Following a Farmer’s Weekly article about trading in ‘grey’ tractor parts, Roelof Bezuidenhout writes that warnings about the risks associated with cheap imported engines could pale into insignificance against the damage that poor after-sales service from local suppliers does to a client’s confidence and patience.
Cut-price grey goods, particularly engines, are flooding the agricultural and industrial markets.
Even farmers in remote areas are quickly learning how easy and relatively safe it can be to import almost anything (including spare parts) directly through global suppliers such as Alibaba.com.
One North West trader recently remarked he’d rather deal with the Chinese via the internet – at a fraction of the cost – than pay a fortune for equipment and then have to fight tooth-and-nail for after-sales service from local companies.
He might have a point, despite warnings about cheap imports and threats that vendors of pirate goods will soon be investigated by the Consumer Council. With rural infrastructure collapsing and businesses in farming towns closing down, more and more companies are selling their goods to farmers through part-time agents who are neither qualified nor empowered to make important decisions regarding after-sales service. What’s more, even head office staff of big name brands no longer seem to even faintly understand farming or life on the platteland.
For example, they don’t understand that when a Karoo farmer has problems with a water pump he has to get it sorted out within a day. That’s the time it takes to courier a spare part from the nearest city. If the spare part misses the truck or turns out to be the wrong one – which invariably happens – then the farmer and his animals can be in serious trouble. Neither do they realise that the platteland today has very few good electricians or mechanics who are prepared to rush out to a farm to do emergency repairs.
Shortly before Christmas last year, a mini-drought forced me to buy a new submersible borehole pump and control panel for a critical section of the farm. As the farm is 200km from the nearest city, I bought the pump (a well-known make) through the local co-op, with the assurance that there would be 100% after-sales service. After some teething problems the unit worked well for a few weeks. Since then it has been off more than on. Instead of immediately sending out a technician to diagnose and fix the fault, the supplier in Port Elizabeth tried to solve the problem via cellphone conversations (when there’s a signal) with its local agent, who is neither trained nor has the necessary tools for the job.
Every farmer has his or her own – even more expensive and blood-boiling – stories to tell. What I should have done, of course, was to order the pump only on condition the supplier undertakes to install and test it at their own expense. Returning the pump and claiming back my money sounds like another easy option, but it would have meant another day or two wasted and even more stock-watering woes. In semi-desert, once you get behind with the water supply it gets increasingly difficult to play catch-up.
One problem could be that the new, cut-throat competition is forcing companies, who perhaps have had things too easy in the past, to cut costs after they’ve given enough discount to knock the opposition. So, once they’ve pocketed your money they’d prefer not to hear your complaints because that could eat into their budgets. When you pay R10 000 for a pump, you expect it to start at the flick of a switch and to deliver the amount of water indicated on the chart. The purchase of new equipment is supposed to save you time and money, not complicate your life. You don’t want to send a worker to check on the reservoir every two hours. I don’t want to call out electricians or make fruitless phone calls for help every second day. You want the agent to be on the ball and fix problems promptly.
Any company that wants to continue doing business with farmers should teach its technicians and staff, from receptionist to shipping clerk, that farmers are special customers with unique demands. Their boreholes don’t sit a few steps from their backdoors. Water is their lifeblood and they have to work for it. It doesn’t simply flow from a tap as it does in the city.
If companies can’t give a farmer an honest deal or if their equipment is too sensitive or sophisticated to be installed by laymen, say so! Otherwise you’re going to eventually lose business. If businesses want to beat the grey onslaught, they must try to revitalise their after-sales departments. |fw