Keeping the essential services of farm equipment companies rolling through the pandemic took some creative thinking
In farming areas there’s one category of stores that remain open 365 days of the year. Farmers need their local equipment dealers like Jack needs Jill, pandemic or no pandemic.
Farmers are accustomed to standing three feet away across the counter from the parts guy, or sitting with their feet up on the sales representative’s desk drinking coffee.
Although the prairie provincial governments classified farm equipment dealers as essential, their decision does not allow dealers to bend the rules. Make no mistake about it, management and staff take the COVID-19 threat seriously.
One dealership had a near walkout when a staff truck driver couldn’t remember for sure whether he had signed a bill of lading with his own pen or the client’s pen. All work came to a screeching halt as staff moved over to the shop perimeter until it was determined the driver had used his own pen.
Enns Brothers John Deere has eight stores throughout Manitoba.
Human resources manager Carolyn Kristjanson said, “It’s hard to comprehend just how many changes we’ve had to make. But it’s worked very well. Without exception, employees stepped up immediately and have continued to do so every day.
“We’ve had no COVID turnover. No COVID absenteeism. Our actions as an organization over the past few months have focused on a few key areas.”
Early in the process, they created a pandemic response team comprising the Enns Brothers leadership team and human resources. The team has the authority to quickly make decisions and free up resources.
The team meets every morning and is briefed on what had happened the day before. Team members stay current with the changing rules, evaluate risks and work with branches to implement safety policies and procedures.
In a dealership, there are a limited number of positions that can be done remotely. However, each branch worked to be flexible to the needs of the families. In April they recognized that staff might be facing additional costs due to the pandemic, so they provided every employee with a special $500 payment.
It was critical that employees who were not feeling well stayed home and got tested. So in addition to the normal five paid sick days, they added five paid COVID days to cover time off for sick family members or while awaiting test results.
As the environment changed, several initiatives were fast-tracked. Parts and service teams deployed an instant messaging tool to support customer communication and simplify curbside and delivery options.
Expeditors were hired for several branches and situated at the entranceway to help customers navigate their options and get what they needed quickly and safely. All turf and rec customers were served in newly created outdoor show spaces. Sales implemented e-signatures for whole good purchases. Finance introduced remote payments by phone. Their new e-commerce site went live ahead of schedule.
To protect customers, they implemented disinfecting and cleaning protocols. Plexi-glass and other physical barriers were employed at customer touch points. Customer-facing monitors were installed at the parts counters to support distancing while looking at the same screen on both sides of the counter.
Staff were organized into groups and contact between them was minimized. The shops were closed to external visitors. Before seeding and harvest, they moved to full curbside and delivery service. On-farm service calls required a pre-arrival customer questionnaire.
To cut through the rumours, they built an internal COVID page and posted only information from the United States Center for Disease Control, the United Nations World Health Organization, Health Canada and Manitoba Public Health.
In addition to in-person meetings, they also used video, posters, email, instant messaging, the website and the company’s internal intranet.
“When we made a mistake or missed a step, and there were some for sure, the branches pivoted and kept moving forward. We have been able to continue safely operating because of our employees’ unwavering willingness to do what was necessary, the trust of their families that we would keep them safe and the understanding and support of our customers.
“We are fortunate to be in an industry that kept working through the pandemic. Charities were struggling with fundraising. Enns Brothers partnered with McCain Foods to sponsor Free Fry Day, matching donations and raising $180,000 for STARS and Ronald McDonald House. Masked and gloved Enns Brothers teams handed out French fries to the public and personally donated $10,000. Being able to focus on things other than the pandemic was helpful.”
Jim Wood is the chief operations manager for all 37 Rocky Mountain Equipment stores. He said a main component in protecting staff and customers is the advice they get from the regional health authorities in the area of each store.
“It seems every district where we have a store is different in terms of their requirements,” said Wood.
“When it started back in March, I think everyone was pretty fearful, but attitudes evolved since then. Staff understood that we are definitely an essential service. So we never locked our doors. We were ready for farmers when the snow started to melt. We did our best to maintain our regular level of customer service.
“When restrictions lifted, we didn’t go back to normal of course, but it seemed like everyone relaxed, farmers were seeding and spraying we were busy. We continued with most of the protocol, masks and everything. We had customers stand back two oil pails deep from the counter. Coffee in the showrooms disappeared, along with popcorn machines.”
Wood said they increased their janitorial service, with special emphasis on disinfectants. Any surface that might be touched by two different people was immediately sprayed, same with bathrooms. They disinfected bathrooms after each use.
Wood says business levels were about normal for most of the time since April, but there were a couple months they qualified for the wage subsidy.
“In March our contingency plan was to close down a branch store if a staff member tested positive. All staff would be sent home for the correct isolation time period. We would thoroughly disinfect and then bring in staff from other stores.
“We had one event in April where we did actually close the branch and gave it a serious disinfection. We closed on Tuesday night. We did the disinfection treatment on Thursday and we opened again on Friday. The staff member was OK within seven days, and he came back to work. We arranged for customers who needed parts those two days to have them shipped from other branches.”
“Lots of staff get pressure from home. A lot of people really fear the virus, stoked by social media and news outlets. There’s a lot of mis-information and frightening stories, but nobody actually quit.”