Here's a way to get customers to speak their minds: Set up a 24-hour hot line to record confidential messages. give it a folksy name such as Speakline, and promote it on company stationery, invoices, and "How'd-We-Do?" cards.

AVCA Corp. did, and customers of the $25-million engineering and architectural service firm, in Maumee, Ohio, are warming up to the switchboard-free line.

Some two dozen customers--about half of AVCA's active clients--call Speakline each month, often to leave project-related questions. They also inquire about bills, make suggestions, and praise jobs well done. The line is especially convenient for customers who don't have time to write, don't know who should field their questions, and don't want to play telephone tag for days.

AVCA president Dean Diver spends two to three hours a week monitoring the messages. If he can't get back to a customer within 24 hours, he sends a note to explain.

The company started Speakline because of the response rate on customer comment cards. "We received a 35% return rate on those cards. So we knew our customers wanted to talk."

Copyright 1999 G+J USA Publishing