Back in the 1970s, David Hall ordered a car radio from a mail-order retailer. It arrived defective, so Hall contacted the company to find out about its return policy. He discovered getting repairs was no problem -- as long as he paid to ship the radio to a factory in Japan.

That experience helped shape Hall's thinking about the company he formed with Patricia Gallup in 1982 to supply accessories for the then-new IBM PC. PC Connection Inc., they vowed, would be a different kind of mail-order company -- and, indeed, it is. By emphasizing service as much as discount prices, the company has grown to more than $100 million in sales in just six years. In 1987, it took the #2 spot on the Inc. 500, with five-year revenue growth of 25,644%.

To some extent, that growth reflects the explosive expansion of the microcomputer market. But in a mail-order field plagued with shady operators and bankruptcies, PC Connection's customer-service philosophy has helped set it apart. "PC Connection has the best reputation of all mail-order discounters [in its field]," says Russ Walter, author of The Secret Guide to Computers. "They really try harder on the tech-support calls than other companies do. . . . I have never heard anything negative about them, which is very rare." In two PC magazine surveys in December 1987, customers gave PC Connection the highest ranking of 14 companies for service, price, reputation, available stock, and variety. In most areas, its ratings were at least twice as high as those of its nearest competitors.

Hall and Gallup's strategy has been to provide low (not necessarily the lowest) prices along with features like a 120-day warranty and a toll-free technical-support number. A recent innovation: in the company's MacConnection division, orders are delivered overnight for $3. Then there's PCTV, an idea that grew out of instruction videos the company had prepared for some difficult-to-install equipment. Several vendors requested videos about their products, and a new TV division was born. The goal? To offer computer-related programming using satellite links. "We want people to tune in to find out what's current," says Hall, who expects to start programming shortly. But he has a more ambitious aim, too: to change mail order's image as an industry that doesn't support its products -- and to position his company as one that provides not just goods but also objective product information.

-- Martha E. Mangelsdorf