Robert Saik, founder and CEO of AGvisorPRO, wants to displace the 1-800 number when it comes to agriculture.
Farmers will be well familiar with the frustrations of long-distance service, from the challenge of describing or diagnosing problems over the phone, to the trials of navigating number-option phone systems and automated messages.
The result, Saik argues, is often a “lacklustre experience,” and it’s something that he hopes his company’s Tech Direct platform can change.
Launched earlier this summer, Tech Direct promises to connect farmers for free with experts from a range of agribusinesses signed on with the service.
“The reason that we believe this is important is because, for one thing, a lot of the technical support people in companies are at home right now and they’re not on the road and not driving and many farmers don’t want them to drive into their yards,” Saik said, pointing to the ongoing issues with COVID-19.
Why it matters: More farmers are getting service remotely thanks to COVID-19, but AGvisorPRO says Tech Direct can take some of the inherent frustration out of the process.
Measures to curb the spread of the pandemic have created an “excess capacity” of experts, often company technicians or technical sales representatives, available for help, Saik said.
“What we do with Tech Direct is we register the company’s name and we register the company’s proprietary products and services and we register the company’s representatives,” he said.
Producers using the AGvisorPRO app can then search for the expert best able to help solve their specific issue.
Once connected, producers can interact with that expert through either audio or video. Sessions are set up to share technical information and high-resolution photos and are also recorded for later reference, if needed.
“As a farmer, I can go back next year and I can say, ‘What did he say last year about the timing for boron on canola?’ and all of that stuff is saved in the user’s account,” Saik said.
Visual elements of the service, such as video, are meant to ease some of the issues compared to audio alone.
Descriptions such as the, “blue ball valve on the north side of the sprayer,” are of limited use to technicians, Saik argued, compared to the ability to simply share visuals for diagnosis and service.
“We believe that this will not only support farmers, but we also believe this will support ag retail, because ag retail can have instantaneous conversations,” he said.
Similar benefits could apply to veterinary services, he noted. Earlier this year, local vets reported limiting farm visits due to COVID-19.
The platform expands the prior AGvisorPRO service, launched last year as a “minimal viable product.”
“Farmers would pay,” Saik said. “They’d download the app for free and then they would be able to connect with experts and they would pay for that expertise. That’s only fair when you’re dealing with somebody who makes their living by basically offering their expertise.”
The business model for Tech Direct, however, flips that system on its head. Farmers no longer pay for their connection. Instead, Saik says, AGvisorPRO will make its money from agribusiness partners. Businesses pay an annual subscription, plus connection fee, to access customers using the platform.
The benefit, Saik says, is ultimate cost savings for the subscribing company.
“We save the company money by keeping the rep at home,” while still having that rep answer questions as if they were on site, he said.
Eleven businesses have signed on with Tech Direct so far, ranging from equipment firms AGI, Flaman and Pattison Liquid Systems, to agronomy or precision ag consultants like Point Forward Solutions, Sure Growth Solutions and Taurus Agricultural Marketing, to ATP Nutrition and Brandon’s Aberhart Ag Solutions. Realty firms like Hammond Realty, risk manage firm Global Ag Risk Solutions and financial firm 33seven round out the list.
Ag in Motion
The Tech Direct launch was enough to take honours from this year’s Ag in Motion (AIM) virtual farm show. AGvisorPRO, which launched its basic services during AIM last year, earned the farm show’s 2020 AIM Innovation Award for agribusiness services earlier this summer.
“To have AGvisorPRO come in with, I think, a new way to communicate with experts in the field — I think that’s pretty cool,” show director Rob O’Connor said at the time.
“The discussion at the committee level was, ‘How much further will this go?’” he added. “This probably opens up some new doors.”
The sheer size of Western Canada could easily translate to hours of distance between an expert and the farmer who needs to talk to them, O’Connor noted, while the Tech Direct has the possibility of instantaneous communication.
Lack of rural connectivity does provide some challenge to the technology.
“I’ll always bring this up,” Saik said. “You can’t have a smart farm with a stupid internet connection.”
Tech Direct was designed with “thin architecture” in order to make the most of sometimes scarce bandwidth, Saik noted. For example, he said, a video call will drop down to audio only if the connection lags.
“With all that being said, as we build out more robust functionality into the future, we’d like to have better coverage, and that’s an issue. That’s an issue for agriculture. Everybody is suffering from the same thing,” he said.
O’Connor also acknowledged the problem, although he expects the situation to improve.
“As these innovations come down the pipe, I think we’re going to see those data providers also improve those systems too,” he said.
A survey by Keystone Agricultural Producers this spring found that almost two-thirds of rural respondents were somewhat to very dissatisfied with their cellular and internet service.