Covid-19: Using technology to support and interact with customers
16th April 2020
- Frontier and its divisions continue ‘business as usual’ by using several digital tools to support customers
- Sales teams host virtual farmer meetings, webinars and group discussions via video conference
- Technical advisors help customers to use precision farming software, assess crops and answer field-based queries through video calls
- Trial site data, crop progress and reports to be shared with growers via webinars, videos, drone footage and photo updates in place of summer open days
- Customers are able to manage all aspects of their farm business from home, including all financial information related to their account, using Frontier’s MyFarm platform.
Frontier and its subsidiaries have adopted the use of several digital platforms to stay connected with customers, colleagues, suppliers and partners, helping to ensure all areas of the business can operate as close to normal as possible throughout the Covid-19 pandemic.
Video conferences, webinars, emails, phone and video calls, texts and video updates via platforms such as Starleaf, FaceTime and WhatsApp have become the ‘new norm’ after the business ceased all non-essential face-to-face contact. Since then, with some 450 employees now set up to work from home and additional social distancing rules in place to protect the health and safety of customers and staff members who are unable to work remotely, digital communication channels have become pivotal to the business’ operations.
“Our customers and colleagues have been incredibly quick to adapt,” explains group commercial strategy director, Andrew Flux. “In an unprecedented situation our dedicated IT team has been able to facilitate an easy transition to remote and online working for many of our staff, including the use of various digital platforms to communicate with customers in ways that suit them, while also maintaining communication with the wider agriculture industry.”
Frontier has always used video conferencing to communicate between its various sites, but it is now using it to facilitate video calls and conferences with customers, partners and suppliers. In fact, some of Frontier’s sales teams and advisors are finding that video conferencing is a great way to host ‘virtual farmer meetings’.
David Robinson, head of innovation and knowledge exchange, is using the technology to host online discussions in place of his usual in-field meetings. “It’s certainly different,” David comments, “but I’ve had some really positive feedback.
“When you have to change your way of working so quickly, you worry that it won’t suit everyone. While in-field meetings aren’t possible, my priority is making sure I can still communicate with customers and provide them with the advice, insights and recommendations they’d usually expect.
“Video conferencing is allowing me to do this. I’ve been able to schedule several meetings over a set period and participants are reminded when we’re due a catch-up. It’s vital that we encourage discussion and provide everyone the chance to ask questions as they normally would when face-to-face. These video calls help this to continue, albeit in a different way. They break up the feeling of isolation too, which is just as important.”
Video conferences benefit customers who work with multiple representatives from Frontier too, with the platform letting them speak to their agronomist and farm trader, as well as advisors from Kings, SOYL and other divisions, all at once. As a result, useful group discussions can take place, with all participants able to contribute, share knowledge and address specific topics, trends and recommendations.
Video calls have long been used as a way to communicate socially, with software such as FaceTime and WhatsApp video already accessible to most. However, they are now proving useful for both Frontier’s advisors and customers.
While the business’ technical experts are able to share field updates and plot progress from trial sites, customers are using video calls to show field activity and ask questions about crops and products.
Kings customers, for example, are getting advice on specialist plots and stewardship features. By contacting their advisor by video call, they are able to give an overview of field conditions, show how plots are progressing, address anything they feel might need specific management, and ask questions on areas they are unsure about. Discussions are then clarified through follow-up emails, ahead of further calls.
Sales manager for Kings, Richard Barnes, has seen an immediate acceptance of more digital communication between his team of advisors and their grower customers. He explains, “The willingness of our customers to adapt to new ways of working with us, including using unfamiliar technology, has highlighted the strength of the relationships they have with us and their trust in what we provide.
“We’ve had great meetings between single advisors and several customers at once, which are useful when discussing topics related to compliance and scheme requirements – particularly Countryside Stewardship applications as we’re now in an extremely busy period for these. Everyone can join the conversation – one grower might ask a question that another wouldn’t, but it’s useful if everyone knows the answer.
“We’re also using video to look at plots and help with field-based enquiries. Our customers are relying on our advice to be delivered in quite an unconventional way now; we know it’s different and it doesn’t necessarily compare to being in the field with them, but we’re incredibly grateful for their enthusiasm and we’re seeing many examples of it working well. We’re also working with partner organisations to deliver online webinars in place of events we were previously due to attend.”n an extremely busy period for these. Everyone can join the conversation – one grower might ask a question that another wouldn’t, but it’s useful if everyone knows the answer.
SOYL’s advisors are also using video calls to support customers with their precision farming technology. Area manager, Stuart Alexander, has found that it has been helpful for growers who need advice while already out in the field. He explains, “We already have a 24/7 hardware support team to help with GPS queries because we know the importance of keeping our customers up and running.
“However, video calls mean those of us on the ground can now be present in the cab too. Communicating via video, particularly when a customer has questions relating to their variable setup, means we can see exactly what they are seeing. We can provide guidance in real-time so they can get on with their work as planned.”
Sharing expert advice in place of trial open days and summer events
Like many other businesses during this pandemic, Frontier announced that it has postponed its schedule of summer events and is looking at alternative ‘online’ solutions to take their place.
The 3D Thinking open days, usually held in June, are a core part of the business’ innovative trials and demonstration work. Head of SOYL and technical services, James Moldon, is working with the technical and sales teams to assess new, digital ways to disseminate the same insightful trial data that attendees would normally expect to receive.
Commenting on these plans, James says, “We are looking at various digital channels to support the sharing of information from our trial sites. We’re already utilising video conference facilities; Starleaf lets us deliver presentations, or webinars, to multiple participants, so we are exploring that route as a way for our experts to share the insight and learnings they would normally discuss at an open day.
“We know the value of physically seeing a crop in the field too, and our customers are keen to receive regular updates about how plots are progressing in our trial sites. We have experts working in isolation to monitor their development; by using phones or tablets on site, they can video the crops as they grow and pick out the key visual variations. These can then be shared with our customer base immediately, or discussed at a later date. We’re also using a drone to capture imagery for the purpose of assessing pests and disease, overseeing management and to share further updates. As well as communicate this information directly with our customers, we’re looking to provide updates on other channels such as social media, our blog and YouTube.”
MyFarm – a useful, interactive digital space for customers and advisors
As well as direct communications becoming ‘virtual’, the process of sharing information with advisors and managing customer accounts has too.
MyFarm is Frontier’s online farm management platform; a digital resource that is available free of charge to all of its customers. With many of Frontier’s administrative processes being digitised as a result of the coronavirus, MyFarm’s MyAccount application is useful for customers who want to easily view financial information associated with their account, including balances, payments (BACS) to and from the farm business, and copy paperwork such as invoices, contracts and credit notes.
“MyAccount has been embedded in our MyFarm platform since it’s relaunch almost a year ago,” explains head of digital development, Tom Parker. “It gives customers access to all trading, financial, grain and movement information associated with their Frontier account which, in the current situation, can makes things much easier. Documentation can be saved or printed for record-keeping purposes and filtering options make it easy to navigate to certain types of information.”
Other MyFarm applications which can prove beneficial are MyCropMarketing and MyMarkets. “During the pandemic, the markets have been extremely volatile and very unpredictable. MyCropMarketing gives our customers 24-hour access to live market prices so they can keep on top of movements. Similarly, MyMarkets provides the futures grid our own traders are using, and customers can read our latest market reports,” says Tom.
MyFarm also makes it easy to manage crop records and recommendations in conjunction with the farm’s agronomist, as well as assess precision farming data and map and record stewardship features. All of the information can be shared with the relevant advisors where required. “Everyone has access to one version of the truth this way,” says Tom. “Logging all of this information in a safe, secure space that allows for interaction across the whole farm team can be beneficial during a time that face-to-face meetings just aren’t possible.”
Every customer with a Frontier, SOYL or Kings account has access to a free MyFarm account. Customers can login here or, for those yet to use MyFarm, they can get started by completing an online form.
People remain a core part of Frontier
While the Covid-19 pandemic has brought with it some considerable changes, it’s people who remain centric to Frontier and its subsidiaries.
“It’s brilliant to see how our employees and customers have transitioned to a new working environment,” says Andrew. “There have been plenty of takeaways that we can certainly use in the future, but completely replacing face-to-face communication is not something we would look to do in the long-term at Frontier.
“Our business is very much about relationships between people; both internally and with our customers. We know how important it is to our growers to be able to physically see and speak to advisors in situ, and there are some aspects of being on farm that just can’t be conveyed through a computer or mobile screen.
“Embarking on a wave of new digital channels at once is unfamiliar territory for many of us, but at the moment, it’s also in the interest of everyone’s safety that we embrace it during this time. We’re incredibly grateful to our customers who have joined us across so many digital channels and, whatever the situation, we will always remain committed to delivering our usual high standards of service and support.”