agribusiness crm

Agribusiness and CRM: An Inside Look

Sam and his co-host, Steve Chipman recently interviewed Greg Martinelli on their CRMTalk podcast. Greg is a sales trainer and coach in the agriculture industry. He's spent 27 years developing sales teams across the Midwest focused on the feed and grain business for both national and international markets. Greg sat down with Sam and Steve to discuss his take on Agribusiness CRM and and the technology-related trends he's seeing in his industry. Check out the podcast highlights below, and listen to the full recording here. 

The Impact of Agribusiness CRM

Sam: So today we’re going to have a special topic. We’re going to talk about micro-verticals. A vertical is considered a micro-vertical if the potential customer install base is less than 1,000 customers, and so these tend to be very narrow verticals and I’m seeing them a lot right now in my consulting practice, particularly around people who want solutions for say, aviation repair – things like that. So, it’s a very small quantity of solutions out there and it’s a very interesting market. At Technology Advisors, we built our first micro-vertical for the Seed growers and it’s really a market of about 900 corn and soybean companies, so it qualifies as a micro-vertical. During this process I met Greg and I thought I would bring Greg on to talk about the micro-vertical industry and a little bit about the Ag business as well and CRM. So with that, I’d like to start out and say Greg, do you see a lot of micro-verticals in the Agriculture business?


Fertilizer and chemical, seed sales, feed, retail equipment, and grain are some of the major agribusiness micro-verticals that could benefit from CRM.


Greg: Yeah, I do. I see them specifically in several key industries. One of the really interesting ones is the grain business. A lot of people look at Ag and think “Oh it’s just one small business”, but there are many companies within that and many industries within that that all have specific needs that CRM programs can be slightly adjusted to. So, the grain business itself—which would definitely be a micro because there’s not that many out there—and then fertilizer and chemical. Even though it’s very similar to the seed business, it has its own intricacies that I think would be a fit for a micro. And then, I would call it “Feed and Other regular buy/sell products”, in the Ag industry. And the last one that I can see out there that’s really specific to the Ag business is Retail Equipment sales (aka tractor sales/places that sell tractors). Those again are very specific and have varying needs and need to have the CRM adapted to them for their industry.

Sam: And so, what kind of impact does a business in the Ag world have when they get a micro-vertical? How does that help them and what do you see as the functionality that people are getting out of a specialized solution?

Greg: Well, when you do a micro-vertical you’re taking a generalized product, as I understand, and you’re making it more specific and tailored. You’re basically customizing the product for that industry. So, it makes it much more usable and functionable for the end user, which increases the adaptation rate. One of the biggest struggles that people have with a CRM is getting end users to use it, usually sales people. That’s why I do a lot of training on it. I preach on the subject when I do my training because I get it, they don’t like to do it and they look at it like an extra step. But, the more user-friendly and the more specific that you can make it to that industry, they’re going to use it that much more.

CRM Use Cases in Agribusiness

Steve: As an outsider, I have a fundamental question about the structure of Ag businesses. So, clearly you’ve got sales professionals and sales managers which is what it sounds like you focus in, Greg. But, what are the other divisions within an Ag company that might use CRM? For example, in technology the classic one is customer support. Or, marketing is another one. But, is this mainly sales focused? Can you tell us a little bit more about the structure of some of the companies in this category and how they could use CRM in other parts of the organization?

Greg: Sure. You hit on one of them, which is the customer support team. So, that’s your people that take the phone calls and receive orders and talk to customers. But, with each individual industry — for instance in the grain business — the merchant is in the main office and they have a contact and need to understand what’s going on with customers and the rest of the company. In fertilizer and chemical you have not only the sales team, but you have a group of people that would be the agronomists -- the technical specialists that need to know and be able to input what’s happening with the customers. In the feed business, you have the technical staff support folks -- you have dispatch which is extremely important for getting the right products to the right people. So, all of them would have a hand in using it.

And I think one of the important parts is that those people are given access to it. In some companies I’ve gone into they don’t have a login name and password and so you have to say, “Look, if everybody is going to have access to the system, you have to give them a user ID and password and give them some training on how they can quickly use it and be functional.” Ag sales are generally remote, so they’re working out of a home office and don’t all come back to a central place, so that’s even more power for using a CRM tool which people can see from multiple locations.

Steve: And have you seen situations where the sales was the driver but once the CRM system was within an organization then all the sudden different parts of that organization realized ways they might participate? They might be able to replace existing databases or spreadsheets, so have you seen it spread through an organization over time?

Greg: Definitely spread through an organization. And the majority of the times, I’ve seen it come in from management – call it top down. It’s brought in as, “Hey, we need to do this. We got sold on it.” The sales team is viewed as the first group of people to input the information about what’s going on with customers – the stuff that’s not in their current system. But, the way that it spreads is to tie the other programs in. So, the minute you start tying accounting functions, grain contract cancellations, credits, etc. Once you start tying those into the CRM and everything gets done in there, it all becomes visible and people start using it. I often talk about the different stages of adaptation. The first one is just a standalone program where nothing’s in there. And then of course what I just described would be the more advanced, where all the different components are running their programs through the CRM program.

Steve: Yeah, and contracts certainly, I can see how that could be a big one – tracking contracts, renewals, cancellations, as you mentioned.

Agribusiness Technology Trends

Sam: I actually found it interesting when we were doing the vertical how much technology and how much science is in the sales of seeds. It was about things like where your soil is, how dry is your soil going to be? In the field – is it at the bottom of the field or the top of the field on a hill? Because that changes the type of seed you’re going to use. One that might be rot resistant vs. one that might need less water. And then you have all different types of pests and depending on what pests are in your area there’s different types of seeds for that and when we started looking at how someone plants a field it’s an incredible science. They go in there with maps of topology and it says your field needs these types of seeds for these types of conditions. It was a pretty interesting and actually quite an eye opener to the level of science that goes into the actual selling process. I thought that was really specifically very interesting.

Steve: You just made me think of a new acronym which is PEM – Pest Eradication Management – which could be part of the app, haha.

Sam: I’m just going to ask Greg, what are the current technology trends in agribusiness right now?

Greg: I think some of the big trends that are going on specifically with technology is it’s booming, and someone told me the other day, a lot of times it’s solutions trying to find a problem. It’s a lot of information, and how do you use it? So, the data that’s coming off the – you mentioned the soil topography and everything that’s going on – they’re doing soil samples every couple of years and analyzing data and not only analyzing what seed goes where but what density you plant them at. So, population of seeds to get the most yield out of that. All that information is being fed back in through several different platforms.

About a month ago I was at a conference and I got to sit in a simulated chemical sprayer, and it would be akin to flying a jet. It had three or four different joysticks and it was just extremely sophisticated with what was being sprayed and not over seeding. You mentioned the seed business. You go over the field, you don’t want to plant over the top or you plant it and fields aren’t exactly square so they need a technology feeding in by satellite and that information is being fed back into their agronomy suppliers who are looking at trying to keep everything in stock so they don’t run out. Because in agriculture, it’s a very short window. Harvesting and planting happen very quickly and so it’s getting to the point where – how do you blend all that information together, and then the tail end of it is who owns it and who gets rights to it? But that’s a whole different topic. That’s a pretty big trend right now. You could clump it all into data management I guess, is what you’d call it, but it’s almost bigger than that.

Sam: Are you hearing anything about Big Data or AI coming into the agribusiness? It sounds to me like this would be a classic problem that could be solved by big data analytics or an AI.


Photo Credit: brettbrothers.com
The above example shows a map a grower may use to analyze soil nutrient levels. Knowing which areas of the soil are richer in specific nutrients helps the grower make educated decisions on where to plant for maximum yield. The term Precision Ag encompasses many aspects of Ag technology including GPS- based soil sampling, robotics and drones, automated hardware, and software like CRM systems. 


Greg: There is. And a lot of it is revolving around satellite imagery and then big data coming off combines and planters. So, it is and it’s all getting kind of hung up on which systems are feeding in, which ones are blending together, and who shares how much data with everybody. There’s a little bit of a tug-of-war on that, because obviously the tractor company builds the device that goes in there and tracks it and makes it available to the producer or farmer. But that information is very helpful and it’s making it much more profitable. It’s all kind of clumped under the term “Precision Ag” which means we no longer just broadcast 200 lb. of nitrogen per acre, we drop 100 here and 150 here and 175 back and forth. Same with planting. They’ll go across the field and they plot their maps and decide where they’re going to plant 130,000 seeds to the acre vs. 150, so yeah, very much so.

Steve: Greg, a topic that Sam and I talk about a lot on these podcasts, probably too much, is the wine business. And, while I know that a lot of wineries are very small operations -- you have very large brands like Constellation -- do you see any activity in the larger wine companies within that business?

Greg: I don’t cross over too much into that. I stay kind of in the row crop businesses predominantly, but I’m based out of St. Louis and there are quite a few here in the Missouri market and heading north. But I don’t have a lot of experience with that.

Steve: My other kind of related question is how big a market has the central valley of California been for your services? Obviously, there’s a lot of diversity here in terms of types of crops and it’s a very rich area for production.

Greg: It is. I have not jumped in to the produce business necessarily – that is a tremendous produce market out there. California has, for whatever reason, become a huge dairy state, so the dairy industry/diary, cattle, and milk production industry is pretty dominant up there. But I have not spent a lot of time in the fruit and vegetable market of that area.

CRM Adoption & Adaption in Agribusiness

Sam: So Greg, you have a CRM program adoption, or rather “adaption”, system that you’ve put together. Can you go over that for our listeners?

Greg: Sure. I launched four different CRMs – they weren’t four different programs, but I launched it for four different sales teams, and each time it was in different stages. So, the first one I had mentioned earlier is the standalone program with no data in there. It’s just basically, here’s the program, go in to Salesforce and start typing your customer name in. And you get very low adaption rate. Sales people just don’t have the time to enter all that. Besides, I don’t think many companies are doing that anymore. The next stage comes where you have data connected. So, you take your accounting system and you bolt it on or you get one that has it built in and then you’re starting to pull all that information in there so all the sales people and customer support team have to do is type in the person’s name and then they can start logging sales calls and contract extensions and anything that happens to that customer. The third stage is where you’re extracting the data into dashboards, and this becomes to me the most exciting when you start to get sales people to really jump in and start noticing when you can pull data and stat looking at it. It’s like your filing cabinet. People look at all this great stuff you can do with this customer, and that’s great, but you still have to have a cover sheet to know who do I have to go see and how deep into that account do I need to look?

And so, these dashboards are basically what that does. It can tell you margins and volume and you just set the dashboards up. The third launch I had a person designated within our company that knew how to build them and could help me on a moment’s notice, “hey I need to build a dashboard that shows me dollars per ton that we sold these products at, so I can analyze which products are most profitable.” So that’s kind of the third and most exciting. And then, what I mentioned earlier also, the fourth is when you start to get the whole company in and you put the business functions through the CRM program. So, if you want to do a cancellation, you start in CRM, you pull the account up, and then the accounting system is accessed through that and then you can start seeing everything. Then you TRULY have a one-picture snapshot of each customer.

Sam: Do you find there are difficulties getting people to adopt in the agriculture business? In the book Crossing the Chasm they define – help me here, Steve – it’s like Early Adopters, Early Majority, and then you have…(Steve: Laggards). I would assume that the agriculture business being a more conservative one would be in the late majority/laggard category. And typically, those two groups tend to have the hardest adoption. The people at the beginning of the curve for some reason adopt better, I think because they’re all enthusiastic about new technology. Do you see a lot of problems with CRM adoption out in your business?

Greg: It’s absolutely the #1 reason.  I’ve worked with several of these companies that brought it in and then took it out because they couldn’t get people to use it and didn’t see the value of what it was bringing vs. the cost. The answer is not to remove it. The answer is to get it to where it’s functional and easy-to-use and you have talk-to-text and all this kind of thing, that make it really quick. Then, the dashboards that make it functional where somebody would say, “Wow, this is a useful tool. I need to get the information in there so I can use this information to manage my territory.” Usually what you find is that the headquarters or the main office is very progressive and wanting to jump in and have the program. But then you have a very dispersed salesforce spread out all over the country and they typically are in their pickup trucks driving to a customer everyday for many many hours and it’s busy – they are busy. Sometimes it’s seasonal. So, seed and fertilizer people are extremely busy at certain times of the year. So getting the indoctrination in there is very difficult and I have a lot of respect and understanding for that. Plus, they have just out of necessity, their own spreadsheets, their own notebooks, their little black book of addresses that they know where people are and have their cell phone number and email addresses. So, they’ve already got it and they’re functioning. You know, it’s the old “I’m too busy using my handwritten stuff to use the computer stuff” kind of example. And that’s really what the adaptation difficulty is, is that we’re busy we’re doing things and am I going to stop everybody and make them use this system? As opposed to an industry where maybe everybody is in one office and you can go out and physically see what people are doing and say OK from now on everybody does THIS.

Steve: Are these salespeople typically dedicated to the organization they’re working for, or is there the concept of manufacturer’s reps in that industry where they handle different lines?

Greg: Most of them work specifically for a company, yes. There are reps, but the majority work for a particular company.

Steve: There was another thing you mentioned earlier about the stages of adaptation and it made me think of a conversation I had this weekend with a friend who actually works for a manufacturing company. They have a lot of data in their CRM accounts they’re pulling in, in their case SAP, and they have a lot of activities, and they came up with this concept of creating a document for an account review. So, when the district manager or someone even higher wants to review an account with a salesperson, they can hit one button and it will push out all the header information—sort of the firmographic information – the contacts, the activities, the sales order history all in one big document. Which a lot of CRMs don’t do out of the box. In this case they needed to add a third party product on, but is that something you’ve seen deployed among your customers? That account review/detailed document?

Greg: Yeah, to have the information in there and be able to – I call it “toggling” – build to toggle out information so you can make quick analysis of an individual account. Or, for instance, let’s say you want to do customer segmentation, which is new to the Ag industry in some cases. But let’s say we want to find all the traditionalists in this area who only sell their grain at harvest and they do traditionalist things. To be able to pull those all out and be able to say, “OK, send all those an advertisement for this product, this way.” Those are areas where you really start getting productive with your CRM tool and making a return on investment.

Agribusiness & Acquisitions

Steve: And so a lot of your customers typically hire dedicated marketers?

Greg: Oh yeah, there’s a marketing department that would handle the big picture view of dividing those segments and putting those together. Absolutely. One of the areas I was going to bring up around the trends in agribusiness is that there are a lot of mergers and acquisitions. So, right now there’s just a lot of consolidation. Part of it is due to tougher economic times, and that means tougher economic times for the businesses that service the farmers. That usually leads to companies not affording the overhead, so they merge and acquire each other. When that happens, you’re going to bring new people into the company who haven’t had access to those customers previously so they’re brought in and told, “Hey, you got this territory,” and to go in the CRM and be able to find out the past history is a great tool for that. Secondly, a lot of times you’re bringing an entirely new set of customers into your program, so again, the ability to extract the merged company’s data into your data in the CRM program is a huge opportunity for CRM to fulfill a function. And while you’re thinking on that one, the other one is just tighter economic times. Just like if you’re at your home and a parent loses their job, it’s tighter than ever. Each decision you make is so important and the CRM tools allow you to do a better job of analyzing your business and who you’re spending your time and resources with. So the more precision selling, or precision marketing, with each decision being more important due to together economic times, it’s even more important that you know what you’re doing and you’re making good business decisions.

Steve: And conversely, when your business is going really well that’s the time to invest in CRM because you have the capital. You may not have as much time, but investing when things are good protects you against the downturns because now you have a system in place that’s ready to go.

Greg: Absolutely. And knowing how to use it. Exactly.

Steve: And as far as the acquisitions go, sometimes we see an interesting situation where the much smaller company being acquired has a much better CRM system than the much bigger system that acquired it so sometimes there’s a little bit of a wrestling match over which system to go with because the big company might have a legacy system that everybody loves to hate, but it’s been there forever and it may indeed make more sense to actually adopt the system that the acquisition is bringing in.

Greg: Absolutely. I mean, it used to be in the 80’s, 90’s, whatever it is, that the company that got acquired everything just basically disappeared. It was almost like a hostile takeover. The parent company’s employees stayed and the equipment, and the acquired company basically lost all of that. Now with the acquisitions they’re thinking through that a little better – Who’s got the stronger brand? Who’s got the better system? Don’t just gut it and make it become part of us. If there are still functional elements there, use them. In this case, if a CRM program is better, I’ve seen that be a part of it.

Steve: Greg, if one of our listeners who is in the Ag business wants to reach you, what’s the best way to learn more about your offerings and get in touch with you?

Greg: My website is just my name: GregMartinelli.net. They can reach me by email at Greg.Martinelli@outlook.com. I have several CRM articles out there on the very issue of getting adaptations, so they can find me there. I also write for a couple of blogs and I do a podcast, so there’s a lot of information out there where they can learn about the different services.

Danine Pontarelli's picture
Danine Pontarelli
Director of Marketing

Danine is the Director of Marketing for Technology Advisors Inc. She spearheads TAI events, marketing campaigns, and social media efforts. Prior to her work at TAI, Danine was a copywriter in the B2B publishing industry. Her interests include blockbuster disaster movies, tank tops in an array of colors, used book stores, Clint Eastwood, and being surrounded by trees. 

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