People relationships still count for plenty.

To be fair, there isn't a position at an industrial distributor that isn't expected to produce results. Marketers, truck drivers, purchasing agents, outside sales and even the IT guys are under the gun.

The difference, however, is that everyone knows what is expected from the driver, purchasing agent, outside sales or IT guy. Marketers like to keep you a little off balance.

Ask 10 people how your marketing department measures success, you'll get 10 different responses.

Marketing leadership is achieved not from a Harvard degree, but from the ability to empathize and gain insight from customers. It involves roll-up-your-sleeves, hands-on customer contact. Yet, most executives at PVF distributors delegate customer contact. Such an approach - where information is often confused with knowledge - can be misleading. And it's a big reason marketing people are under constant pressure to justify their existence.

Marketers working with too much general market data tend to average results, blur boundaries and miss distinct, segmented market opportunities. They should also consider every step in the distribution chain to get a true sense of the market. The potential pitfalls: developing one-size-fits-all programs resulting in a lukewarm response, and a reluctance to initiate organizational change.

To help you gauge your branch's marketing efforts, here's a starter list of customer-facing, marketing must-haves. Compare this list against your own marketing initiatives to see if the competition has you in their cross hairs.

Customer Strategy
Marketing strategies lay out a target, set some guidelines and give you the framework for thinking. Your formula for success starts here. Effective strategies differentiate your service in the marketplace to get your OEM/MRO and contractor customers to identify you as different, better and special.

Drive your new strategy by identifying the highest value customers. Keep your eyes glued to the heavy user. They are unlike occasional users in their motivations. Talk to them. Find out what they want and work to develop solutions to satisfy their needs. Concentrate on the markets with the most potential and make sure that you are maximizing all of them. Personalize the customer experience whenever possible.

Customer Service
PVF marketers must anticipate, prepare for and create business rules to ensure that each customer interaction creates the desired customer experience. Customers simply vanish when faced with poor service. Typically, when you fail a customer it is because you have failed to train an employee.

Your punch list may include items to continuously improve customer service, deliver professional bid proposals, guarantee price accuracy, create hassle-free return policy, nail on-time deliveries or initiate targeted, agreed upon, overall cost improvement programs.

PVF distributors typically know when a product fails - knowing when your service fails is much harder. Your sales and marketing efforts deliver your "product" through an ongoing series of acts that rarely can be counted on to become routinely reliable. To stay informed, you must ask and survey your OEM/MRO and contractor customers. Again. And again.

Customer Loyalty
The key to customer loyalty is building relationships. The people factor. Distributors typically engage customers through the phone or face to face. And there must be a connection. You must build rapport for the relationship to work; to last long-term, foster loyalty and create repeat sales.

Traditionally, customer loyalty has been delivered through the familiar four Ps: Product, Place, Promotion and Price. These are all critical factors, but absent of a fifth P: People. People like your inside and outside sales force, on which the value and reputation of your branch rest.

Only by attracting the best people will you ensure long-term success. The message is clear: A dollar spent improving the people factor is probably a better investment than a dollar spent improving technical quality. Employees are rarely selected for their brand-building potential, but maybe they should be.

Customer Choice
Customers understand that they have a choice of PVF distributors, but they often need help with the actual purchase decision. They don't necessarily want to make the superior choice, but they do want to avoid making a bad choice. If your sales and marketing efforts don't tell customers how to choose, they will decide by the only two ways they know - location and price.

Be market driving, not market driven. Create a need that wasn't there before. In addition to supplying product, supply local market information, logistics, subject matter expertise or work to lower your customer's overall cost of ownership of those products. Give customers a reason to buy from you - every day - and communicate it. Communication pieces make your service visible, and make your customer comfortable.

Customer Experience
Stay one step ahead of your customers' needs and desires. Dazzle them with the totality of their experience. If a customer tells you something about how he wants to be served, and you adjust your sales and marketing efforts, he now has a vested interest in his relationship with you. To re-create this relationship with a competitor, the customer must re-teach the competitor. That's something the customer would prefer not to do.

Continue to build relationships with customers by outthinking and outworking the competition. Focus on what you can control. Take the initiative in your marketing efforts. For example, offer operational savings, steam trap surveys, control valve surveys, OEM part conversions and application solutions before your competitor does. And you will be the demonstrated expert.

Customer Research
PVF marketing is a team sport where the team - distributor and vendor - builds a strategy focused on doing things that will increase profits by getting more customers to buy more material at higher prices. Specialized experts, in some instances, have replaced your traditional salesperson. They may be engineers bringing customers technologies, looking for efficiencies and providing customer service with the help of manufacturers.

Work together to determine the needs of your customers and develop solutions to satisfy those needs.

Many PVF manufacturers have multimillion-dollar research budgets or participate in industry associations to produce volumes of useful information and take the guesswork out of your marketing initiatives. Use their expertise to help with the most important business criteria today: customer choice, ideas and speed.