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Although you’re tied together for the season, managing problem CSA members is no different from managing other customers:
When is the right time to establish those clear expectations? Before customers purchase a share, between the share purchase and the first delivery, and during the first few weeks of delivery. Your website should be clear about crop selection and delivery schedules, as well as your farm’s policies about how long a pickup site is open, whether shares are stored until the next day, and what happens when members miss a share. When a customer purchases a share, they should receive that information again. And as the share delivery season starts, it doesn’t hurt to provide share pickup details and policies one more time.
And, of course, for you to be clear about the promises you make to your customers about quality, quantity, selection, and timing, you need to have a clear understanding of what you can actually provide. If you don’t have the farming skills, equipment, land, or infrastructure to do what you say you are going to do, you’ve created a recipe for CSA member challenges throughout the season, and beyond.
How do you determine if the problem is yours or your customer’s? Ask yourself how often the problem is arising: if the problem or complaint is a frequent occurrence, then the problem likely originates with your operation, rather than a “problem member.”
Everybody’s busy. When a member doesn’t pick up their box, that doesn’t necessarily mean that they don’t love you or love their vegetables. Some farmers ask site hosts to call members to remind them to pick up their boxes, but this isn’t always possible or practical.
At Rock Spring Farm, we used our email newsletter service to send newsletters at 4:00 PM the day before we delivered our shares. When we started this, our pickup rate surged from 85% to 98%.
Sometimes a member won’t pick up their box, and will expect you to do something about this. This is where it pays to have been clear about your farm’s policies around share pickups – do your site hosts hold on to shares until the next day? Do you offer a “make-up” box? Do you have the ability to deliver an extra box to a different site on a different day of the week? Can members come select some produce at your farmers market stand? The more flexibility you can integrate into your operation, the more likely you are to have a satisfied customer – but you can also raise member expectations to a point where the hassle-factor and expenses associated with resolving special issues outweighs the good of keeping that member on board.
People give you money, you give them vegetables. If people don’t give you money, you don’t give them vegetables. Just like members who don’t pick up their boxes, the best practice is to cut the problem off at the pass. Use a payment service or CSA member management service to set up recurring charges to a credit or debit card, or ask members to submit post-dated checks for the payment schedule.
If you’ve set up payment plans and people don’t follow through, send a nice reminder email, requesting that they send money immediately and reply to your email with a confirmation of their plans. If that doesn’t work, pick up the phone and make a phone call –it’s not fun to call people to ask for money, but you need to get results. And if you can’t get your money, stop delivering their produce. Just make sure you notify them first.
Whether it’s putting boxes on hold or changing pickup locations, members often don’t understand what a challenge this represents for the CSA farmer. You’ve got two choices here: establish the expectation for special treatment (or no special treatment) up front, or figure out how to manage the special treatment.
CSA member management services make it straightforward to manage putting shares on a vacation hold, or to change pickup locations permanently or temporarily. If you manage CSA information on your own spreadsheets, this becomes a much more difficult proposition – and probably manageable only if you have bullet-proof systems for managing information and calendared to-do items.
Remember, CSA members are unique individuals with unique circumstances and challenges – just like you. Making reasonable accommodations validates that, and makes it more likely that members will continue their commitment. If you know you can’t make accommodations, do everything you can to ensure that members understand this before they sign up for a share.
When members complain, it can feel like a blow to the gut. You’ve put your heart and soul into growing and delivering your crops, and rejection really hurts. Unfortunately, in the real world, effort only gets you so far – members and customers expect you to create results.
When members complain, it’s up to you to figure out the source of the complaint, and whether you can – or even should – alleviate it.
If members complain about rotten produce, you need to determine why they have rotten produce: Did you pack rotten produce in their boxes? Do you lack adequate cooling capacity or quality control procedures? Do you need to up your disease-control game? Did their share sit in a hot location for hours before they picked it up? Or did it sit in their hot car for hours before finding its way to their refrigerator? If the problem lies with the customer, you need to provide education; if the problem lies with your farm, then you’ve got operational changes to make.
If members complain about prices, you’ve got one of two problems. Either you aren’t providing a good value in your share, or you’ve got the wrong customers. Value – what a bundle of goods and services is worth to a customer – has little or no relationship to your particular cost of production; it’s a function of customer perception. You need customers who value local, organic, family-farmed vegetables, and you need to provide them with a quantity and quality that matches what they expect. No small feat!
If members complain about the variety of products received, you’ve got to ask yourself why. Having a diversity of produce available for a CSA share requires intensive planning ahead of the production season, and spot-on timing at every stage of production. Individual boxes should be planned at the beginning of the season, and a planting plan created based on the producer’s site-specific knowledge. Successful CSAs I’ve worked with plan to provide 8 – 12 different items in every box – and four varieties of heirloom tomatoes doesn’t count as four items!
If you have other outlets for your produce – such as farmers markets or restaurant sales – consider diverting product to your CSA program. Your CSA members have already paid for their products, and while your cash flow may take a short-term hit, providing value to CSA members should increase your retention rates, making a contribution to the long-term success of your business.
At Rock Spring Farm, we had occasional success with the production of microgreens to mitigate unexpected crop shortages – especially in the event of exceptionally late springs, or severe weather events that put crops on hold or resulted in massive losses. We could produce a crop of Persian Cress in greenhouse flats in just ten days. You can diversify your offerings in relatively short order with salad mix, spinach, and fast herbs like cilantro or dill.
When you provide goods and services in exchange for money, the primary responsibility for setting expectations and fulfilling them lies with you. Think carefully about the language you use on your farm about the challenges you face with members – are they problems that members have, or do they represent problem members? The first is within your power to solve; the second isn’t.
Most importantly, remember that the best time to deal with member problems is before they happen. You need the skills, infrastructure, equipment, land, labor, and planting plan to fulfill the implicit and explicit promises you make when you sell a CSA share – and you need them before you ever put a seed in the ground or offer a share for sale.
-Chris Blanchard, Purple Pitchfork
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