Here's the challenge: Your company is small, but each month some 8,000 customers and prospects call in with questions. How can you help them all?

"We tended to throw bodies at the problem," says Mary Stanley, CEO of Qualitas, a $10-million-plus developer of memory-management software in Bethesda, Md. But even as Stanley staffed up, burnout among employees manning the phones soared.

Last year Stanley found a way to improve customer service substantially without adding employees to her 60-person company. And she turned her customer-service staff into sales-lead generators with better morale. Her new system focuses on --

* Qualifying incoming calls. Qualitas's eight customer-service reps now screen all calls before sending them on to the 17 people in tech support or the four people in corporate sales. Before, customer-service reps only took phone orders, and the tech-support staff handled all questions, even the my-dog-ate-my-disk variety.

* Increasing training for everyone. Customer-service reps, for example, learned to answer basic technical questions -- freeing up the higher-paid tech-support people to resolve more complex problems. Customer service now handles two-thirds of the incoming calls, compared with just one-third before. As a result, Qualitas has cut its on-hold time in half.

* Providing a link to sales. Previously, there was little interaction between customer service and tech support, and neither group talked much with the corporate-sales department. Thus, customer data was scattered throughout the company. Now the customer-service reps capture all data on customers in one shared database. Each day they pass on about 30 qualified sales leads from current and potential customers.

The cost of restructuring? "It was a matter of shifting resources and adding people to our technical training classes, plus lots of on-the-job training," says Stanley.

-- Susan Greco

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