The Importance of Feedback
One of the benefits of selling cattle by auction is that our cattle get to be put on display to the general public for several days. While our primary goal is to market the cattle we have brought to that particular sale, there is also the opportunity to paint a picture of our operation, and showcase what we do, not only to try and sell our cattle on that particular day, but also to attract future customers. By showcasing our operation at an auction sale, we get substantially more visitors through our pens than those who pass through the farm gate – so it is not only a sales tool, but a method of marketing and increasing our exposure as well.
The question becomes, though, how do we evaluate whether we have been successful at any given sale? Clearly, we can look at our sales results and determine the financial side of the equation (I tend to have both a ‘budgeted’ number and ‘goal’ for the amount of our sales proceeds), but focusing just on sales results, can obscure what a successful auction looks like. That is where constructive feedback has its place.
It may seem simplistic to state but, auctions sell to the higher bidder. It takes at least two bidders to push a price higher. Because of this, if two people are interested, an animal can sell for (far) more than expected. If only one party is interested, that same animal could sell for significantly less than the maximum that person was willing to pay. So judging the success of a sales season by only considering results (or a consignor’s sale average) leaves a lot of insight on the table – specifically for us, when we market only a few animals per year. Clearly, generating a return is important (says the banker), but if we can also get feedback on our program and vision, among other things, then we will be much farther ahead than if we just read the sale report.
In my opinion, constructive feedback is a combination of positive and negative. In our society, we tend to extremes. It is very common to focus solely on the positive, which does not help identify areas that need to improve. To avoid the risk of offending, it is often easier to be vaguely positive and move on. The opposite extreme is also very common, focusing solely on the negative. We’ve all witnessed this, especially in comment threads on social media – comments whose purpose is to cut, anger or show how clever and witty the writer thinks they are. However, neither extreme is overly helpful when the goal is to improve.
The best description of providing feedback that I have found is to be ‘candid while caring’. Simply put, feedback can be blunt, honest and direct, but only once it has been established that the reason feedback is being provided, is because you care enough about their success that you want them to know your thoughts. Delivery is also important. Most people don’t object to being offered praise in public, but negative feedback or coaching should always be done in a private, one-on-one setting. Nobody enjoys being singled out in front of their peers for anything negative, so typically advice is heeded a lot quicker if delivered in private. The short of it is that we can all provide constructive feedback without flitting to either end of the spectrum – life isn’t all sunshine and rainbows. But feedback can also be provided without being an ass.
We appreciate receiving constructive feedback from several sources – the Sales Management Team, our peers, social media, and from our own observations.
The easiest place to start is with Sales Management which, in our case, is Transcon. As I mentioned in previous posts, I do seek out Jay and his team to get feedback both before and after each sale. In any given season, Transcon gets to inspect a heck of a lot more animals (and programs) than I do. They also have a great understanding of what type of cattle are in demand and, at the end of the day, they are paid on commission. They have a rather vested interest in maximizing their returns from a sale. They also need to be honest in their assessments of the cattle on offer because they would like all prospective order buyers to be happy with their purchases. Because of these perspectives, Transcon can provide great input into everything from quality of catalog pictures to cattle condition. (All without me having to comment on the sale order – which is another post to talk about!)
Peer feedback from fellow breeders can be a little trickier. From my experience, there have been a lot of cases of feedback falling into the polite but not value adding ‘looks good’ category, or to the other extreme of ‘I have just what you need to move your herd forward’. Since we are all selling genetics, there is a natural urge for self promotion, but if we can get beyond the bloodline component, there is so much more to discover. Over the years, both of us have spent time observing and trying to learn from fellow consignors, and other breeders that we visit for a cattle tour. We have noticed everything from tack boxes and hospitality areas, to the signage and swept floors around us. The condition (and temperament) of cattle is also important to us. As we are small breeders, we are cognizant that we will always be part of group of consignors. The condition our cattle are in needs to align with the rest of the cattle at the sale. When a sale is over, we consciously try to sit down and compare notes, identifying things that we might be able to do at future sales.
Another area we try to be hyper-aware of is attitude. Win or lose, we need to be relentlessly positive in public. Our behaviour, and the image we are presenting, is very important. If a sale doesn’t go as well as planned, our new buyers should not be aware of our disappointment. It isn’t their fault, and we would like them to be totally stoked about their new purchase. Attitude also goes for the night before, too. We both enjoy a few drinks, but we really don’t want to be remembered as the consignor that got fall down drunk. We might try not to make judgments about the behaviour of others, but we are very aware that there are others who are willing to judge our behaviour and attitude.
Marketing, and the use of Social Media, is another area to glean feedback. There are many questions that need to be considered as we share information about our animals. Are we sharing enough sale info, and are we sharing it in the correct place? Are we sharing to half a dozen different ‘groups’ that all have the same members and are becoming over saturated? Are we differentiating between our personal and professional (farm) profiles? Are we taking a few minutes to congratulate someone in person when they consistently publish content we really enjoy (‘I really enjoy the random FB pics you post about your farm’). There are a lot of different areas for feedback – and probably just as many answers. With social media it is also sometimes difficult to determine whether there is any ‘value’ to what is ‘shared’. It is easy to count likes and read comments, but it is also helpful to receive verbal feedback or a private message to help improve the dissemination of information.
There is also a danger both at sales and with social media to only interact with people of shared interest. In the scheme of things, we have a small herd of cattle that is highly specialized (100% fleck) and trending in a specific direction (polled). If we limit our feedback loop only to people within that group, I think we would miss a lot of opportunities to improve. Our quiet-wean process was derived from a visit to a purebred Simmental breeder (that didn’t have a fleck on the place). A lot of the genomic work we do was built upon the performance testing we did with the purebred hogs we had while I was a kid. Ensuring we are open to learning from a broad range of sources can only make us better over the long run. A good cow is a good cow – the hide colour or breed really doesn’t matter. Getting viewpoints from a diverse group of people is something we consciously try to do.
The final point I’d like to make about feedback is that, while it is importance to receive it, you don’t necessarily have to agree with it. I think it is important to understand ‘why’ the person thinks the way they do, but everyone is entitled to a different opinion. If everybody thought the same way, life would be pretty boring! (And we would never need elections!) When it comes to the purebred cattle business, everyone has their own eye for cattle, their own breeding goals and their own definition of success. If everyone was the same, all of our cattle would look identical – and then how would we make them better? Having the confidence to listen to others, and then to stick to your own vision, is also an important trait.
So when it comes to reflecting on a sale, we try to do more than simply assessing our high seller and average, and comparing it to where we have been previously. We try to dig deeper than the numbers – solicit feedback – and aim to be better for next time. There is so much knowledge and information that can be gleaned from talking with others. Feedback which is more than ‘they look good’ or ‘yikes’, but thought provoking enough to show care while providing some insightful commentary. We will all be better for it.
Until next time,