When you hear about companies innovating digitally and building omnichannel ecommerce strategies to improve the customer experience, it’s not usually in farming.
But that’s exactly what Ballance Agri-Nutrients, a New Zealand farmer-owned co-operative that offers customers a full range of science-backed fertilizers and services, is doing.
At SAPPHIRE NOW, I had the pleasure of speaking with David Scullin, CIO of Ballance Agri-Nutrients, about how the company is digitizing its business from the farm paddock to the fertilizer plant. “Together, creating the best soil and feed on earth, is our purpose,” said Scullin. “We need to be digitally enabled to support that purpose because that’s how an increasing number of our farmers want to engage with us.”
Moving to Omnichannel Ecommerce
Implementing the company’s digital strategy started at the core of its business. “Our first key project was to improve the analytical capability in our organization for the benefit of our people and our customers,” said Scullin. That meant upgrading its business intelligence solution to SAP BusinessObjects and upgrading its ERP solution to SAP S/4HANA.
Now, Ballance is focused on its omnichannel ecommerce strategy. “We are currently implementing SAP Hybris, which is the foundation of our omnichannel capability,” said Scullin.
The omnichannel capability is needed to deliver MyBallance, the company’s new ecommerce offering for customers. “MyBallance allows farmers to easily engage with us online via any channel,” said Scullin.
Not only will MyBallance make it easy for farmers to do business with Ballance, in terms of product selection and ordering, it will turn raw farm data into useful information that helps them farm better and protect the environment.
“Every farmer will have an online, interactive digital farm map accessible from any device. They’ll be able to see on which paddocks they’ve applied nutrients and get proof of placement from the trucks that spread the fertilizer. They will be able to order directly from the map, see the status of their orders, and access their fertilizer plan for the year,” explained Scullin.
Focusing on Customers and Data
The new solution will be a big change for Ballance both internally and for the co-operative’s farmer customers. “We are changing the whole way we capture orders and we’re delivering more value to our customers, so it’s a really exciting time,” said Scullin.
Historically, the Ballance sales team would be very focused on order transactions. Now they are having deep discussions that are focused on understanding the farming system of the farmer, what their goals are, and creating nutrient plans tailored to their needs. “Plans used to just go in as a single bulk order for the year. There was no detailed traceability of dispatches out of our store as genuine order transactions. Now their plan for the year is stored in SAP Hybris and individual deliveries are the orders,” explained Scullin.
The focus on high quality customer data is another big change. “We must have high quality customer data coming into our systems so that we can give enriched information back to them. Capturing better data about their farm type, size, and system enables us to give them proper nutrient recommendations. That drives efficient use of fertilizer, improves productivity and profitability, and allows our farmers to benchmark themselves against their peers,” said Scullin.
Simplifying Processes and Reducing Costs
Farmers were involved in testing the new solution and are keen to start using it. “Farming has become more sophisticated in New Zealand. There’s more corporate ownership and consolidation of farming interests has increased the scale of operations. That means we need to have easy and low-cost transaction processes that work across all digital platforms and complement other farm management systems,” explained Scullin.
The omnichannel solution also ensures a consistent buying experience if farmers choose to buy their fertilizer from a rural distributor. “Rural supply companies will have a user interface into the MyBallance solution so customers can buy their fence posts and wire, boots, and order fertilizer directly from their plan – all in one trip to the store, over the phone, or online,” said Scullin.
Some farmers also hire agronomic advisors to help them with their annual fertilizer plans. Farmers can provide these advisors with access to their records and information so they can see the full picture and provide the best guidance. “It really is a true multi-channel, multi-device solution tailored to every customer, not just an online order and e-commerce solution,” said Scullin.
Innovating for the Future
Simple, consistent customer experiences and lower transaction costs aren’t the only benefits. Better information about fertilizer placement and volume is helping farmers protect the environment.
“Environmental compliance is a very important factor in farming in New Zealand and around the world. We are very focused on helping farmers apply the right nutrients in the right quantities to meet soil and plant requirements. So, we’re trying to innovate digitally with solutions that help farmers operate sustainably, while maximizing production profitability,” explained Scullin.
Ballance plans to continue to innovate on behalf of its customers and may tap into Internet of Things (IoT) technology in the near future. For example, providing weather-based notifications and information to farmers can help improve their fertilizer plans and optimize both their short and long-term spending.
“Short-term weather understanding drives day-to-day decisions on farms. If a heavy rainfall is coming, you may want to use the window before the storm arrives to get your animals to shelter and to spread some fertilizer on the ground to achieve the best results. That’s why I’m really excited about SAP Leonardo and the potential in presents for digital innovation in the long term,” concluded Scullin.