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A few weeks ago, one of my clients asked me to attend a meeting on short notice. I contacted my travel agent in an attempt to book a last-minute round-trip flight from New York to California, and was shocked to learn the airfare would cost more than $1,800.

Perhaps the agent's larger clients could handle this hefty price tag, but as a home-business owner, I needed to find a less expensive option.

One of my staff members offered to take a look on the Internet for a better deal. Twenty minutes later, she walked into my office with a $370 ticket. The itinerary she found was similar to the one my travel agent located, except that the airline was not as well known as the major carriers.

To find this bargain, my employee accessed a travel Web site that uses the same database technology travel agents tap into for flight information. This site let her put together multiple combinations of flights until she found the price she wanted.

Since most home-based businesses do not have the deep-pocket travel budgets of large corporations, going online is a great way to keep travel costs in check. You can use e-mail and the Internet to save a considerable amount on flights, hotels, rental cars and other travel expenses.

The prices found through cyberspace tend to be lower than those offered through newspapers and direct mail primarily because travel companies save money by selling electronically. In some cases, these online savings are accompanied by limitations on dates of travel or payment methods, so it's worth the effort to read an offer's terms of agreement before making a purchase.

Here are some online bargain resources that may help you keep your business travel budget in line:

? Airline e-mails. Many major airlines now send weekly e-mail messages to people interested in last-minute flight specials. The tickets offered usually have strict terms of purchase, but the savings can be substantial. For example, a recent special offered a round-trip ticket from Louisville, Ky. to New York City for $159. To find out if your preferred airline offers this weekly service, visit the airline's corporate Web site.

? Corporate Web sites. Many rental-car companies, airlines and hotel chains offer specials on their Web sites. Site visitors are often required to complete reservations online to take advantage of these bargains. By visiting the National Car Rental Web site, the Louisville-New York traveler could reserve a rental car at Newark airport a New Jersey airport just outside of Manhattan for $26 per day. Considering rental cars often cost more than $60 per day in the New York area, this cyber bargain offers considerable savings.

? Comprehensive travel sites. Web sites such as www.travelocity.com and www.expedia.com market themselves as one-stop travel shops. You can rent a car, book a hotel and reserve a flight through these sites. Both devote space to last-minute specials, and Travelocity offers the option of searching specific markets for low-cost deals.

? Online flight bidding. You can bid on airline travel through a specialized auction site called www.priceline.com. Through the Priceline Web site, you can submit a bid for a ticket to the destination of your choice. Priceline then negotiates with various airlines to buy a ticket at the amount you offered. If a match is found, the order is processed. If a match is not found, Priceline notifies you.

? American Express travel specials. American Express offers its card members last-minute travel specials through the travel section of its small-business Web site (www.americanexpress.com/smallbusiness). For example, the site recently featured $29 round-trip flights from Los Angeles to Las Vegas. In most cases, these travel specials must be paid for with an American Express card.

Great customer service

I hired a home-based business owner as a consultant recently to help me with some research, and because I hire people for freelance work all the time, I know a good person when I find one. Her customer service was so exemplary that not only will I hire her again, I am looking forward to the next time we work together.

What made this consultant particularly valuable to me was her interest in my business and her focus on customer support. At the most basic level, she was responsive. She returned each of my phone messages within 20 minutes and followed up with me by phone to find out if I received important documents she sent.

If you run a home-based business, providing exceptional customer service is one way to differentiate your products and services from your competitors. Your company's success can be directly linked to how you manage your interactions with clients.

Here are some ways you can open up a customer-loyalty lifeline for your business by providing exceptional customer service:

? Involve customers in new product development. Ask your clients to evaluate a new product or service that you're considering adding to your business. This will reinforce the perception that you make business decisions based on your clients' needs. It will also prevent you from investing in unsuccessful new offerings.

? Answer calls as soon as possible. Nothing is more frustrating to current and potential clients than a long wait between inquiry and answer. If you are short on time because you are out of the office or are finishing up a demanding project, at least call people to say you received their message and will follow up shortly when you have cleared your plate.

? Make time for personal communication. You can promote business relationships to a higher level by showing interest in your clients outside of the office. For instance, if a customer places a large order, send a thank-you note. If you see an article that relates to a client's business, find time to fax it to his or her office.

? Do the unexpected. A dry cleaner in my area demonstrated his willingness to go the extra mile when a friend of mine needed a rush job on an evening gown. The cleaner not only agreed to push the order through quickly, but also arranged to have it delivered to her home so she could get ready for her special event. To this day she refuses to do business with any other cleaner.

? Take an annual survey. Once per year, make an effort to evaluate your customer service objectively. Ask for customer feedback on the products and services that you delivered over the past year and evaluate any new service strategies you implemented.

? Solicit feedback. Find out why your clients choose to do business with you. Ask them specific questions such as "How do you rate the price of my product/service compared to its value?" and "What services do you need that you are not receiving?"

Alice Bredin is author of the "Virtual Office Survival Handbook" (John Wiley & Sons) and a nationally syndicated columnist.

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