Stonyfield Farm, a Londonderry, N.H., yogurt maker, had hoped its new apricot-mango flavor would take off, but the company wasn't prepared for the accolade it received from one customer: so taken was the woman with the new flavor's color that she brought a container down to the local hardware store and asked a clerk to mix up a batch of like-colored paint for her bedroom.

Stonyfield CEO and president Gary Hirshberg can share thousands of comments like that, because his company makes a pointof soliciting and carefully tracking what customers think about its yogurt (and its yogurt's colors). With a note on the side ofeach of its containers asking for comments, the $20-million business gets about 150 calls and letters each week from customers.

The gist of each message is entered into a database that Hirshberg and other managers pore over for opportunities tocement customer loyalty, spot promising new niches, and fine-tune the product line. Large companies have been usingsophisticated systems to analyze consumer feedback for a long time, but now more small and midsize companies are enlistingtechnology to press what should be an inherent advantage in personalized service and focused marketing. All it takes to getstarted is a customized database. You can create it in-house or hire a consultant. It should take somewhere between 12 hoursand a couple of weeks to develop the system you need.