With the almost evangelical emphasis these days on staying close to the customer, a key question for any chief executive officer has to be how his or her customers perceive the quality of current service. It may take someone outside the company to answer that.

Leslie B. "Bud" Lewis, president of Asahi America Inc., was confident that his $15-million business, which manufactures and distributes thermoplastic valves, had excellent relations with its 300 U.S. distributors. Then the Medford, Mass.-based company hired a consultant to find out, among other things, how its customers felt about Asahi's service. The results proved eye-opening. "We realized we weren't as great as we thought we were," says Lewis.

After talking to 60 distributors, Boston consultant Jonathan Carson, of Strategy Associates Inc., learned that -- contrary to Lewis's impression -- these customers had trouble getting through to key departments at Asahi (including marketing, engineering, and accounting), that they wanted more regular attention from the company's executive staff, and that they desperately needed better technical backup on a recently introduced product.

Since the beginning of the year, Lewis has set up improved internal billing systems, established an expediting department to keep better track of individual orders, and sent two employees to Austria for a crash course on servicing a new product line of exotic piping systems.In addition, the vice-president of sales has a new assistant, the vice-president of finance is now making regular visits to key customers, and the company is about to start its own marketing-service department. "We wanted to show those people who do a lot of business with the company that they really matter," says Carson.

As for Lewis, he acknowledges that the superior service he thought Asahi was providing could stand improvement, and he credits Carson with being the necessary outsider to whom his customers could direct their complaints. "We're a company that has been growing, to the point that we were so busy on a day-to-day basis putting out fires, we really didn't have a lot of time to look at strategy. Our customers now know us a hell of a lot better, and we know them a hell of a lot better, too."