One of the most important responsibilities that you have to your customers--and one of the best ways of assuring that they remain yours--is to treat them like human beings. A voice-mail system that bounces customers from one automated menu to the next is a sure way to make them feel like extremely frustrated robots.

A poll taken by the folks at Keena Mfg., in Brunswick, Maine, showed that its customers had an overwhelming distaste for voice mail. "The reason was simple," explains Harvey Epstein, owner of the $3-million packing-tape manufacturer. "Human contact is lost in a sea of electronic menus, thwarting instant gratification."

And so, the company that created Sizzltape, an innovative packaging tape that's laminated with high-quality gift wrap, rejected voice mail--even though it could have been installed for just a few dollars a month. To avoid the caller backup that sometimes occurs--since the 15-person company doesn't employ a receptionist--there is a pecking order of employees answering lines as they light up. The phones are not allowed to ring more than twice before a customer-service rep answers and promptly dispenses information or takes an order. "We even instruct the reps in the art of schmoozing--'How's the weather?' 'How was your vacation?'--something voice mail can't do," Epstein says.