How Education Builds Customer Loyalty

A Maine-based seed producer bet big on customer service as a consultancy. The result? A crop of lifelong customers. Here’s what you can learn from their strategy.

Before organic food was cool, there was Johnny’s Selected Seeds. 

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If the customer gets what they want, they’re more likely to be successful.

Founded in 1973 when 22-year-old Rob Johnston, Jr. left home to live on a farm with some friends, Johnny’s has grown into one of the nation’s most successful commercial seed producers.

Such growth is a testament to the power of education. At Johnny’s, we don’t employ customer service representatives, we have consultants.

If you’re interested in farming, gardening or any aspect of agriculture, the best way to learn is from people who have been doing it their whole lives.

Those are the people who pick up the phone when you call us. We view conversations with customers as consultations.

These conversations are all about learning – they aren’t sales pitches.

Our business is based out of a rural area in central Maine, a community dotted with small farms and inhabited by farmers with a lifetime of knowledge.

These farmers give honest advice about particular products and techniques they’ve used, while providing a realistic expectation of future performance.

Unlike other call centers, where people are expected to turn calls quickly and close the sale, we place value on in-depth conversations.

If the customer gets what they want, they’re more likely to be successful and return in the future. That’s the Johnny’s Selected Seeds philosophy.

To numbers crunchers, that might sound unwise and inefficient. But they’d be wrong.

With demand for organic, locally-produced food continuing to increase, our revenues have grown 10 percent annually during each of the past three years.

Johnny’s reaches a diversified customer base, ranging from small and medium-size farms to grocery producers, farmer’s markets and the avid home gardener.

What makes us unique? It’s not just our product. It’s the information we provide.

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A premium on knowledge

Mid-December is peak seed purchasing time. That’s why the expert-based arrangement is a perfect fit. Our employees need work during winter months before leaving in the spring to work on their own farms.

We don’t have a gimmicky customer loyalty program. We have a higher quality seed that performs as advertised – and experts who know what they’re talking about.

Such a system drives loyalty.

This philosophy is reflected in our mission statement: Helping families, friends and communities to feed one another.

We take education personally. Product quality and differentiation has built Johnny’s reputation, so we continue to invest in research and development to maintain that edge.

For example, there’s a trend in merchandising at grocery stores, farmer’s markets and restaurants to package vegetables by color.

Lettuce often comes in three colors – dark green, light green and red. Sometimes the different colors vary in flavor, but the variety is often for presentation.

So we’re doing extensive testing on product varieties, exploring unique colors to attract buyers at a farmer’s market.

Learning and exploring

We explore every day. It’s how we get better. We’re never satisfied.

One might think that Johnny’s rural location in central Maine makes it challenging to recruit talented people. But by setting up a learning laboratory, of sorts, we’ve brought in the best and brightest in our field.

We leveraged our employees, especially those that attended schools outside central Maine, to contact friends and colleagues that might be interested in working with us.

And to fill seasonal positions, we ask for customer recommendations.

Because many of our employees are growers themselves and live the same lifestyle we service, the brand stays true to itself. Many of our workers have been here for 20 or 30 years.

That stability grants us a credibility that can only be developed over time.

So yes, we produce seeds. And we do it really well. But I’d argue that we’re also a high-level consultant service.

This creates an environment where potential customers aren’t afraid to pick up the phone and ask a question. But more than anything, it fosters a better culture.

People are happy to come to work.

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If the business does well, the employees do well.

This is an employee-owned business. If the business does well, the employees do well. Everybody has a stake in the game.

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The “kick-butt” trophy

One of our employees recently discovered 300 free karate trophies on Craigslist, which became the impetus for the “kick-butt” program.

We’ve got these big trophies with big karate guys on them. Every few weeks, I’ll give a trophy to somebody with the best customer service or best new business suggestion.

It may sound hokey, but this provides extra incentive to learn, to get just a little bit better every day. That spirit is infectious.

Just ask our customers. goldbrown2

David Mehlhorn is Vice President of Sales and Marketing at Johnny’s Selected Seeds. An executive leader with broad-based experience in corporate management, David is interested in multi-channel marketing, sales, customer service and product development.

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Reprinted with permission of Longitudes, the UPS blog devoted to the trends shaping the global economy.