Imagine Carolee Pierce's predicament: coaxing excellence out of the lowliest on the corporate totem pole -- mail clerks. Pierce, general manager of Facilities Management and Consulting (FMC), a three-year-old company in Chicago with revenues of nearly $750,000, decided on a unique strategy for keeping her entry-level staff enthusiastic: a career path. As a provider of turnkey mail-room and copy-center services, FMC needs a spectrum of positions to run operations at customers' work sites: entry-level mail clerks, senior mail clerks, supervisors, site managers, and district managers.

To promote from within, here's what FMC does:

* Broadcast upward mobility. In every way possible, FMC lets employees know they'll be moving up. An ad for FMC's services reads, "All of our employees compete within a merit system which rewards job performance with advancement."

* Extensive initial training. Workers learn every detail of a mail clerk's job, including how to properly address a letter. The initial three to four weeks' training include --

Switchboard time. The switchboard is ideal for teaching employees how to treat customers. New hires spend a day or two there, practicing vocal tones and making good first impressions.

Audiotapes and videotapes. Videos by the U.S. Postal Service cover subjects ranging from pleasing customers to mail-room organization. Audiotapes, mostly produced by Sourcecom (913-541-1144), are lent to workers.

Users' guide. This simple description of what a customer can expect from FMC's mail services is also given to entry-level employees.

Equipment training. Entry-level employees rotate between two or three customer sites during their first month to gain experience on different types of equipment and meet their fellow employees.

* Constant coaching. Managers are charged with preparing mail clerks and senior clerks to get to the next level by improving computer skills and upgrading written and verbal abilities.

Last year FMC lost only one of its 30 employees. In contrast, a client's mail room had lost 9 out of 15 people during the year before FMC took over. Pierce, herself a former clerk, says 60% of her employees in jobs above entry level started as mail clerks. -- Ellyn E. Spragins