Once, not that long ago, a farmer was simply a farmer. They planted seeds, grew crops, raised livestock and then sold it, sometimes without ever having to speak to a member of the public. These days, however, consumers want to know where their food is coming from and they want to connect with farm operations. In addition to knowing how to farm, farmers now also need customer service skills.

Providing hospitality and customer service on the farm is something some people are naturally good at; for others, there’s a bit of a learning curve. Fortunately, for those who don’t know where to start, Rob Leeds from Ohio State University Extension presented a framework for customer service training at the recent International Workshop for Agritourism.

Leeds noted that the definition of quality customer service has changed drastically as those in agriculture adapted their business operations to deal with changing customer expectations and an evolving business environment. Every contact with a customer defines the farm brand and affects the future of the operation, whether it’s at a farm stand or running a full agritourism operation.

Awesome customer service comes from four key principles:

  • Preparing – writing a plan and selecting, training and rewarding employees
  • Responding and mitigating – understanding customer service is a long-term relationship, not just about the issue at hand; fixing things; responding on social media
  • Recovering – having a plan for potential customer service failures; designating who is in charge; communicating
  • Improving practices – regularly updating your plan; preparing for the next issue; anticipating future customer service issues

“Really knowing your business is the best way to get all your employees on board,” Leeds said of thorough training. This could mean everything from knowing the traits of a variety of corn you grow to fully understanding your business’s mission statement.

In addition, he recommended analyzing your stereotype. What are visitors to your operation expecting when they stop by? For example, some people assume all farms have livestock, so how can you temper their expectations? How else can you manage your farm’s perception based on its location, or the fees you charge?

Hospitality and customer service on the farm

Having someone who is always “on” is an important part of the public-facing side of your business. Photo by Enrico Villamaino

Leeds presented a sobering statistic for those who serve the public: 80% of businesses believe they deliver great service, but only 8% of customers say they received great service. To help bolster that number, he also discussed Disney’s Four Keys – Safety, Courtesy, Brand and Efficiency. And “efficiency is much broader than money or time,” he added.

Hiring the right employees is critical. “You need employees that really reflect your values,” Leeds said. “Look at their skills and their behaviors. You want someone who is always ‘on.’”

Your employees have power, especially regarding customer communication. Leeds cited a study which said 96% of unhappy customers never complain and 91% will never return. However, between 54% and 70% will come back if an issue is resolved. Even better, 97% will return if it’s resolved quickly.

“If we don’t know [there’s a problem], we can’t fix the problem,” he reiterated. “That’s why we need the employees that recognize the issues.”

“An experience occurs when a company intentionally uses services as the stage, and goods as props, to engage individual customers in a way that creates a memorable event,” according to the Harvard Business School. Leeds commented that awesome customer service is all about being intentional – making sure you (or your employees) take the time to really interact with customers, not just make a sale.

“Empower your employees – allow them to make a decision, be consistent and be positive,” Leeds said.

Being intentional means having a plan, and spontaneity is not a plan. Spontaneity is knowing how to respond in an effective and scripted manner that still feels natural. In another easy four steps, Leeds said the response should start with a smile; include active listening; acknowledging the customer’s concern; and solving the problem or directing the person to someone who can. The customer service plan will be specific to your business alone.

A plan for customer service and hospitality should begin with some basics. How will your employees answer the phone? Deal with lines? Respond on social media? Deal with a negative event or a bad product? Answer questions about your operation? If you’re not sure where to start, pay attention to what your current customers ask you.

Want to learn more about awesome customer service? Visit go.osu.edu/awesomeness.

by Courtney Llewellyn