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Agritourism Speaker: Look Through Customer's Lens

by Jerry Goshert

Published: Friday, February 8, 2019

Agritourism operators are on the front lines of education, serving as a bridge between the declining number of food producers and consumers. These operations—corn mazes, U-pick fruit orchards and vegetable patches, Christmas tree farms and wineries—are springing up in all parts of the country as farmers look to cash in on consumers' desire to eat local foods and enjoy authentic farm experiences.

There are between 30,000 and 35,000 such farms in the United States and Canada, according to Corey Connors, executive director of the Alexandria, Va.-based North American Farmers' Direct Marketing Assn. The nation's largest agritourism group held its annual convention early this week in Noblesville, Ind.

The number of farms opening their barn doors to the public is growing, Connors said, because of various factors, most notably "supply-chain" issues. In many cases, farm owners are earning less from processors and want to increase profitability by moving closer to consumers.

However, as NAFDMA members learned this week, there are certain challenges that go along with having consumers visit your farm. There are concerns relating to liability, hiring and training employees, marketing, and making the farm accessible to those with disabilities.

And then there is customer service.

On Monday, convention attendees heard from a former Walt Disney World Co. executive who is now a consultant on customer service. Dennis Snow, who has authored two books on that topic, shared some tips that will help farm owners achieve a "service-driven" culture.

Snow told the audience of over 250 agritourism operators that, at Walt Disney World in Florida, the product being sold to customers isn't the "Tower of Terror" or any other ride; it's an experience. Likewise, farms should offer an experience that makes guests happy, whether that experience is a visit to a pumpkin patch or a journey through a corn maze.

Disney bills itself as "the happiest place on earth," and Snow says that it's more than just a slogan. It's also a business strategy. Farms that adopt the same approach will look at the experience through the customers' lens and create a series of little "wow" moments. When farms do this consistently, customers become loyal to the brand.

By contrast, farms that look at customer service from a "task" mentality will likely fall short of this goal, according to Snow. For example, an airline that trains its flight attendants to recite safety instructions may be fulfilling a legal requirement, but how many of the passengers actually listen and remember what was said? When companies have a task mentality, people tend to feel "processed" rather than valued, Snow said.

"When you care about the quality of their experience, they (customers) feel valued," he said.

In the example of the flight attendant, Snow said flight attendants at Southwest Airlines are trained to add humor to their pre-flight presentations. This approach turns an ordinary safety speech into an enjoyable experience.

In many cases, the extra attention devoted to customer service doesn't require extra time and costs nothing. At Disney World, the end of the day, after the fireworks show, can be a difficult time for guests who are tired from a long day at the theme park. In keeping with the culture of the "happiest place on earth," bus drivers often hold a Disney trivia contest or invite children to sing songs.

In another example of service excellence, some of the housekeeping staff add a little humor when they find stuffed animals lying on the floor of the hotel room. Snow said they tuck the characters into bed and turn on the television. When guests enter the room, they are often impressed by the humor. Snow said this extra step takes only 20 seconds but delivers a "wow" moment that inspires customer loyalty.

For agritourism operations, Snow said a helpful exercise is to map out each step of the process, from the time the customer parks their car to when they drive away. Analyze the process from the customer's perspective, and then ask your employees to answer two questions. The first is, what would mediocre service look like at this step? The second question is, what would excellent service look like at this step? He said the answers are very enlightening, and provide a teachable moment for your team.

Snow said your employees will come up with many ideas. The goal is to capture the best ones and weave them into the processes at your farm—everything from parking to buying tickets to boarding wagons.

The former Disney executive said it is important to pay attention to the little things, such as signage, trash cans and the overall appearance of your farm. Make sure you are sending the right messages. At Disney World, for example, it is every employee's responsibility to pick up trash. He said trash and other "visual distractors" weaken the brand.

Another suggestion is to train employees on the importance of keeping "backstage" behavior from coming "on stage." At Disney World, the workers who wear the costumes, such as Cinderella, do not smoke or use their cell phones while they are within eyesight of the guests.

"Does it matter how many billions they spend at Disney World if Cinderella acts this way?" Snow asked.

He said a company's culture is defined in terms of behaviors. Therefore, the road to excellence begins with the leaders modeling the right behavior and then training their employees to do the same. Behavior that is inconsistent with the culture will chip away at the brand.

The NAFDMA convention drew participants from across the U.S., including Michigan, Ohio, Illinois, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Arkansas and Washington. At least one Michiana farm was on hand. David and Michelle Frushour, co-owners of Thistleberry Farm in South Bend, listened to Dennis Snow's presentation and thought the information was valuable.

David said he was interested in Snow's emphasis on analyzing things from the customer's lens.

"We always need to improve the customer experience," he said.

The Frushours have a 40-acre corn maze, you-pick pumpkins, you-cut sunflowers, along with pony rides and other activities.

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