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 Whitetail Institute’s customer service pledge follows the Golden Rule — and gives customers common-sense advice on all food plot issues

By Scott Bestul

It’s no secret that customer service is, if not extinct, surely on the endangered species list. It doesn’t matter if you’re ordering a burger or buying a bicycle. Getting a real person to answer a question about a product is like asking Hillary Clinton to ditch the pants suits.

And run into a problem after the sale? Well, you’re more apt to feel as abandoned as Matt Damon in The Martian than you are to get some TLC. The last time I had a customer service problem, it took me five minutes to navigate the company’s automated help menu. (You know: “Press 1 if you want to overpay your bill. Press 2 if you own a labradoodle. Press 3 if you’re not a resident of Sumatra.”) Then I spent 40 minutes waiting to speak to a live human, who, predictably, acted like he was doing me a favor regaling me in barely understandable English. But customer service is not a thing of the past at Whitetail Institute. In fact, the company’s help line is toll-free and has been an integral part of the company’s business plan from the beginning. “It may sound a little corny to some people,” said vice president Steve Scott, “but I tell everyone we hire here, ‘I want you to treat anyone who calls on that line like he is the most important person in your life during that call.’ 

The Golden Rule is not dead here. It’s an integral part of how we do business and, I believe, it’s why we’re as successful as we are. Whitetail Institute is recognized as both the pioneer and leader in the food plot category, and I think there are two reasons for that: We make a superior product, and we treat people — even if they’re not a customer — like we would want to be treated if we were the one making the call.” Scott said the company’s hotline has been in place since Day 1. “Even when the only product we had was Imperial Whitetail Clover, we offered free advice,” he said. “When we started, planting food plots specifically for deer was something brand new for most people, so many of the questions were pretty basic by today’s standards.” And, Scott noted, some of the answers might not have been what the customer expected or even wanted to hear. “We’d get a guy from Texas, for example, who wanted to buy a bag of our clover and plant it in June,” he said. “And, our answer would be, ‘No you don’t,’ because we knew planting clover in June in his area was almost certainly going to be a disaster. In situations like that, you risk walking away from an immediate sale, but you also hope that you gain a life-long customer through credibility and trust.” That honesty-first policy has paid off, Scott said. “In peak planting season, it’s pretty much non-stop calls, and we have an all-hands-on-deck policy. Everyone in the office is prepared to handle a customer call including the owners of the company.” Obviously, the company has grown in size and scope in the nearly 30 years of existence, and the customer calls have changed, too. “I think the No. 1 question we get now is, ‘What do I plant?’” Scott said. “We’ve got a fairly big catalog that offers a lot more than Imperial Whitetail Clover. And while we offer planting charts that instruct people when to plant what, it’s still nice to ask questions with a live human being about what seed might work best in your area and then how to go about planting it correctly. “Still, the one piece of advice I think we give out the most is, ‘Do a soil test. It’s simple. It’s cheap. And it’s the ultimate building block for a successful food plot.’ But sometimes, folks want to skip that most basic step, and it can be the difference between the best food plot you can imagine and total failure.” There have, of course, been moments of humor, too. “Oh yes, we all still chuckle about the guy who’d planted 30-06 mineral and wondered why nothing was coming up in the plot,” Scott said. “So yeah, like many of us, reading the instructions must have been a challenge for him. But I tend to minimize spreading that story, because I don’t want to discourage anyone from calling. I firmly believe that the only dumb question is the one you don’t ask. It’s a cliché to some, but not here.” Still, Scott said the education curve on food plotting has improved dramatically. “We definitely get some more educated and involved questions than we used to,” he said. “We can handle over 99% of them right on the spot, but if not we have agronomists, scientists and dirt-under-theirnails technicians who can answer any question thrown at them usually before the end of the day.” One of the experts a customer might chat with is William Cousins, a longtime Whitetail Institute employee and veteran of many customer help calls. The day I chatted with Cousins, he’d just tagged a fantastic 150-class Alabama whitetail the day before — but all he wanted to talk about was food plotting. “I like to deer hunt as much as the next guy, but to tell the truth, I’m more like that cook who rarely eats,” he said with a laugh. “I love the food plots. I’m a farmer at heart and in practice. I tend to get the overflow calls; the ones that go beyond seed types and choices. I get the guy who needs advice or help on his tractor or the right implements. 

Or, if there’s some tough weed problem that’s driving a guy crazy, I love helping with those.” Like others on the help lines, Cousins will help with any food plot question, even if it doesn’t involve Whitetail Institute products. “Heck, I’ve even steered them away from our stuff if they’re thinking of using it in a situation where I don’t believe it will work well,” he said. “Ultimately, I want them to be successful growing food plots, and we’ve proven time and again that if people can get solid advice from us, they’ll turn into customers eventually.” Cousins’ farming background makes him uniquely qualified to help deer managers of all stripes. “I even handle questions on row crops like beans and corn and how to grow them,” he said. “Weed control is a continual challenge, and as folks get more involved with food plots, they find themselves facing weeds and grass they’ve never encountered. You learn in a hurry that there are more weed seeds in a square yard of dirt than fleas on a dog. Fortunately, we’ve handled most of them. If I can’t answer a question immediately, I guarantee you I’ll be in contact with someone who knows and we will almost always have an answer to you by the end of the day.” Cousins said he’s noticed a huge leap in the expertise of Whitetail Institute customers using the help line. “Like most of us, they start with the simple goal of seeing and killing more deer, and they’re happy to just make green stuff grow. But as they see what a difference quality food plots can make as they manage — not just hunt — deer, they recognize that there’s a science behind all this. And like farmers, they just want to get better and more efficient at what they do.” All of that sounded pretty cool, but I decided talking to employees about the wonders of the Whitetail Institute wasn’t quite good enough. So, not identifying who I was or asking for anyone specifically, I made a call to the help line. It was an honest problem, too; not something I made up as a test. I’d planted a quarter-acre plot in Fusion, a blend of clover and chicory. The plot had come up well, but the dirt there is notoriously fickle, so there were patches where the plants didn’t perform as well as I’d hoped. Because I’d used frost-seeding in the past to boost a clover plot, I wondered if the technique would work in that situation. I not only got some solid, honest advice on how to frost seed (“Don’t overdo it; just hit the patches that look thin or bare”) but some direction on the best ways to make the plot truly shine: Take another soil test. Spread the appropriate amount of lime as early as possible. Then apply the fertilizer during two periods — early and late summer. That will give the plants a boost when they need it. After I hung up, I was eager to get after that plot, which has always been solid but has never lived up to its potential. Even better, I didn’t listen to one second of sales pitch for this Whitetail Institute product or that. Instead, I believed I’d spent 10 minutes chatting with not only a knowledgeable expert but someone who wanted me to succeed. Which, I suppose, is exactly how Steve Scott would have wanted me to feel.