"That's not my department; let me transfer you." Those words can kill customer service. So last April, Deck House, an $11-million company in Acton, Mass., that designs and manufactures post-and-beam houses, quit shunting inquiring customers from office to office and dedicated an 800 line to them. Once callers are satisfied, Deck House keeps them on the line to conduct market research and get customer histories and referrals.

An 800 line might seem like a luxury for a small manufacturer, but Deck House depends on repeat business and referrals for 40% of its business. Problem was, the call volume used to overwhelm the switchboard.

By the end of the customer-service line's first year, 2,018 calls had come in. Twenty-three percent of the 800-line callers wanted to buy something, and 10% required other sales information; 17% asked maintenance questions; 12% asked miscellaneous questions. In addition, about one in four was willing to pass on names of friends who might like to receive literature from Deck House; those referrals have already led to one sale in just one month. Deck House's average sales cycle is a year and a half, and the average house sells for $300,000. Fewer than 15% of the calls were complaints.

What's more, the 800 line cut switchboard volume by about 30%. To make sure customers used the line, Harris sent them plastic wallet cards touting the Deck House Owner Assistance Center with the 800 number. The silver card tells them to call for maintenance, sales, and warranty information.

One staff person, Eric Stacey, handles and tracks all calls on a companywide database that includes the caller's job number, the model number, the builder's name, and any problems that occurred during construction. It also includes a field for other comments, which Stacey updates after the call.

After handling the caller's problem, Stacey asks a few questions of interest to Deck House. For example, before the company built models of a new design in New Jersey and Virginia, Stacey asked callers from each state how they would organize a house if they were building one today. The responses told Harris that New Jersey callers wanted all the bedrooms upstairs, while Virginians preferred the master bedroom downstairs. "We would have forecasted just the opposite," Harris says. Virginians likely to buy from Deck House have older children, it turns out, and wanted some peace and quiet.

Harris figures the service costs nothing. The company already had seven 800 lines; he simply dedicated one to the new customer number. The labor was provided by reallocating personnel; someone had answered the calls before, but handling them had taken longer and had had less satisfactory results.

-- Michael P. Cronin