Ask the man on the street to describe a salesperson and you’re likely to have them paint a prototypical picture of someone who fits the mold of a used car salesman or life insurance agent. “Slick,” “pushy” or “only interested in the sale” are some likely descriptors. But those methods simply will not work in the ag market and don’t come anywhere close to describing Dave Merrill, which helps explain why he’s been CVE’s leading equipment salesperson for the last 3 years running.
While Merrill attributes his achievements to “luck,” his farming background and understanding of what it’s like to be on the other side of the desk play a much more significant role in his success.
Merrill’s interest in farming developed early on in the rural Connecticut ag community where he grew up. While he didn’t grow up on a farm, his family owned some sheep and beef cattle. “As soon as I could ride a bicycle, I worked on different farms,” Merrill recalls. That interest led him to the Univ. of Connecticut where he received a degree in agriculture. After graduation he bought a dairy farm in Virginia where he worked for 7 years before moving the whole operation to Vermont to be closer to family.
Years with Organization: 6 — after roughly 20 years as a dairy farmer.
Role: His philosophy as equipment salesperson (CVE’s top performer) is less about creating the demand for the customer and more about being there when they are ready to buy with the attention and the information they want.
After farming for roughly 20 years, Merrill sold the farm and pursued carpentry, logging and other odd jobs before a fortuitous encounter with CVE’s Derby store general manager, Josh Provost, landed him in his current role.
Merrill had purchased a tractor from CVE that Provost happened to deliver. As Provost recalls it, “Dave saw that we were advertising for a salesperson and showed up the next day wanting more information about the job.”
Hiring Merrill was a turning point for Provost who was looking to split from his partner in the dealership. “I knew that if I was going to stay in this business and get away from all the internal struggles we were going through, I needed a key player here to help me do it,” says Provost.
In addition to being CVE’s top salesman, Merrill also takes on management duties at the Derby store when Provost is away.
Using His Dairy Background
CVE’s Derby location is in the heart of Vermont dairy country, so Merrill’s dairy farming background is invaluable in his everyday dealing with customers. “We’ve got quite a few 1,000-cow dairies locally, which for New England is big,” Merrill says. Additionally, the local area is peppered with smaller organic dairies maintaining 60-80 cows.
After spending 20 years in the business, Merrill knows and understands the habits of the dairy farmers well and he plans his sales outreach accordingly by relying more on setting up appointments rather than simply cold calling, which also means knowing your customers very well.
“With the smaller dairies, you may know that one farmer milks at 6 in the morning while another works later in the day. But with the larger operations, if you don’t have an appointment, you’re not going to find them,” he says. “You might find the milkers or someone working in the shop, but if you don’t have an appointment you will not get time with the owners.”
When out on appointments he may make an unscheduled stop or two to examine a potential trade or prospect if it makes sense with where he’s headed, but as a general rule he doesn’t rely on cold calls. “Everybody in the world will argue with me that I’m wrong,” Merrill says, “but when I was farming, I didn’t like it when sales guys would just stop in. I was busy and if I wanted something, I knew the phone number and I would’ve called them up. I think, more and more the world exists that way.”
Particularly on the ag side of things, it’s a method that’s gained Merrill some fans in his customers. “A lot of guys will say, ‘At least you know what we’re doing or what it is to work 7 days a week milking cows,’” Merrill says. “So the farming background definitely helps with that connection.”
Which is not to say that he’s not attentive. Merrill’s philosophy is less about creating the demand for the customer and more about being there when they are ready to buy with the attention and the information they want. Feed them the information they need and then leave them alone to get back to their work, is his approach.
This consultative style goes hand in hand with Merrill’s focus on trying to make sure the customer is being fitted with the right piece of equipment. With a roughly 50/50 split between consumers and farmers, that’s particularly true of his consumer customers.
Merrill finds that access to online information being what it is, consumers are more apt to have done some homework before coming in and usually has an idea of what they think they need. But, particularly with first-time buyers, it’s critical to have the conversation about what they need to accomplish and get them fitted properly the first time.
“The average Kubota tractor is half sold before the guy comes through the front door,” Merrill says. “But he may only think that’s what he needs because his neighbor has it. But maybe he needs a smaller one, or maybe he needs a bigger one or different implements. I like to have the right fit.
“Sometimes they won’t listen to you and 2 years later they come back to tell you, ‘This is too small, I need a bigger one.’ But I do what I can to have them happy with the first tractor.”
Personal Touch Before & After
Merrill emphasizes that whenever possible he makes a site visit to better understand customer needs and to help them better understand his recommendations. “I’ll typically say, ‘Let me come out and see what your land is like,’ because you really can’t pinpoint what they need without actually seeing it,” Merrill says. With the varied terrain in the Derby area, it’s vital to see it to make sure they’re getting the right equipment, plus it’s an opportunity to strengthen the customer connection and learn whether they have animals or exactly what their plans are for the land.
To complete the buying process, with both his ag and consumer customers, Merrill likes to deliver as much of his own equipment as he possibly can. That may not always be possible, but it’s a particularly valuable touch point on the consumer side. “I like to get the right piece of equipment at the right farm more than just making a kill,” says Merrill.
While his customers are split right down the middle between farmers and consumers, with higher price point of production ag equipment, his dollar volume is definitely weighted toward the farm side. Nonetheless, in terms of the time he spends with customers, it’s pretty much a wash.
While it can be a struggle at times to dedicate the time necessary to sell a $2,000 rotary cutter vs. a $200,000 tractor to a customer, Merrill doesn’t mind taking that time. “There’s a whole lot more people at the small end that buy the lower priced equipment than there are at the top.
“Everybody loves to sell the big package or a big tractor. It’s fun, but my living is made selling the small stuff.”
Merrill says he’ll spend equal time with that guy looking to buy the rotary cutter, because that’s a lot of money to him just the like the tractor is to the other guy. “It’s a lot of money for this guy to write a check for a rotary cutter and that’s an important purchase to him,” he continues. “The way I look at it, I need all the small sales I can get, and when you hit the big one, that’s kind of a bonus.”
Perception & Expectations
His farming background and experience buying his own equipment over the years gives Merrill a fairly unique perspective when issues arise. “I’m not on one side of the desk or the other anymore,” he says. Having been on the buyer’s side for 20 years, he understands the farmer side of things, where they want “everything for nothing.” Learning the dealership side and what it really costs in time and resources to make a repair was an eye opener for him.
“It’s challenging which hat I’m wearing on a particular day,” Merrill says, referring to his connection to the farmer and allegiance to CVE. “But the empathy I can feel for the farmer having been in those shoes more so than someone who has never been on that side of the desk only helps with my connections.”
At the end of the day, Merrill succeeds because his roots run deep and he’s able to maintain perspective that his best path to continued success comes not from simply moving iron but in meeting customer needs. “I don’t try to shove anything down anybody’s throat because I didn’t like that when I was farming, so I don’t like doing it now that I’m on the other side of the desk."