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NFU Comment: Matt Swain on how ‘soft’ skills can help a farm business survive

11:34 24 August 2014

NFU columnist Matt Swain.

NFU columnist Matt Swain.

When I lived “up north” there was an expression “gone soft”, and it was certainly not a compliment.

Boys would do anything to avoid such an accusation, as it struck right at the core of what we perceived manliness to be.

Working on farms from an early age re-enforced my notions of such; the ability to move heavy objects, work long hours and not show weakness were all held to be virtues.

Conversely, the ability to build relationships or to cope with feelings was not on the radar and, therefore, at best, our skills in this area lay dormant. This probably wouldn’t matter to a farming business if all we needed for profitability was to turn in 10 tonnes of wheat or 12,000 litres of milk.

Unfortunately today, due to diversification, we are becoming far more reliant on direct customer contact. I suspect that, for many farmers, the survival of the farm itself relies upon the added value that only customers can bring. But customers are savvy and demand excellent customer service, which relies on the very skills not developed, collectively referred to as, you guessed it, “soft skills”.

In 2003, I went around the world studying these things and found it far harder than I thought. Empathy, sensitivity and tact were words I’d heard my wife use at me (always in the negative) but what did they mean?

The more I learned the more complex it seemed but I stuck with it, if only to understand how Starbucks turned a 30p cup of coffee into a £3 experience. Ten years on and I run courses in these things for farmers who want more of the £3 and less the 30p.

It’s great fun, mainly because I’ve been there − trying to understand why acknowledging a feeling is not the same as admitting there’s a problem, or why customer feedback is always positive, or why failure is important for growth.

I confess that working with this “soft” stuff is equally rewarding because it spills over into farming in general. Succession planning, land disputes and family feuds all have a far better outcome when you understand human needs. I was running a course in Shropshire recently on customer relationships but most of the questions I was asked began with “My wife...” or “My son...”. And when I give presentations to farming groups is not unusual for the questions to go on for hours.

Of course we are farmers and we can’t directly talk about loneliness, uncertainty etc. but we hedge around long enough that we can get some resolution. And then the penny drops that this is precisely what pre-occupies our customer thoughts and feelings and just where Starbucks makes the extra £2.70 − by providing the significance, the variety, the connection and so on.

It’s no surprise that commerce in general is obsessed with human relations since it is seen as the new key to competitive advantage. It has also spawned another industry, coaching, and I spend more and more of my time doing this very thing. It seems a far cry from those early ideas of manliness. In fact it’s fair to say the lad’s gone soft.

: : NFU member Matt Swain farms in north east Essex and is a Nuffield Scholar. To contact him, email


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