Wholesale distributors play a critical role in the day-to-day function of the pool and spa industry. While retailers, builders and service technicians work the front lines, distributors are behind the curtain with the potential to make or break the end goal: customer satisfaction.

But what makes a good distributor — and what should front-line businesses expect from the people that charge a healthy product markup in exchange for warehousing and product support?

Renee Huston, president of Patio Pleasures Pools & Spas in Sun Prairie, Wis., says her choice in distributor (Superior Pool Products of PoolCorp out of Milwaukee, Wis.) has everything to do with their strong relationship and first-rate customer service.

"When we bought Patio Pleasures, we were really blessed to already have a core partnership in place that we were able to just carry over," says Huston. "I do not foresee us changing, and it has everything to do with our relationship with our distributor and knowing that they always have our back."

For Huston, that means understanding Patio Pleasures as a business and not just as a transaction. "It's important that they see who we are compared to other people they sell to," she says.

It's also about a fast response time. Patio Pleasures works aggressively six months out of the year, something Huston refers to as the "120 days of insanity."

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"I need to know," says Huston, "that if we are on a jobsite and something is missing from a pool, for example, that I can call my distributor and say, 'I literally have six guys on the jobsite and we can't do anything until I get this part.'"

Even in such extreme circumstances, she says, Superior comes through for them. "They figure out how to get that part to us. The problem is usually fixed within an hour or two."

Of course, fantastic customer response is a precious commodity, always in limited supply. Michael Logsdon, president of Land Design in Bourne, Texas, has not found the trust and product delivery heroics that Huston describes. While he has enjoyed generally positive experiences with distributors he has had over the years, not all have shared the importance he places on strong relationships and customer service.

"Everybody you work with should feel like your partner," he says. "We all have the same end goal: to give the customer a wonderful experience. That's the deal."

Logsdon emphasizes face-to-face business, which counters the alternative of buying online directly from a manufacturer. "I'm buying from a person," he says. "I like doing business with people. It's not a transaction to me."

COMPETITIVE PRICING

Dealers who have maintained a positive relationship with the same distributor are quick to say they do not plan on leaving that partnership, but that does not mean they don't get products elsewhere to cut costs. When they do go through distribution for convenience or customer support, they still expect their long-term distributors to maintain competitive pricing.

"They still have to be competitive. Let's get real," Huston says. "We are in a very competitive time right now. They can't be that far off the mark."

Competition from buying groups, co-ops or direct online sales do not go unnoticed by those working directly with distributors, even those that maintain loyalty. "Everyone has their carrots that they dangle in front of you trying to get you to consider them," says Huston.

Compromise is common when working with a distributor, certainly on price, but there are some things worth holding out for, Logsdon notes. "That's the society we live in: faster, better, cheaper. And you can only have two of those, it seems, and sometimes only one. If I only have one, it has to be quality. And that is what I am looking for in a supplier, in a distributor of any sort."

PARTNERS BY ANY OTHER NAME

The qualities Logsdon and Huston seek when securing product are the same no matter how you classify the source. Julie Richards of Total Backyard Solutions in Houston, Texas, has found a true partner in Pentair for over 30 years.

"I would have to say that the most important thing to us throughout the years," she says, "has been the friendship, the trust and the loyalty that we have built with them along the way.

"Why don't other industries grasp the idea of really, truly partnering with their dealers and trying to make it a true, real relationship as opposed to just going and selling items here and there? You make it a real relationship, then you know you have a customer for life."

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While the relationship is close, Richards still expects to be heard on wholesale cost. "Don't get me wrong, we sit down with them once a year, sometimes twice a year, and we talk about pricing," Richards says. "We negotiate and we go back and forth. We know what the competitor is offering, and they come to the table with competitive pricing."

KNOWLEDGE AND COLLABORATION

As technology continues to advance ever more rapidly, it's hard for retailers, builders and service people to keep up — they have million other things to consider. They need people who can help them stay current.

"I need them to have knowledge," says Logsdon. "I want them to be telling me, 'Hey, this is great. Have you heard of this new product?' I want them to add value."

Dealers also place importance on collaboration efforts, especially on projects where customers are seeking unique backyard spaces.

"[Our distributor] works with us if we have to get creative," says Huston. "If we are working on a unique project, I can go to them and say, 'Here is what I'm working on, walk through this with me.'"

Similarly, Richards calls on Pentair when a customer expresses interest in an unusual project.

"Anytime I have something new and exciting that a customer has brought to my attention that we want to do, I always call on Pentair," says Richards. "We will meet at the customer site. They will even come back to my location and my showroom. We will sit with the client, go over some things and collaborate from there."

For Logsdon, a great collaborator might not mean working hand-in-hand on creative ventures but, rather, picking up the telephone when he calls. "I need collaboration because it is sometimes difficult for me to keep up with technology," he says. "I'm driving down the road half of my life and I don't have time do the computer stuff. But that is where the world is going."

Abigail Carpenter is Editorial Assistant of AQUA Magazine.