FiveBabyDucksThis is a problem of which I’ve been becoming increasingly aware: people who take your time. They come in a variety of breeds. They might request your time on the phone or over email because they are seeking your help while learning about farming. They may be interested in buying a farm product and ask a lot of questions or want to see everything you’ve got. They may come to look at animals, then change their minds. Some of them don’t show up at the agreed-upon time. And some of them just take more time than you can really afford to give them.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t mind helping people. And I like talking about farming and animals. I believe there is an obligation in one’s occupation, no matter what it is, to contribute to that profession by helping others who are eager to learn. And if someone is considering buying something big from me, like a breeding ram, I certainly don’t begrudge them the opportunity to shop around before making such a major decision.

But the trouble is, time is money. The profit margin on most farm products is very thin. Consider: if I sell a dozen eggs for $4, maybe I’m making $1 on them from an expenses standpoint, but I have labor into caring for the chickens and collecting and packing those eggs, too. Now if I spend a half hour with this egg customer, I’m basically getting paid pennies per hour for the time invested in that product. That doesn’t make any sense! garden

The other angle is that if I’ve set a time to meet with a customer, I have to wait around the house for them. I can’t be out in the field working, I can’t run to town. So, I hold up my end of the bargain and make sure I’m available, often tootling around the house with not much to do, waiting for them to arrive. When they are late, or don’t show up, I’m exasperated: that was time I could have spent getting real work done.

This phenomenon is not new or isolated to a particular industry. Doctors, dentists and other service people struggle with the same thing, and combat it with reminder postcards, reminder phone calls, and penalty fees for no-shows. And I certainly can’t claim to have never been late or forgotten about an appointment myself. It happens.

I’m working on my time-taker management skills, to cut down on their overhead. I happen to be married to someone who has already honed these skills, because he’s a contractor, and deals with these same challenges every day. And often when I complain about these time-takers, he’ll point out to me that it’s my own fault. I’m too laid back about how I set appointments, I need to change my method. So here is advice from Kirk on customer meeting management.

A Special Time, Just For You

First, be sure to let them know you are calling it an appointment. Let them know you are specifically setting aside time to wait for them and meet them. A lot of people make the assumption that you are running some kind of 24-hour store; and that there will always be an employee available to greet them, regardless of what time they may pop in. So, pre-educate them that this is not the case and set the expectation that if they don’t arrive at the scheduled time, nobody will be there.

What Happens To Me When You Fail to Appear

Pinto Explain the impact, beforehand, of them being late or missing the appointment. A lot of people are oblivious to this if you don’t spell it out. For me, it often means I’ve sorted and penned certain animals for them to look at, and tied up the guardian dogs. If they don’t show up, that was a wasted activity for me, and I have to put the animals back after I conclude the person isn’t coming.

It may mean that you turned down another client or potential buyer to meet with this person. So let them know that bailing out could cause you a missed sale or lost job from someone else. We find that salaried people can be especially out of touch with this reality. For them, a paycheck of the same size always arrives on a consistent schedule; regardless of their sick days, vacations, or other work absence. But for a contractor, a last-minute job cancellation equates to a lost day’s wages that can’t be made up. The same is true of missed farm appointments, it’s all lost time that could have been spent on a value-added activity, and wasn’t.

Cooling Off Period

When advertising in a place like craigslist, allow inquiries to accumulate for a short period, like 24 hours, before deciding how to reply. This is a tip I learned from freecycle, a local yahoo grou p dedicated to the exchange of freebie goods. Their rationale is that when people see an online ad, they often reply impulsively with I want it. Especially if it involves baby animals! 😀

But by the next day, they may have reconsidered the feasibility, talked to their spouse, parent, etc. and reality has set in. So it’s good to let those quick replies cool for a bit. And then, remember that these people don’t know how many responses you got or who responded first, and you don’t have to disclose that. If the third person to reply sounds the most committed and the best at communication, you don’t owe persons number 1 and 2 first dibs. Go with whom you think is most likely to follow through, show up on time, and make the purchase.

Know the Way

Make sure visitors have clear directions and the site address, so they don’t get lost while traveling to where you’re going to meet. Some people are good with addresses and the way streets are laid out, other people are visual “landmark” people. So I tend to give directions which speak to both halves of the brain: I mention the street numbering, distances in miles, and the nearby cross street, and I also give some easy-to-remember landmarks. Preferably get their cell phone # and give them yours, so both parties can connect if something unexpected comes up. Triplets

Reminders

If they’ve made the appointment several days or weeks in advance, it’s a good practice to call the evening before and check in to make sure they remember the appointment and are still “on” and have the directions, etc.

Frame It

Give them a time window. In our area, traffic is nasty, so it’s perhaps a little unfair to expect people to to always be spot-on in arriving at a specific time. But a half-hour window is fair, and gives them a goal: I’ll be expecting you at 1:00, I’ll wait until 1:30, but if you’re late beyond that, I won’t be available. I have been guilty of making the mistake of saying sometime after 5:00– and that’s idiotic, because if they show up at 11:00pm, I only have myself to blame for not giving an end to the time window! Kirk says, it’s good to say you have to leave for another appointment at X time (even if the appointment is just with your own to-do list or meal time!), so they understand you will not wait for them if they are late.

Call Me, and Call Me Again

Ask them to give you a call when they are on their way, so that you know for sure they are coming and if they are on time. Ask them to also call as soon as they know they might be late, or if they find they will not be able to come. It’s amazing how many people forget this common courtesy.

Get the Verbal

Never agree to an appointment over email, always force them to call and make the appointment verbally. People are more likely to blow off an email commitment than a verbal commitment. I have learned to say, please call so I can give you directions to our house, as GPS’s often get confused about our area. It’s true, but it also gives me a good excuse to insist on a phone conversation.

Be Firm

It’s easy to cave in when someone says, oh, sorry, Friday and Saturday don’t work for me, can you do it Sunday? I really, really need it by Sunday. If Sunday is your family day, your personal decompression day, or whatever; don’t compromise on that. You’ll just resent business encroaching into your personal time, and will probably not be fully available to the customer anyway. 

There is a woman who contacts me every time I advertise baby chicks, wondering if I can meet her in Chehalis with the birds. I don’t know if she is confused about where Snohomish is, or what. But each time I have to politely decline and explain that the fuel costs and value of my time do not make it worth driving a handful of $5 birds over one hundred miles away from home! (And maybe they’re not worth her time either, and that’s why she’s hoping to convince me to make the drive! 😉 )

Stick to the boundaries you’ve set for yourself of when you are going to be “open for business” and what distances you’re willing to travel, in order to maintain your work-life balance. Sometimes that even means losing a sale.

Treat Time Businesslike

The bottom line is, if you hope to have farming be a profitable venture, you must always be aware of your “hourly rate.” A big piece of that time is spent on dealing with customers. What are your tricks for managing callers and visitors to your business?

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