January 8, 2018

The Value of Unbiased Experts in Your Corner

(Article #2 in our series on Building Reason to Believe)

By Mike Karst, Senior Partner

Read the lead article of the series, "Giving Customers a Reason to Believe"

If you’re like me, vacation planning always includes a fair bit of time scrolling through reviews on TripAdvisor. Sometimes I’ve already picked the destination, but I’m building an itinerary and need help with attractions and restaurants. Sometimes all I have is a timeframe but need help finding the perfect vacation spot for the season and amount of days I have to travel.

There’s so much value in the opinion of people who have experienced the destinations I might want to explore, and generally I can easily find reviews from people similar to me. If I read a review from a middle-aged father who had a fabulous time traveling with his wife and school-aged daughter to Disney World in January, then I have reason to believe my family, too, would have a great time at Disney World in January.

Power of Endorsement and Testimony

Agriculture is an industry where having a favorable review from a neutral third party is of immeasurable value. The influence of having an “independent local consultant” validate your product ranks right up there with when the biggest grower in town uses John Deere equipment and everyone can see green in his fields; or when a celebrity wears a certain brand of clothing or drives a certain car, and they’re not getting paid to do so.

Developing relationships with local experts and influencers is something you must be doing to give your customers and prospects a reason to believe. You need them to be familiar with your brand and witness your product’s performance so they can speak to the results and effectiveness.

As we discussed in the first article, earning the support from these trusted advisors could be the single most influential factor in making customers believe in you. For ag companies these experts could be local agronomists, crop consultants, consulting nutritionists, university researchers, and even influential farmers.

Local experts grease the skids. They open doors that otherwise may remain closed.

They get people to pay attention to you in the first place—with so many others already competing for their attention, expert support can prompt them to pause and give you a second look.

They break down barriers between your brand and potential customers by resolving questions and removing skepticism. Because if one farmer’s neighbor planted a new hybrid and had success with it, he’s likely to believe it could work for him as well.

Experts act as interpreters, providing a reality check and supporting the plausibility that what you’re stating to be true about your product is in fact true.

They add credibility to your claims. Trusted, impartial experts singing your praises is a lot more influential than a company spokesperson whose primary objective is to make a sale. Even if you believe wholeheartedly in a product you know inside and out, if you’re wearing that product name on your shirt, a farmer is less inclined to believe you over a local agronomist who tells him, “Hey, this seed treatment really works. Last season I saw it produce a better stand and more uniform emergence in the test plots seven miles from here.”

Create Allies, Not Enemies

The need for proven results and expert unbiased endorsement is especially critical for startups entering a market for the first time. Farmers, as a rule, are skeptical of wise-talking newbies. Until you show them you’re legitimate and give them a clear reason to believe, they’re not going to want to give you the time of day.

Say a startup boasting a new revolutionary seed treatment is sending you offers to try their product—no risk, with a guarantee on the backend. If you are unfamiliar with the company, it doesn’t matter how many freebies they throw at you, you’re going to be wary to take the leap. But if you know the local expert who’s giving his or her endorsement of the treatment, then you are more likely to give it a try.

I’ll tell you a sure way to alienate potential customers, and that’s to insult their intelligence—especially farmers, who are savvy business owners managing multi-million-dollar operations and know their fields and their operations better than anyone.

I was reading an article recently about a startup launching a new line of biologic products, and the CEO made a statement that struck me…and not in a good way. He was responding to his company’s product category being lumped in with “snake oil salesmen,” and here’s what he had to say:

“…it’s more a reflection on the person asking the question than the science — the biggest knock on microbes in the industry is that they don’t work all the time. Of course they do; they do exactly what they do every single time. What it means is that people don’t understand why they do what they do sometimes and not others. It’s not the microbe’s fault; it’s a lack of understanding on the part of the scientist and that challenge is real.”

This sounds like he’s putting the blame on the customers, that it’s their problem that they don’t understand why the microbes don’t always deliver positive results. Is he suggesting we should just accept it when the product delivers lower than expected value? How does that give me a reason to believe? Telling me I’m too ignorant to understand the complexities of the microbiome and I need to just be content with whatever performance I get just doesn’t cut it. 

A better response would have been to bring in an expert agronomist who can give testimony to the effectiveness and common misconceptions about this category of products, or show results proving the product’s effectiveness. Pinning it on a “lack of understanding” shifts the blame to innocent bystanders. Surely if you’re coming into the market making as strong of claims as this company is doing—especially if you’re unfamiliar to the market—you’ve done your research and have third parties waiting in the wings to back up what you’re claiming. Otherwise you’ve just made a very bad first impression.

And if there IS poor understanding about the product category, then isn’t it your role as a supplier to educate your audience?

Reason to Believe—Smithfield Foods LLC

Let’s talk now about a company that got it right.

Years ago, Smithfield Foods LLC embarked on a bold strategic initiative encouraging farmers to grow sorghum in the Coastal Plain and Piedmont areas. Sorghum hadn’t been grown in the region in 20 years—conditions were favorable for sorghum but there was no market for it. Yet Smithfield believed it could be the key to sourcing feed locally for their production facilities in North Carolina.

When they launched the program, they faced a mountain of disbelief that it would work. But Smithfield did so many things right; and, as a result, they were able to create an entirely new market locally. They also improved the efficiency of getting grain to their facilities, the quality of the grain and profitability for local growers. This was all because they created a solid reason to believe. Before this program, Smithfield did very little local buying. It was a huge success and the program continues today.

The first thing Smithfield did right was to involve local experts in the design of the program, pulling in retailers, seed companies, crop consultants, the university extension service, and the North Carolina Department of Agriculture.

Next, they developed an education program for farmers, and rolled out a yield contest and provided on-the-ground support throughout the season.

And the third smart move Smithfield made was getting farmers’ input early on and removing one of their most limiting factors. Farmers wanted shorter wait times at the elevator, so Smithfield invested capital to move from a rail-based system to a truck-based system, which condensed wait times immensely and made the infrastructure work better for farmers.

Bottomline, the more you trust or empathize with a person, the more powerful their opinion is in influencing your purchasing decisions. That’s why the opinion of local experts is so valuable.

Invest the time and resources in building relationships and vetting your product with experts who can validate what you’re trying to do—and even help you improve it. This upfront investment paid off in the long run for Smithfield. That’s how they created advocates who could lend credibility to their claims by speaking on their behalf to the audiences they needed to reach. It could be your most winning strategy of all.

If you’d like to talk through developing your Reason to Believe, contact Mike Karst at mkarst@entira.net or 901.753.0470.