The last question here addresses a key gap we see in many feed and grain firms — no effective sales management function. As feed and grain firms grow, many keep a "small firm" organizational structure. Next thing you know, someone has 18 salespeople directly reporting to them, which is about as good as no sales management function. Do you have a sales manager or someone with that responsibility in your business? Is this person actively involved in coaching and training activities? Do your salespeople have detailed territory plans? Are these plans reviewed regularly? Are salespeople compensated based on their ability to deliver against the plan? Sales management is much more than, "go get 'em folks!". If you score a low grade here, you might want to consider an excellent resource, ProActive Sales Management — a book by Skip Miller published by Amacom Books.
Communicating with stakeholder groups is the final area of our grade card (See Fig. 3). While almost everybody agrees that good communications are vital to the workings of business and life, almost all of us can improve in this area. These improvements will pay off by uncovering problems before they become too big, and by supporting the emotional side of people's "need to know."
A company newsletter aimed at your customers can go a long way toward solidifying the relationship you have with your clientele. Such a newsletter can be published and mailed on its own, or it can be a simpler one-page affair mailed with your monthly statements. You can also do something via e-mail or fax if your customers prefer that form of communication.
Obviously the challenge here is to continue to come up with fresh ideas for the newsletter. However, a running list of stories could include: meet the staff (one person/newsletter with updates); meet our customers (a brief customer profile); highlight a new product or cover a problem that you are seeing in the market; your creativity is the only limiting factor here. The firm companynewsletters.com (www.companynewsletters.com) suggests a couple of other novel ideas to highlight employee volunteerism and achievement.
The next question asks if your firm has an effective way to communicate with your employees. Regular staff meetings are good ways to ensure this communication, and also provide for input from them to you as manager on issues at hand. Many companies find a productive way to do this is to schedule regular monthly or quarterly meetings. If you take this approach, you will find that items to put on your agenda will constantly come to light; you just need to keep a sheet to add them to. A key point: Make sure you really take meeting seriously if you do them. Have a purpose, run them efficiently, make sure they create value. You do not want your "communication vehicle" to be a monthly source of pain for your employees.
The next question under communications refers to whether your company has a website. There is no doubt today's customer continues to become more user savvy with online tools, and while agriculture tends to lag a bit behind on the learning curve of some applications, we feel that we can do our customers a big service by providing them useful Internet applications like market and weather data links.
Over the past two columns, we have highlighted a number of areas where grading your business can be useful. Of course, assigning your own grades can be tricky as you can be both too easy and too hard an evaluator. Consider using these tools in an employee meeting as a way to collect employee opinions and to start conversations about improvement. You might even consider using the grade card with a select set of customers, and advisory group or suppliers whose thoughts and insights you value. The bottom line here: It is very hard to manage what you don't measure, so put the cards to work and see if you are making the grade!