Last week I had the chance to speak to a bunch of investment managers at a meeting organized by an investment bank. Most times their questions are fairly predictable, but sometimes they aren’t. Some of these managers are very “detail oriented,” which they should be, and they ask for hard numbers.

For example, during the past year I’ve used the term “manageable” to describe dealers’ used equipment inventories. One investment manager asked me, “What does manageable mean?” In other words, he wanted an example.

It just so happens a couple of weeks earlier at Farm Equipment’s Dealership Minds Summit in Omaha, I asked that same question of some dealers I spoke with. Most didn’t want to share numbers, but a few did. “What do you consider ‘manageable?’” I asked.

One dealer offered, “Last year we had $60 million in used inventory. Right now we have half of that.”

Do you consider that “manageable?” I followed up. “Yes, very manageable, especially when it’s spread across all of our stores.”

This one example seemed to satisfy his curiosity. Everyone likes numbers.

But numbers don’t always tell the whole story. For example, the monthly sales numbers coming from the Assn. of Equipment Manufacturers on high horsepower tractors haven’t been particularly encouraging in the last several months. At the same time, comments from dealers in our monthly Dealer Sentiments & Business Conditions Update survey indicate there are other things happening that give them a level of confidence we weren’t seeing a year ago. Here’s a sample of what dealers are saying:

“Compact tractors and turf equipment sales were strong in the month, while hay tools remain soft. We continue to see a more positive attitude from farmers driven by the near term surge in pricing.”

“Our large, new equipment sales have been below expectations, but our used sales have been picking up the slack. We have made great strides in reducing our used equipment inventories.”

“Our sales in turf and light industrial grew in the month, offsetting declines in ag equipment sales.”

“We feel that the general economy is improving. Our dairy and poultry sectors are strong, along with the fruit and vegetable industry.”

“It appears that commodity values could tick upward as cattle and hog producers are doing well.”

On the other hand, another segment of dealers are telling us that while things are getting better, they aren’t great.

“Consumer products, and compact tractors <60hp were strong in June, while hay tools, combines and tractors >100hp were weak.”

“While our used equipment inventories are in line and lower than most dealers of our size, the glut of used continues to make trade-ins very difficult.”

“Our combine inventories are elevated particularly due to the absence of manufacturer incentives that we have historically had.”

“Small tractor sales carried us through the month of June. Mid-sized tractors and hay tool sales were off substantially year-over-year.”

“The continued drought is now a major concern for row-crop sales with 40% of wheat put up for hay in our area. Customers have told us they are waiting until harvest season to consider buying new equipment.”

I like numbers as much as anyone, but I like to see and hear what’s behind the numbers. This is why you need to be talking with your customers, just as we need to continue talking to ours. More often than not, numbers will quantify what happened, but drilling down a little further through the number to give those numbers some context is more apt to tell you where things are heading.