Maintaining client relationships in good times and bad

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Editor’s note: The following Practice Builder was presented by Jeff Weyers, dairy nutritionist in Stephenville, Texas, at the Penn State Nutrition Conference in early November.

Long-term success in any consultant-client relationship not only depends on the competence of the consultant, but the relationship that you build with the entire dairy team. As any consultant would agree, it not only takes competence, but also a personality to be successful at maintaining these relationships. There are many aspects of the consulting business that are crucial to success. In areas that see rapid dairy growth, competition becomes very cut-throat, and customer loyalty is becoming more difficult to find amongst this fierce competition. Being involved in a consulting group with five nutritionists, I’ve seen what has or has not been successful and try to implement these things every day. My days are filled with many phone conversations, highway miles and computer screens.

The most important thing I can do for my clients is answering the phone or calling them back in a timely manner. Taking and making phone calls is very important to the success of a nutritionist. However, because it consumes so much time, learning how to manage this area requires an understanding and patience for both the nutritionist and the client. If I’m with another dairyman, I will not pick up the phone — I communicate this fact to my clients. I also use text message and e-mail as a way to communicate, but only to clients that I know can handle that type of communication. I believe communication is the most important aspect of the consulting world.

Time spent on-site is somewhat dependent on herd size. Average dairy size in central Texas is 400 cows, while average dairy size in the Panhandle is 2,500. Through the month, I rotate each week between west Texas and Kansas, and the next week I will see my dairies in central Texas. Therefore, I see each dairy at least twice per month.

Larger herd size doesn’t always mean longer visits. There are big differences in what dairymen expect on a typical visit. For instance, there are a couple of herds that I do not leave until I’ve talked with the owner, the son-in-law and the herdsman. On the other end of the spectrum, there are herds where a phone call or a quick 20-minute ride in the pickup with the dairyman will satisfy him every two weeks. I have a 300-cow dairy that takes me two hours to complete and I have a 2,700-cow dairy that takes the same. The larger dairy is run by a herdsman who is in frequent contact with me throughout the week. I always include the same routine in my visits such as walking cows, evaluating records, dry matters, etc. The difference comes from how much needs to be discussed with people on the dairy.

My goal is to complete a ration change as soon as possible. A high percentage of the time, I make a ration change before I leave the dairy. If the change is not made immediately, it will be done that night then faxed or e-mailed so they have it before the feeder starts the next morning shift. Length of time on the computer is sporadic. For instance, when rations are working, I obviously don’t  want to change anything. This is a tough thing sometimes because you want the client to remember that he still needs you. Also, in highly competitive areas, you want to stay on top of ingredient costs, because if you let a ration ride too long without a change, this gives the competition that one little area to concentrate on when trying to pull the dairy from you. Other times, such as silage season when everyone is making new crop and running out of last year’s pile, this translates into long nights in front of the computer with ration changes. As far as record evaluation goes, I dedicate time every visit to look at recent history and monthly reports after test day. This is when I establish benchmarks. When looking at records in between test periods, I spend enough time to get an idea of what's going on. I don’t study the computer for hours on end. It’s what is outside on the dairy that is going to tell me the answer I am looking for to make a change. I believe records and benchmarking are very important to dairy success, but you have to know when staring at the computer is enough.

I consult in three different states primarily — Texas, New Mexico and Kansas. This means plenty of time behind the wheel. When you have a young family, the time away from home is on top of the list of causing premature burn-out. One thing that I have done to decrease my travel time is obtain my pilot's license. Now in place of the five-hour drive it takes to get from my house to the Panhandle of Texas, it’s roughly two hours of flying. This allows me to get my mind totally off work and enjoy my favorite hobby. It also allows me to get to the dairy earlier in the day, which keeps me from rushing through things.

At the end of the day, a nutritionist needs to be competent and personable. To maintain clients in current economic status is difficult, but can be done. One thing that I have learned to do during these times is to work as hard as I did when milk price was good. If what we were doing was good before the crisis hit, why change? Therefore, my nutrition philosophy and the way I conduct business has not changed. However, I’ve had to learn to bend the ration some even when I think it’s not the right call. After all, they aren’t my cows. I believe that I need to provide the dairymen with the best-case scenario before deciding how much to deviate away from our goal without too many repercussions for doing so.



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