Bringing data science to the frontline

How data science is helping a leading NZ agribusiness to grow organically




Ballance Agri-Nutrients, a leading agribusiness with revenues of more than $900m, already understood the value of data, but they needed assistance bringing it to the heart of their sales operations.  

Already able to offer a full range of digitally enabled, science-backed products and services, this NZ business had plenty of data on its customers’ past purchases and needs. But capturing data, and being able to wield its predictive power, are two very different capabilities.



About Ballance Agri-Nutrients

  • Ballance is a New Zealand farmer-owned co-operative that helps its customers to farm more productively, profitably and sustainably
  • Over 650 Employees
  • $910 Million in Revenue
  • www.ballance.co.nz



THE CHALLENGE

Unclock the value of the Ballance's data to identify customers at risk of churn, and develop a recommendation engine to deliver productivity improvements at the point of sale



THE OUTCOME

A recommendation engine that delivers an estimated 9% productivity gain at the front line, and a proactive customer churn model that drives intervention and targets 4% per annum improvements in margin



“Ignite's professional, open, pragmatic and business-centered approach has been invaluable to Ballance as we establish and embed our data science capability."

David Scullin, Chief Digital Officer



Background

For Ballance, the data science journey was motivated by the opportunity to use data to generate genuine value for the business, Here was a progressive company that had already made the transition from its core business of fertiliser manufacture, supply, sales and advice, to offering digitally enabled, science-backed products and services. Through investments in business intelligence they were acutely aware of the goldmine trapped inside their data, but the focus has been on lagging indicators that measured business performance but failed to provide preventative operational impact. 

Ballance could see the value of a recommendation engine in speeding up the product selection process and improving the efficiency and effectiveness of frontline interactions. The company also felt that its data on customers' purchases and interactions had a significant role to play in designing successful intervention strategies to enable it to retain the right customers.


When we were engaged by Ballance, it was like a meeting of minds. Since our partnership commenced, we have targeted:





Outcomes

Since our partnership with Ballance commenced, we have targeted:

  • Improving sales productivity by fast tracking the ability to recommend fertiliser products to customers at the point of sale. This means frontline staff can spend more time having meaningful conversations with customers and prospects. 
  • Retaining customers by using product purchasing history to predict which customers are at risk of churn and help the organisation plan targeted retention programs. 
  • A pathway for future analytics that focusses on business operations and helps instil the capability for performing data science across the organisations and helps instil the capability for performing data science across the organisation. This included the establishment of a data science backlog for Ballance and Ignite to pursue together.



The product recommendation engine looks to deliver an estimated 9% productivity gain for Ballance's nutrient specialists. A large part of  this success is attributed to the thoughts and ideas of the end users - in this case of the nutrient specialists - throughout the program, to help deliver, test and learn from an effective Minimum Viable Product (MVP). Though it wasn't part of the original brief, the solution has brought the additional benefit of reducing the induction time for new starters, by giving them the ability to produce quality recommendations that leverage the experience of the entire business.


Ballance looks to leverage this productivity gain and the customers at risk of churn model to implement proactive customer intervention programs. For the market that Ballance operates in, the challenge is not the volume of customers lost but the value that goes with them.






Approach

Proof of value is a concept very dear to us at Ignite. It's the first step in our approach to Data Science for a reason: without proving value, we can't help our sponsors within a business to sell the ideas and concepts to their operating areas. And without buy-in, data science is an uphill climb. 

Working with the Ballance team, once we have proven value, data science is made a reality by integrating it into core digital processes. The initiatives began with the end in mind, focussed on what the MVP would look like. Knowing this from the outset allowed the team to design algorithms for a specific purpose, rather than just to test hypotheses. 

In developing, a product recommendation engine, we sought to integrate it into the core, customer-facing "MyBallance" platform. In the case of customers at risk, this meant delivering the output of the model directly to the nutrients specialists (frontline sales team) via their mobile business intelligence solution. 

With members from both Ballance and Ignite, the team has delivered an analytics platform leveraging R and Microsoft Machine Learning Server, providing:






  • Capability for exploration and innovation
  • A full production environment to support business operations
  • Integration to core business applications such as the digital and business intelligence platforms
  • Low establishment costs and the ability to scale as needed
  • Futureproofing, with the ability to support use cases, that may arise in future, where data may be unstructured.



The proof of value approach has allowed the team to win the hearts and minds of the executive leadership team, to the point where they compete for ideas to be prioritised in the backlog. 

The team at Ballance is now maturing the use of the data science to enhance their operations and we have worked closely to upskill their own data science team, something that is part of the vision we are pursuing - a future with amazing analytics platforms, operated and developed by even more amazing people. Ballance continues to put data at the heart of helping the farming community to be more productive, profitable and sustainable.



If you'd like more of the detail on the Ballance and Ignite partnership or discuss how analytics could help your business, reach out to us.



Ignite Services

  • Leadership
  • Architecture
  • Data Science



Ignite Solutions

  • Proof of Value
  • Data Science @ Scale



Technologies 

  • R
  • SAP
  • Microsoft Machine Learning Server