An article from Greenhouse Grower
Republished with permission
By  | September 13, 2013

High-quality, clean plants. Shipping plants in small increments. Returning calls. Giving access to an on-call horticulturist. Informing customers of all costs up front. Sending thank-you notes. These are all things Jolly Farmer does that add up to good customer service, which is of utmost importance to the operation headquartered in the Saint John River Valley of New Brunswick, Canada.

One might say the young plant grower has an old-fashioned view of the way customers should be treated, although its operations – and the way it does business – are fully modernized. But when it comes to customer service, everything matters right down to the last detail, and it can make a big difference in an operation’s bottom line, says Jolly Farmer Sales Manager Peter Darrow.

“One of our goals is to make it easy to do business with our company,” Darrow says. “Part of that is being able to answer and return calls promptly. We try to call everyone back within an hour of when they leave a message. That really means something.”

Quality Speaks For Itself

In an industry like floriculture, quality needs to be a given, Darrow says. Jolly Farmer has instilled strict sanitation and insect control standards, so the plants it ships are clean.

“When I get a comment from a customer saying, ‘The state inspector was here and when I told him I get my plants from Jolly Farmer, he said he didn’t need to inspect because your material is always clean,’ that’s a vote of confidence,” Darrow says. “That’s number one, because if we’re sending out something that isn’t clean, the customer is going to have to struggle all the way through.”

Jolly Farmer sells directly to its grower customers, bypassing the broker network. Darrow says that connection gives the operation a direct link to its customers that other producers don’t have. Customer service representatives are assigned to each grower and Jolly Farmer has made it a policy to have someone available to answer telephone calls at all times during business hours.

“People want to feel important,” Darrow says. “They want to feel that you’re listening, that you’re thinking about them. Customer service has so much to do with understanding and relating to them. We train our staff that way and it’s a big part of the criteria for who we hire to work with customers.”

Jolly Farmer’s primary customers are small- to medium-sized growers and grower-retailers throughout North America. Its largest customer spans three acres, yet the operation produces more than 98 million plugs and liners annually, with the majority (83 percent) of its material produced from seed.

Provide Customer-centric Services

Because of the size of its customers, Jolly Farmer offers services that appeal to the smaller grower. This means offering a no-minimum-order policy and providing many of its products in smaller ordering increments – third trays and half trays of different plants. Customers can mix and match any combination of the products it offers in small increments in a shipping box, up to 24 different items.

plug-box-filled-with-plants-2“This is a key factor to enabling customers to not over-order,” Darrow says. “We tell them we want them to order the product that they can grow and sell at a good margin. If they don’t sell it, no one has benefited.”

Its customers also know up-front what all of their costs are – including the price of plants, royalties and shipping – to elminate any surprises later. The cost of freight is one thing Jolly Farmer has carefully measured for efficiency, using the same size box for all of its shipments via FedEx. The dimensions of the box allow the dimensional weight to be very close to the actual weight. FedEx measures both weights and charges for whichever is higher, Darrow says.

“When our customers are trying to figure out how to price their finished product, they need to know the whole picture,” Darrow says. “They don’t want to know in July that there’s a freight bill coming that they hadn’t counted on.”

The operation also offers discounts for early ordering, early payment and high-volume orders, as well as 60-day credit terms.

“This flexibility lets customers choose, based on their cash flow,” Darrow says. “All of these pieces make a whole package, positioning us as a valuable supplier.”

Connect Customers With Culture

sales and service repsPart of buying young plants from Jolly Farmer also includes access to on-call horticulturist Ron Adams, who contracts with Jolly Farmer to provide its customers with plant culture support. The 30-plus-year veteran is now a private horticultural consultant who formerly worked for Ball Horticultural Co. for many years.

“He’s a third party, which keeps the lines clear between our operation and our customers,” Darrow says. “We have emphasized with Ron that if he sees something we’re doing wrong, we want to know about it, but if the customer needs help, we want him to teach that customer. An honest appraisal of the situation is important and it has worked out well.”

That attention to detail extends to Jolly Farmer’s 200-page, 4-color catalog, which includes cultural information and guides, and how to plan each season. Darrow also attends California Spring Trials, as well as grower trials at C. Raker & Sons in Michigan and Metrolina Greenhouses in North Carolina to advise customers about new varieties and how they are performing.

“We can’t offer everything – selling direct has certain limits,” Darrow says. “But we have a great line-up and we want to make sure we’re offering the best available plants. Viewing field evaluations helps us reinforce what we’re doing and let customers know that we are offering  great varieties.”

Don’t Be Indifferent

In the end, all of the services Jolly Farmer provides show its customers that they are valued – and when customers feel valued, they feel loyal, Darrow says.

“Two-thirds of customers who stop buying at a company do so because they were treated with indifference,” Darrow says. “That doesn’t mean the service was poor – it means the customer service representatives were indifferent. They didn’t care.
“We are always looking at how we can make customer service repeatable. Our reps never do canned speeches. We want them to be spontaneous but they work with a process so their service has a friendly flow of information.
“We read the feedback forms and ask customers how we can do better. There’s always something. Most of all, we listen. Listen, listen, listen to your customers. That’s the key to repeat business.”