Is your customer service truly top-notch? Enter the Direct Marketing Association's third annual Award for Customer Service Excellence and see how you stack up. The entry deadline is March 31. (Call the DMA's Leslie Grossman, 212-768-7277, extension 456, for details.)

If you're not a direct marketer -- or if your customer service could be better -- use the nomination form as a diagnostic tool. "Filling out the application itself is a good review of how you're doing," says Vickie Hagen, vice-president and general manager of Omaha Steaks' catalog division, which nabbed the DMA award last year.

The program is nothing like the drawn-out Baldrige quality-award process. Though the DMA form is short, its questions will make you think long and hard. The questions on measuring customer service and supporting service reps are particular cause for pause.

Omaha Steaks celebrates customer-service week (it's in October) and regularly rewards its reps for keeping customers happy. A proprietary system tracks repeat business, the lifetime value of customers, complaints, and other service indicators. That system isn't cheap.

But even small efforts pay off: annually, the company sends all its customers their previous year's gift list. Customers can update the list and fax it back on a toll-free line. Other companies are just starting to do this, "but," says Hagen, "we've been doing it for years." And repeat orders are higher because of it.

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