Ag Retailers: Gauging The Work/Life Balance

After some internal brainstorming at Ag1Source and discussions with CropLife Editor Eric Sfiligoj, we decided that a basic survey to get real world comments and results from sales agronomists within retail organizations could be a great resource for employee retention strategies in the next crop year. We wanted to understand the thoughts and opinions of retail agronomy employees after the spring rush was immediately done and all emotions were in clear focus. The intent was to ask questions about spring stress, their thoughts on how their employers treated them and their desire to change jobs or employers.

In June, Ag1Source put our recruiters on the phone and completed 238 surveys with sales agronomist respondents. Our pool of respondents was spread across 38 states.

This article — as well as two upcoming articles in CropLife — will dissect the results and bring a focus on salespeople and how people in that position feel about their manager, their responsibilities, how the organization takes care of them and whether they want to stay in that role at all.

We’ll focus on work/life balance and overall attitude coming out of spring. We first asked the respondents how this year compared to previous years. With the early start to spring and the calm weather most experienced, we expected the quality of life to be a bit higher. This was actually the case, with 60.9% of the respondents finding this spring more tolerable than prior years.

Our next question asked them how their employer could have improved working conditions (hours, activities, expectations, etc.) this spring. Many answers to this question mentioned there probably wasn’t much that could be done because it’s the nature of the business. However, another very common answer was “hire more people to spread the load” or “bring on more seasonal help” and lastly “as margins allow hire more help.”

Outside of additional people or seasonal help, a few answers truly pointed to the employees just wanting to be recognized for their hard work or being provided tools to succeed. Some examples given were “buy outdoor uniforms, I’m tired of ruining my clothes.” Another respondent recommended bringing in food for supper on a long day for the crew. A last response — given many times over — was “treat their people as if they are appreciated!”

A final group of responses to handling the long hours were around tactical management issues. For instance, one respondent wanted his retail organization to split sales and operations so they both could be more effective. In some cases, it was noted that inventory was either out of position or short and it hampered the employees’ ability to be efficient. The final tactical management comment was to have the location managers be strong on agronomy technical knowledge so they could answer the questions instead of relying on the salesperson to get back to the customer, thus slowing down the entire decision process.

Finding Patterns

When we stepped back and looked at the data as a whole set, a clear pattern was revealed. Across multiple questions, we started to see three distinct populations of respondents appearing. The first group is clearly very satisfied with their company, the role they’re in and how the company handles the demands of spring. This group is also promoting their company and furthering the “employee brand” we talked about in a previous article. Statistically, this group comprises about 20% of the sales agronomists we spoke with.

The second group of respondents comprised 45% of the population and this group was neither satisfied nor unsatisfied with spring. While they may not be out actively hunting for a different job, they are tired and looking for solutions and wouldn’t ignore a good opportunity if one presented itself. This group is ripe for management to be asking questions of them about how we could do next spring better or how our processes could be streamlined. They need to feel appreciated, feel like things are moving in the right direction and believe that there is opportunity with their current employer.

You don’t want employees in this group to leave your organization because they feel the “grass is greener” with another organization, when in fact, it likely isn’t. You just missed the opportunity to explain that to them!

The last group of respondents is the portion we wanted to ferret out from the beginning of the survey brainstorming. How upset and irritated are the employees that will seek out change? Fully 35% of our respondents were negative, wanting to change jobs and, in many cases, wanting out of retail. We as recruiters talk to many of these people and we’ve noticed a trend that is not too surprising. In June, when nerves are frayed and people are tired, negativity goes up because work becomes a grind with little or no recognition from management. Whether it be the workload or the desire to be with family, many of these individuals will seek other employment.

Reaching Out

Many managers unfortunately assume that a disgruntled post-spring employee needs to leave. We would advise looking at these three groups of employees and communicating with each group using a different message. For your positive or “brand building” employees, cheer them on and ask what other tools they need to keep on making a difference. For the 45% group of neither happy or unhappy, coach them through a thinking process for how they can change their behaviors and prepare for next spring to make it easier for the team.

Lastly, for the 35% you identify as negative about the entire experience, a more thorough conversation may need to be had. You need to “head them off at the pass” and meet with them before they have time to act on seasonal feelings. Perhaps they have ideas that would resolve their concerns and give them reason to stay. Perhaps the show of concern from a manager is the shift in attitude they need. Give them ownership in how your team operates in the spring. Have them be part of a team to review spring and create solutions (for example hiring more isn’t a solution — the solution is how we improve financially so we can hire seasonal help).

The ag industry does a great job training top sales people to recognize complaint and customer concerns as potential opportunities. An agronomy department manager can increase their success and employee retention by using that same approach. The complaints and concerns of spring can be your best opportunity to retain your employees and find the future leaders of your organization — you just need to leverage that opportunity and have those conversations.

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