Val-A Co. has a simple operation that helps turn former customers into active accounts again. The Chicago distributor of hardware and lawn and garden products annually reviews its files for the names of customers who haven't done business with Val-A for at least a year.

Then the company sends each a letter asking why and saying that Val-A would like to renew the relationship. A postage-paid envelope is enclosed to encourage replies.

"Last year, out of 300 letters sent, we got 80 replies," says Jerry Cismoski, manager of the company. Not only does the letter prompt people to bring back business, it also has been a good way of discovering problems (for example, prices were perceived as too high or catalogs were never received). Finally, the mailing provides information, such as address changes or identification of firms no longer in business, that can be used to update Val-A's mailing list.