came before and refined the process. After the initial product era faded, the post-World War II time brought the ability for farmers to compare similar products and choose the best one for their specific need. The options had grown.  

“What does your clients’ money and time go toward? I can say what my goals are all day long, and those are wishes. Where I put my resources, however, is really what drives it...”

Downey says this is the generation that began to think of sales as a human process that could be improved upon and defined in steps. The competitive environment was thriving, and buyers began to expect they could get whatever they wanted, whenever they wanted. “That’s the market era,” he notes. 

What do we learn from this? First, that the opening “small talk” is still vital and the way to get to know the client. Today, however, sales’ associates must ask questions. They no longer should be probing for information by bombarding them on the farm, says Downey. 

“Once I get the answers to those questions, if I’m a really good salesperson, I choose which value I can bring and discuss that with the customer, presenting the features and benefits of those products,” he adds. In the product era, the focus was on the product, not the customer. 

In 2013, data became the driver of sales training and the customer-centered approach. Downey gives credit to the current equipment dealers for what they’ve created to make this possible. “The manufacturers you represent and the value propositions you deliver to the marketplace make it really easy for people to measure the inputs to their products,” he says, adding that this can be detailed to the individual plant level.

A New Era – Prediction 

In 2019, we’re in a new era of sales and Downey says customers want others to know what they want before they want it. “I want you to anticipate what I need before I need it, and the machinery many of you represent has the capability to do exactly that,” he explains. 

Today’s era of prediction looks at leveraging information to predict purchasing behaviors. Downey says the challenge for modern sales’ staff is not only to be responsive but anticipate their clients’ needs by understanding their strategy. 

The strategy has also changed over the years, as at one time the difference between a large farm and small farm wasn’t all that great. “They were largely the same, and still had generally one decision maker,” Downey explains. The market era saw that trend shift, but today, consolidation has made farmers very different from each other, and sales can’t be a singular activity any longer. 


Scott Downey, a professor in the department of Agricultural Economics at Purdue University, says over the last 100 years there have been 3 eras of selling: Product Era, Sales Era and Market Driven Era. Each evolution has seen the primary area of focus shift. During the Product and Sales eras, the focus came much later in the sales process. Today, in the Market Driven Era, the focus comes early on in the probing and value selection phases.

“We would adapt customer-by-customer, but the process was the same,” he says. “Today, this means we have to have different capabilities to have conversations with different customers, and understand their strategies may be really different then, too.” 

He explains all strategy is the answer to three questions: Where are we? Where do we want to be? How are we going to use our resources to get there? These resources include time, money, knowledge and people.

“Every one of you thinks of your jobs from that perspective, and every one of your customers makes decisions in these ways,” Downey adds. “They are the basics of human behavior.”

The tricky piece of the puzzle, however, is realizing that humans are not rational, and may not even realize what their own goals are. Salespeople must then look at data, combined with the customer’s behaviors, to understand their business goals and equipment needs. 

“What does your clients’ money and time go toward?” Downey advises sales staff to question. “I can say what my goals are all day long, and those are wishes. Where I put my resources, however, is really what drives it.” 

The Trust Factor

Regardless of the era, trust still reigns valuable. Downey says current research shows that buyers look at four issues to determine if they trust a salesperson: credibility (Are we believable?), reliability (Do we follow through on what we say?), intimacy (Can we be trusted?), and self-orientation (How much does the salesperson think of themselves vs. the customer?)

The most significant, by 60 times, is self-orientation, he says and explains: “The old adage says: ‘Nobody cares how much we know until they know how much we care.’” 

Downey says that caring is focusing on the customer and what they are trying to accomplish with their business, rather than focusing on products and what the salesperson is trying to sell. Sales’ staff should still ask for business, make presentations and communicate a product’s value, but those things are not what drive their purchase power. 

“Your buyers don’t spend $300,000 on a product today because of a salesperson,” this economist explains. “They spent it because they believe it helps them accomplish some goal, rational or irrational. The buyer influences that, not the salesperson and we need to understand what those buyers look like.” 

The sales mindset has changed. The market has changed, but trust, care, value and quality are still important to the equation, perhaps in a different order. 

Downey says the best way to understand a buyer’s goals is to spend time with them without trying to sell them anything. “The best way to do that is to thank them,” he adds. 

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