"Step in my office before you leave. I need to talk to you."
Think about that for a moment and let me know how you'd feel about if you were the recipient of those words. Coming from your boss, it may not feel so great. You're not really sure what lies ahead.
For me, it was a totally different situation. The request came from one of my favorite people -- Honest RC, The Farmer's Friend From Beginning To End. He's my John Deere salesman.
My first thought was that RC had some kind of smokin' deal for me that was too good to be discussed in the broad audience chamber of the store. In a way, it was, but it wasn't so much a matter of really, really small numbers and really, really shiny equipment. It was more of a favor.
Let's say you are a major manufacturer of equipment. You run a large operation with a bunch of people in your employ. The customers who buy your products are scattered all over the globe. Being able to connect your staff with those customers isn't always easy. Sure, you can get the customer to fill out surveys and let you know what their overall satisfaction level is, but you don't get as much of an interaction that way. What would be really nice would be to get that customer to show up and interact with your staff. Have that customer share some stories about his or her background and how they put your products to use in their daily life. Open it up so that your staff can ask questions of the customer.
Deere ran this idea past their dealers and asked them if they would have any customers they felt may be willing to do something like this. It would be a semi-formal event where the customer would get up in front of a group of employees and speak for a while before the Q & A session. As a rule, farmers aren't the most outgoing public speaker types you will find. When the idea was presented to the staff at RC's employer (a group of 11 dealerships), they opened it up to the sales force for input. RC did not hesitate. "Jeff Ryan would probably do it!"
Sounded to me like it wasn't a matter of taking a vote to consider all of the nominees. It was my name and . . . . . anyone else? Anyone?
Nope, just a chorus of crickets.
This all sounded a bit like the annual Medtronic Holiday Program to me. For years, the people at Medtronic, who build and design many of the technological wonders in my sorry carcass to keep it operating, invite a small group of customers / patients in to speak to their employees and let them know what impact their work has had on the customer's life. They invited me to speak at their 2002 party.
Deere & Co. doesn't quite do the elaborate event that Medtronic does. They would bring me to their manufacturing facilities a little over an hour away in Waterloo, Iowa. I'd meet with a couple groups of employees at the various plants and tell them about my work and the role their products play in it. We'd meet in a room somewhere and discuss a few things before going on a tour of the facility while production kept happening. Deere doesn't shut down the whole operation like Medtronic does. Deere plans to make this more of a quarterly event than an annual thing.
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My first challenge was a matter of presentation. This sounded like a good place to do a PowerPoint. I've taken one or two million photos over the years, so maybe I could slap some of those together in such a way as to show people what we do and how their work plays a part in my daily life. An extensive look through my photo collection revealed that I don't take that many shots of equipment in action.
Okay, not in action where it also looks good enough for a presentation. I have no shortage of pictures of busted stuff, equipment stuck in mud, shattered windows, small fires, misplaced bales, squashed fences, that kind of thing. But if we're looking for product-literature-quality photos, those aren't so easy to find. Add in the fact that I'd be at the tractor factory instead of the hay equipment factory, and the list got shorter in a hurry.
Rule #1 of public speaking is to get the audience on your side. The second slide on my presentation was a shot of my business card. Didn't take long to figure out that my card may open up a lot of doors for me. I began with a slide that said, "It's food production, not brain surgery. Life on the farm near Cresco, Iowa"
Then I told the story of my business card right before I moved to the slide with it on the screen. The audience seemed to get a kick out of the way my junior high guidance counselor offered some editorial comment on my choice of production agriculture as the subject of my in-depth report on a career. ["I wish you would have picked a real career for your report, Jeff."]
Then I mentioned how the girl sitting next to me said, "But you're smart. Why do you want to farm? You should be a brain surgeon instead!" That's how I came up with the slogan on my card: "Feeding the world . . . . because Mayo Clinic was already doing brain surgery." (Thanks, Jill!)
Wow, did that win them over!
We might as well have called it JillFest for the rest of the day.
"Small group of maybe 25 people or so" was what I was told to expect for my audience. I got to the foundry in Waterloo and was taken into a meeting room with way more than 25 chairs in it. A few minutes later, the room filled up in short order with about 50 people in it. When that one was finished, we took a brief tour and then went to a lunchroom for the next meeting. There were something like 150 people in that room. As precise as these folks are at measuring parts they put together in increments of microns, no one seems to be all that close on head count numbers!
"There will be about 25 or 30 people, maybe 173, we're not entirely sure."
Another thing to keep your audience on your side is to get them involved in your presentation. The foundry workers were a whole lot younger than I was expecting. We had a bunch of 20- and 30-somethings in the group. I had figured there'd be a bunch of grizzled 58-year-olds with a soot-laden appearance who could probably quote me the exact number of hours remaining before they retired. So I decided to ask how many of them had any kind of farm background. It wasn't a lot, but there were some. Then I asked how many had actually driven a tractor. Only a couple hands went up. That probably surprised my Deere corporate host friends as much as anyone.
The larger group at the drivetrain assembly facility was a bit more spread out in age, but I asked the same questions as the foundry group got earlier. More hands went up for both questions. More questions got asked by that group than before, too.
There was one technological glitch we had at the first meeting that we improved by the second round. I had a slide that mentioned product quality. One of my supporting files was a video I had taken with my phone last fall. We had gotten a new 6170R tractor with a loader on about the 8th of November. I was going across the field with it and a squeak developed in the seat on the 23rd of November. This wasn't a minor squeak. I called Mike, the service manager at my dealership, and mentioned it to him as I was parked. Then I told him to listen closely as I held my phone down near the seat and began to drive. It was like fingernails on a chalkboard . . . if the fingers belonged to a Parkinson's patient.
"Oh, $#%^&*! I'll have somebody out there right away!" Mike said.
I'm not sure what exactly the technician used to solve the problem, but the noise went away when he was done a while later. The smell of his solution remained for a few days.
So, I told the audience at Deere, "82 hours on it; fifteen days into owning it, and THIS is what I end up with after spending _________." (Naturally, I quoted bust-out retail to them and not the final price Honest RC had gotten me on it.) With that, I held my cell phone up to my microphone and played the audio file.
Boy, did that open some eyes! I mentioned that we have very little tolerance for annoyances. If a machine ends up with some rattle or squeak like that, we get rid of it at the first opportunity. We had one tractor for just a few months because of a noise in it. We have another one right now that isn't all that old and it has a squeak in the steering wheel that I hate, so I do my best to stay out of it. Before we bought the new tractor last year, we tried a low-houred used one. It also had some squeaks and other little issues I didn't like, so we went with a new one instead. I'm not really convinced right now that we made the right decision.
The other thing I mentioned to my various audiences that day was that the gap in quality between Deere and their competitors in the past was almost always wide enough for us not to consider anything else. That gap has either shrunk or disappeared today. With the pricing packages available, it's entirely possible that our next new machine will not be green. These were primarily line employees that I was speaking to, so I didn't tell them that in order to negotiate a better price. I explained it to them so that they know why I make the decisions I do when it's time to buy equipment.
The folks at Deere showed me a ton of stuff during my day at their facilities. I got a behind-the-scenes tour of their foundry, where they don't typically take visitors. We didn't get the scheduling perfect, but we did get to see some large vats of molten steel get poured into molds to make various engine and drivetrain parts for John Deere tractors. Since it was February, it was probably the best time of year to see it. A glass of water sitting around in that environment in July can reach 128 degrees, according to the thermometer one staffer put in it. The staff stays well-hydrated as a result.
Unfortunately, Deere does not allow photos to be taken in the plant, so I don't have any supporting evidence from my appearance. We will use some stock photos from a previous appearance or two I've made there. They're supposed to be sending me a video of my presentation, because they had cameras there to shoot it for future use. Don't hold your breath waiting for a YouTube posting of it.
As they were putting the mic on me, one of the technicians said, "You've been on camera before, haven't you? This seems like no big deal to you."
We missed the anniversary by two days, but I explained to him my experience with TV cameras and microphones (from a TV station literally a few blocks away.) Fifteen years ago, on February 24th, I got wired up to go into an operating room with cameras to watch me, uh, get wired up, I guess! Getting your head drilled on TV makes this seem fairly reasonable by comparison.
He probably hears that from a lot of farmers.
When we got to the Donald Street Tractor Assembly Facility toward the end of the day, my host dropped me off at the big front doors while he went to park the truck. I walked inside and told the security lady at the front desk that I was the farmer who was there to speak to the staff. My driver had told me we'd be in the auditorium just inside the door. The security lady looked like I'd just told her I enjoy red Jell-O only on Thursdays.
"There's no meeting scheduled," she told me. "Who are you with?"
Two Guys Farming, I said.
You know, I really need to have somebody travel with me to bang a gong every time I say that. Trumpets would be nice, but I'd settle for a gong.
No response from the desk. (Seriously, think what the gong would have done for me!) She did another quick check of her registry. Nope. Turns out, I don't exist.
After a few minutes, my driver showed up and explained what we were doing there. It seems that the person handling our meeting at this facility had forgotten to reserve the room for the meeting and, well, maybe had kind of forgotten to inform the line workers that they could (? should ?) attend. Something about a vacation and maybe being out of the endless paperwork memo loop of planning a meeting.
Looked to me like my day was about to get shorter. And here I had just gotten comfortable giving my presentation!
It didn't take long for them to rustle up an audience. They did not appear to be line workers, but they did appear to be interested, so I gave them my presentation. We probably generated as many questions from this group of about 40 people as we had at the other locations. What probably surprised them more than anything was when I told them that I don't need to have all of my equipment loaded up like an Escalade for a rapper. Leather seats aren't required. It doesn't have to be a huge machine capable of working an entire county in an afternoon. Quite the contrary. It needs to be nimble and it needs to be flexible to do multiple jobs. It can have technology, but don't make it so tough that I need a team of geeks to run it.
Most of all, get all the stuff to fit together without squeaking. My belt and pockets are already full of an insulin pump, cell phone and other stuff. If I need to carry a can of WD-40 with me, there's going to be an issue. I'll end up soaking my business cards and then no one will want one! Where's the fun in that?
Ultimately, I'd like to get another tour of the John Deere facilities when my friend Jill is able to go with me. Bring your mom (my English teacher) along, Jill. She can carry the gong.
Jeff Ryan is Guy No. 2 in the operation of Two Guys Farming, Inc., near Cresco, IA.