Here's a way to get customers to speak their minds: set up a 24-hour hot line to record confidential messages; give it a folksy name such as Speakline; and promote it on company stationery, invoices, and How'd-We-Do? cards.

AVCA did, and customers of the $25-million engineering and architectural service firm in Sylvania, Ohio, are warming up to the switchboard-free line.

Some two dozen customers -- about half of AVCA's active clients -- call Speakline each month, often to leave project-related questions. They also inquire about bills, make suggestions, and praise jobs well done. The line is especially convenient for customers who don't have time to write, don't know who should field their questions, and don't want to play telephone tag.

AVCA president Bill Christoffers spends two to three hours a week monitoring the messages, which are recorded on an inexpensive answering machine. If he can't get back to a customer within 24 hours, Christoffers sends a note to explain.

Christoffers started Speakline because of the response from customer comment cards. "We received a 75% return rate on those cards. So we knew our customers wanted to talk."

-- Vera Gibbons