"All you have to do is answer customer support phones for two hours to realize how stressful it is and how important those reps are to building customer loyalty," says Don Emery, president and CEO of $5.2 million Reference Software International, a maker of grammar-checking programs, in San Francisco. Fearful that his staff would burn out, he set aside one day a week for customer-service reps to work on self-designed projects.

"It went over like a raise and has benefited our company as much as it did the employees," Emery says.

One employee programmed a demonstration disk that the company would have hired an outsider to do. Another started in-house software training classes. A third started a computer bulletin board for grammar aficionados. The quality work at bargain prices and low departmental turnover offset the cost of hiring an additional rep to cover the phone lines, reports Emery. And when they got back on the line, the reps were more likely to enjoy helping customers.