Many chief executive officers go out of their way to solicit customer complaints, but few are as clever about it as Charles Leighton, founder and chairman of CML Group. He has come up with a device that virtually guarantees he hears complaints. For the past year, Leighton's company, which owns seven specialty retailers (including Carroll Reed, Britches of Georgetowne, and The Nature Co.), has been issuing a special CML credit card to some of its customers. Not just to any customers, mind you. These cards go only to those who own at least 100 shares in the 17-year-old, publicly held company, based in Action, Mass.

The card-carrying shareholders get a 15% discount on store or catalog purchases from CML-owned retailers, thereby boosting sales. But the key benefit to CML, says Leighton, isn't sales but feed-back. Because the shareholders have a personal stake in the company's performance, their comments are usually immediate and often pointed.

Last winter, for instance a San Francisco investor complained that her bill for a purchase at one store took 45 days to arrive -- a matter of inconvenience to her, and of lost income to the store. "An investor," asserts Leighton, "will tell us before anyone else if a product or service is good."