Farmers in central Illinois had a good harvest in 2010. By early November, the corn and soybeans were in the grain elevators and farmers were already starting to think about 2011 planting.

That was good news for farmers, but presented certain problems for the service departments at Birkey’s Farm Stores. Mike Carley, general manager of the company’s Gibson City store, explains that in 2009, a drawn-out harvest season helped keep the service department busy through December.

“We did a little business in October, a little business in November and a little businesses in December,” he says. “We had January and February where we had to keep our shop full, but pretty soon, winter was over and we started working on tractors and planters.”

But with the 2010 harvest essentially over by October, the task of keeping the service department and technicians humming — as well as meeting monthly budget numbers — was a challenge.

“It’s a little tougher to try to get farmers to bring their stuff in when there’s snow on the ground,” says Carley. “They just won’t do it. We had to think ahead about how we were going to pack the shop.”

Carley brainstormed with Rich Anstrom, service manager and Cassie Kripel, service writer, and came up with the idea of putting new marketing efforts into the already existing Customized Maintenance Inspection (CMI) program.

Farmers who sign up for the CMI program bring in tractors and/or combines for scheduled inspections by Birkey’s technicians during the offseason. Incentives include free hauling and service calls and a 10% discount on labor rates. Birkey’s touts the program for improving machine reliability and extending service life by flagging parts for replacement before they fail.

For 2010, the Gibson City staff decided to sweeten the deal with chances to win prizes. In Birkey’s CMI Giveaway, farmers who sign up a tractor for the program get a ticket in a raffle. Those who sign up a combine get 2 tickets. Prizes include a large flat-screen TV, a Case IH fire pit, tools and Birkey’s monogrammed apparel.

Farmers had to sign up by December 31, 2010 to qualify for a January 4, 2011 drawing. Birkey’s board liked the idea so much that they extended it to all 11 locations. Four-color brochures were printed to help spread the word and store employees competed to see who could come up with the most eye-catching display for the contest.

This was fun for the employees and farmers who participated, of course, but more importantly, it gave Kripel and other service writers added selling points for the program, and resulted in significantly higher signups. That helped fill the appointment books for the Service Department during those potentially slow winter months — making Birkey’s the biggest winner in its own contest.