What’s it like to work in agricultural sales?

Does anyone grow up dreaming of becoming a salesperson? In truth, probably not. But there are those who would argue it is time to give agricultural sales jobs an image overhaul, because they are a far cry from the stereotypes of old.

John Davies, director of De Lacy Executive, says people’s initial reaction to the idea of sales is that it involves bullying others into buying things they don’t really want.

Yet in reality, such jobs in the farming and food sector are based on technical knowledge and relationship building. Good sales people have a high standing in the community because farmers know, trust and respect them.

See also: Farming careers: Farm machinery product manager

Technical knowledge

“We have a problem in that people don’t know how good the jobs are. They think it is about order-taking. But in agriculture it is very much a ‘technical sell’, in that it is about identifying the needs of a business and then offering solutions to the issues they face.

“Sales people are the source of some of the most valuable information farmers receive. They are the adviser that many people call on, rather than the consultant.”

Brian Hutchison, director of Hunter Chase Consultants, agrees. “There are very few jobs now that are straight selling, the days of that have gone. The role has evolved and an individual has to be able to show how they can provide value for the customer. It is becoming more of a peer-to-peer relationship.

Communication skills

Anyone considering a sales role in farming should have a good understanding of British agriculture and the reality of life as a farmer, says Mr Hutchison.

“They also need to have good communications skills – particularly listening so they are able to ask the right questions, process the information and relate it back to the customer. The ability to build rapport and trust is vital.”

Organised and resilient

So what are the other traits required for someone to do well? It is true that people do need to be resilient to work in sales because you have to deal with being told no, says Mr Davies.

The ability to organise and present information in a professional fashion is also an important attribute.

It can also be tough when first starting out as it takes time to make contacts and build trust with potential customers.

Transferable skills

The skills developed in the job – such as persuading and influencing – could set you up for the future.

“These are attributes that all good managers need. So a commercial role can be a good stepping stone to other more senior roles.”

Salary potential

The salaries on offer for sales roles can be very attractive too. There is a huge range between businesses, but some sales directors can be paid in the region of £80,000.

While agronomists and feed specialists might not consider themselves as working in sales, selling is a part of the job. Those at the top of their game, with a really strong book of loyal customers, can earn up to £100,000/year.

This is not the norm – that’s probably more like £35,000-£60,000 – but it does show the potential.

There can be other benefits to sales roles such as company cars and the freedom to organise one’s own diary to factor in too.

“Sales people tend to be paid on results and don’t have to account for every moment of their time,” explains Mr Davies.

Diverse work

Guy Moreton from recruitment business More People, points out the fresh produce sector offers an interesting alternative to more mainstream agricultural roles.

The work can be high pressure because of the product’s short shelf-life, but it is exciting in that it can involve negotiating big-volume deals worth millions with retailers.

“Mention sales to people and they often have a picture on their mind of someone like Swiss Tony [from The Fast Show] or Del Boy from Only Fool’s and Horses,” he says. “Yet the work is brilliant and diverse.”

Will Wilson

Case study: Will Wilson

Will Wilson admits that when he left university he wasn’t sure what he wanted to do as a career.

His course in food marketing and business management at Reading University had been very commercially focused. However, he wasn’t initially drawn to sales positions and for a time considered agricultural journalism or farm management as a career.

Top traits

  • Likeable
  • Tenacious
  • Honest
  • Open-minded
  • Persistent
  • Organised
  • Knowledgeable about product
  • Brave

That all changed in April 2013, when he accepted a position with silage clamp specialist Bock UK as its business development manager.

Two years later, after helping to grow the company significantly, he finds himself taking more responsibility for the management of the company.

Will says for the past two years the role has centred around securing new business for the company, but to do that 50% of his time is really about acting like a consultant.

“There is no such thing as pure selling in agriculture. You are talking to an informed customer and every conversation is about sharing advice.

“There is an awful lot of free information available to farmers, but they don’t always have time to go through it. You can be the source.”

Offering and sharing advice helps you to identify customer need and build rapport with potential customers, he says.

But it is not all about talking, he stresses. A critical skill is the ability to listen to what the customer is telling you.

“I have been told a good salesperson has two big ears and one small mouth. You need interpersonal skills. You have to have confidence, but not be arrogant.”

Will says a big attraction of a job outside of farm management was that he’d have a better chance of keeping his weekends work-free.

Because he has the ability to plan his own diary he also has a certain amount of freedom to decide what he does and when.

But he admits it is still hard work and the driving in particular – he did 35,000 miles last year – is exhausting.

However, the job does give him confidence in his own abilities, he says.

Another upside is that it brings him into contact with a constant stream of “amazing people” who have grown their own businesses in an inspiring way.

“It’s quite exciting – the negotiating is quite fun too,” he adds.

“Plus, if you are aspiring to a management role, it is worth remembering that a lot of senior managers have sales experience.

“It is a really good proving ground.”