Dealer-run combine clinics should promote preventative maintenance to help keep growers productive in the field during harvest.

Keeping farm customers productive and efficient is the goal of every farm equipment dealer. This is particularly true during harvest time. Unfortunately, not all customers are looking far ahead when it comes to getting their equipment ready. A lot of times this is particularly true when it comes to combines. But, you can help them prepare by hosting a combine clinic focused on maintenance and harvest preparation.

A well-maintained machine is good for the grower, because in the long run it adds value to the trades and prevents down time during harvest, says Jeff Swartz, store manager of Grossenburg Implement in Pierre, S.D. “Every year we have to try and pass new technology onto customers. We’ve got to try to educate them and get them to maintain their machines for optimum performance and efficiency. A well maintained machine means more value to customers when traded into dealers,” he says.

Marion Calmer, president of Calmer Corner heads who has been putting clinics on for 16 years, says clinics give customers the chance to learn more about the equipment up close, and they get the opportunity to visit with fellow farmers to get their input on the equipment. This opportunity can easily translate into sales, he says.

“Customers want to see the equipment first-hand and visit with other farmers using it. With both corn heads and parts, I estimate that 25% of our annual sales can be traced back to our 3 winter seminars. Someone calls up, says thinking about buying heads,” Calmer says. “They’re going to narrow rows or want a trash reduction kit. We say, ‘We’ve got a great opportunity for you, we’re having 3 seminars, we’ll send personal invite and hope you can attend.’ Ninety percent of time, they say great. Customers drive 6-8 hours to attend, and that’s just impressive.”

Dealer Takeaways

• Give your clinics a clear focus relating to current field conditions, changing it up from year-to-year to keep customers coming back.

• Keep it small. With a group of 20-40 you’ll be able to give each customer personal attention and ensure all their questions are answered.

• If your customers have experiences to share, let them talk.

• Time the event ahead of harvest to get customers thinking about maintenance now, rather than when they are broken down in the field.

Calmer relates an experience he recently had with his local Case IH dealership. “My salesman sent me a text saying, ‘We’re thinking about having a planter monitor seminar. Want to come to? I texted back, ‘hell yes I do.’ If it comes as invite that way, yes I’m very interested. It’s OK with a printed invite, but I wouldn’t have paid as much attention as I did with the personal touch I got from dealer,” he says.

Find a Focus

Having a clear focus for the event is essential, and if you’re hosting a clinic on a yearly basis Jeff Bloom, owner of Lake County International in Madison, S.D., recommends altering the content each year to keep the clinics fresh and to encourage customers to come back. “We change the focus every year because we tend to get the same people back every year — or our whole customer base and they love these clinics — so we try to mix it up.”

Beyond keeping the content fresh, he says to pick a focus that is pertinent to the year. Last year, Lake County International focused its combine clinic on crop conditions, a topic that came out of the drought of 2012. Bloom says they keep an eye on conditions and may change or alter the topic they plan to present as late as two weeks before the clinic.

Crop conditions can really dictate the focus of dealers’ clinics. One dealer recommends concentrating on 3-5 problems from the previous year’s harvest.

Witmers Inc. is also sure to present something new to its customers. “Show them something new that sets your clinic apart from everyone else and be passionate about it. Just blow them out of the water,” says Scott Highfield, sales manager at Witmers Inc., an AGCO dealer in Columbiana, Ohio.

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Dan Renaud, Case IH combine product specialist, says you need to focus on teaching the customers why the combine was designed the way it was and how they can capitalize on that through adjustments that maximize productivity. “With any machine the adjustments are not the same. If they were the same, you would be able to just do an easy write-up that says if it does this, then do that,” he says.

“The other problem you have is genetics have changed dramatically in the last 10-15 years, conditions are different from field to field and you have to understand what the machine is doing. It’s handling the crop based on its make up. The more that farmers understand why the machine was designed the way it is, the better they can make adjustments and get the most out of it as they can,” explains Renaud.

To help illustrate this point, Renaud will show attendees how the crop flows through the machine. “I talk about what should happen as we go through the process so they understand what should happen at each of those points. Then we talk about things that affect performance, adjustments, parts, ware related items, machine adjustments, etc. Then the next step of actual crop adjustments is discussed,” he says.

Attention to Headers

In addition to discussing the combine itself, Lake County International has also begun to dedicate more time to headers. “We have found that there’s a pent up demand. Everybody’s got two headers where we are — a corn head and a bean head or a flex head — and for years I think we didn’t focus on them nearly as much as we should have,” Bloom says. “There’s a lot of dollars to be made in rebuilding corn heads and bean heads. So we have made that our focus the last 4 or 5 years — to really go after more head business.”

Barry Nelson from John Deere also emphasizes that dealers should give attention to header adjustments as well as the entire machine. It’s important to go through the settings for corn heads, flex platforms, and the newer flex draper platforms to make sure the crop will be processed and distributed evenly in to the feeder house and separator. For example during the 2012 drought, different settings were necessary to accommodate the thinner/smaller crops, he explains.

Hiawatha Implement spends a portion of the 45-minute walk around as well as classroom time focusing on headers. “In the classroom and out in the shop during the walk around we show them how to change from corn to beans during harvest along with the display inside the cab, what exactly to change for harvest settings,” says Nicholas Blevins, Hiawatha’s AMS consultant and integrated solutions manager.

While Swartz admits customers should be giving greater attention to headers, he agrees it’s an important area of focus. “You need to look at that header because that’s where a lot of problems with combines develop with feeding and not feeding right. It develops at the front of the machine where the header is. We don’t focus enough on that. We will talk about them sometimes, but it’s one thing we do over look sometimes,” he says.

Witmers spends 60% of the clinic discussing the combine itself and then 40% on headers, dividing the time between corn heads and grain heads. “We will show how our headers differ from the competition’s and some of the new things that we do that nobody else does. Like with the Gleaner draper header, we were the first one out there really innovating that,” Highfield says. “Then last year we added the Gerringhoff head line so that was new for everybody in this area.”

For draper heads, Witmers focuses primarily on flex, grain loss and feeding — areas that produce the most questions from customers, Highfield says. On the corn heads, the focus is given to maintenance, serviceability and residue management.

It’s important to give some attention to the cutting portions and the gathering chains on the headers. These are the areas that will ensure the header is feeding correctly and there’s a steady flow.

In 2012 Witmers Inc., in Columbiana, Ohio, added Gerringhoff headers to its lineup. The dealership used its combine clinic as an opportunity to introduce the new product to customers. Photo courtesy of Witmers Inc.

Straub International also divides up its focus during its clinics. The group is divided into two sessions — the first focuses on the combine and the second is split between draper heads and corn heads. “If it doesn’t come in the combine, then it doesn’t matter. I don’t know how many times personally that I’ve been in the field where we can’t get the crop to feed in nice and smoothly into the header. Then the combine productivity is hampered because it’s not coming in even and at the same rate. You have to work from front to back to make the combine work as best you can,” Randy Veatch, vice president of sales, says.

Let Customers Talk

“From the dealer point of view, if you’re starting to sell draper heads show a few pictures and then introduce a few farmers using it. Let them stand up and tell their experiences. As rough as it may be — they’re not public speakers, but another farmer’s testimonial is priceless,” Calmer suggests.

He says this could be hard for single store dealerships since neighbors might be hesitant about talking in front of each other. However, for multi-store dealers Calmer suggests inviting a customer from one of the other store locations. “It eliminates the ‘neighbor’ problem, and brings in the expert thing, because he’s more than 50 miles from home. Customers can see in first 2 minutes that he’s a genuine farmer and will ask a lot of questions,” he says.

Nelson also recommends that dealers host after-season clinics and/or service programs with their customers to get some feedback on how the season went. “Bring customers in while the topic is still on their mind. Ask them about any issues they ran into during harvest. This is also the ideal time to offer your off-season service specials to recondition and service the combines and headers.” The information gathered at an event like this will help dealers plan for the following year’s combine clinic and focus the content on problems customers experienced first hand.

Personal Attention is Key

In addition to the product specialists from the manufacturer, it’s important to include dealership staff in the clinic. After all, they are the face of the dealership. Witmers makes sure the entire staff is introduced, whether they’re present or not. “We’ll introduce our owners and our sales team. We’ll also introduce our finance people, our parts people and all our service people. We try to have our service people in the class to help answer the questions from the customers,” Highland says. “If they can’t be there because we can’t shut the business down when we do this, we’ll have their photos on a slide presentation.”

Dealers can use a classroom setting to go through some of the more intricate aspects of the combine, especially technology updates. It’s also a good opportunity to provide fact sheets and quick reference guides. Photo courtesy of AGCO

Highfield says they like to keep attendance around 20-30 people, as the smaller group allows for more personal attention. “One thing we do as the dealer is try to speak to everyone one-on-one, so everyone gets the personal attention. That’s why we like the 20-30 head count,” he says.

Swartz on the other hand feels that a little larger group is manageable and usually has 30-40 in his clinics. But he says it still allows for more personal attention, and he’s able to keep the attention of the group. “It can be hard to get everyone’s questions answered in a larger group,” he says.

Calmer, who both hosts and attends clinics, says 30-40 customers is the perfect size for an event like this. “They feel relaxed enough to interact. That’s when you really connect,” he says. “If customers have fun during a seminar, it’ll come through with sale or they will tell a neighbor.”

Before & After

Giving the customers that personal attention should start before the event and continue on after it as well. Bloom says personal invitations, along with follow up phone calls, are key to getting customers to the clinic. “You need to send them the direct mail piece to invite them and then you need to follow up with a phone call to get them there,” he says.

That same approach needs to be taken after the clinic, too. Bloom recommends sending out another direct mail piece following the event thanking customers for attending and following that up with another phone call. This type of approach has helped Lake County International learn who its customers are and keep track of them.

“It’s that personal contact and knowing who your customers are. I think it’s been invaluable that we have identified 150 combines in our trade area and we know what’s happening with each of them every year,” Bloom says. “Either they’re trading them, they’re fixing them in our shop or they’re fixing them themselves on their farm. And there are those that do very little maintenance. After we’ve found out who those customers are that don’t come to us for their service needs, we don’t give them as much attention. It’s just the nature of the way they are. They want to buy a combine and run it until it falls apart. But at least we know who they are and how they act in the marketplace. We know our customers.”

Harvest on the Mind

While dealers have varying opinions on what the absolute best time to host their combine clinic is, they do agree that it needs to be timed around planting season and harvest. “For the most part you try to find off peak season when the farmers aren’t in the field and aren’t distracted by as many activities,” says Veatch.

For Witmers, March is the ideal time. “Winter is almost over and it’s too early to get in the field. Farmers are starting to get anxious about the upcoming season and are eager to do something, so they are willing to come,” says Highfield.

There is one downside to hosting in the winter, according to Swartz, who also hosts his clinic in the winter months. The weather can have a big impact on turn out. “You might set a date a month in advance and then get a blizzard and attendance can be hit or miss.”

At Lake County International, they like to bring customers in for combine clinics in the summer after planting is done. “We try to kick the clinic off in mid-July, pull some business ahead and get these guys thinking about the immediacy of getting their combine in and done because we’re harvesting a week either side of the first of October where we are,” explains Bloom.

Renaud says timing is everything and the best time is pre-harvest. While that will vary from region to region and from crop to crop, he says hosting the clinic ahead of harvest is most beneficial for the farmer and the dealer alike. “It benefits the customer but also takes a lot of pressure off of dealer. Everyone is happier, there’s a lot less stress on both,” he says.

“I like focusing on clinics before season of use. It doesn’t do us any good to have it a week before harvest because you cant take advantage of tune up,” Renaud says. “Give the customers time to accept what we’ve told them and investigate for themselves. Really it’s a bell ringer; it’s a reminder that harvest is coming and the question is are you ready. It gives the dealership time to react because if all of a sudden you get 20 requests in two weeks, there’s no way he’ll be able to do anything if you’re only a couple weeks out from harvest.”

As a farmer himself, Calmer points out an important detail: farmers procrastinate, particularly coming into harvest. Planning a combine clinic enough ahead of harvest will encourage farmers to get their combine in for service sooner. “The last four weeks coming into harvest, you don’t have enough manpower to get everything done,” he says regarding servicing the equipment.

Hiawatha Implement has found early August to be the ideal timing for its combine clinics. “It’s right before the harvest and is fresh in their minds,” says owner Larry Roeder.

The biggest key to timing your combine clinic, dealers say, is to make sure that it is done well in advance of the combines going into the field. The idea of the event is to give more than just a fancy sales pitch, but to also preach the benefits of maintenance and encourage your customers to get their combines in for service to prevent breakdowns in the field. Lake County International’s combine clinic jump-starts a busy period. “It seems once we kick off our combine clinic, from that point on we’re busy selling combine parts, selling combine service.”

Calmer warns to make sure the event is more than just one big sales pitch. “Dealerships suffer from self-serving events that feel like a sales pitch. Our is 90% education, 10% sales. I’m convinced I sell more this way than if I devoted 50% of the day to selling,” he says.

While sales and business are motivating factors to hosting a combine clinic, dealers are there to keep the farmers in the field and combine clinics are a great way to do that. “The harvest window is small, so we don’t want things to break down, we want to keep them going in the field. That’s their bread and butter for the year, so we want to help that go as smooth as we can for them,” Swartz says.