A few weeks ago I featured tips in this column about how home-based business owners can improve customer service. Since then I have come across some creative examples of the kind of tactics it takes to gain a competitive edge.

All of the customer-service examples I found have three things in common: They are unexpected, they exceed customer expectations and they make a good story. The "make a good story" component is particularly important for home-based business owners who rely heavily on word of mouth for new business. Creativity was another consistent element in the best stories I heard. The personal touch goes a long way toward cementing a relationship.

Here are two examples of powerful, affordable approaches to customer service. Adapt these tactics to beef up your customer-service efforts.

Mary Miller, a home-based travel agent with TNT Travel in St. Louis, recently helped a couple plan a trip to Morocco. The couple had worked with Miller in the past and was already impressed by her positive attitude and willingness to thoroughly research resources for their travel plans. But Miller's customer service really set her apart.

After booking the couple's airfare and hotels, Miller went to the local bookstore to look through tour guides of Morocco. After her trip to the bookstore, she was able to provide the couple with a list of items they might use to barter with the Moroccans for rugs, pottery and handicrafts. She also provided them with specific recommendations for sites and locations within Morocco to visit and to avoid.

Needless to say, Miller's efforts exceeded the couple's expectations. It also made a great story and left them spreading the word about her services. Obviously, Miller cannot afford to make trips to the library for every customer who books a trip, but by making an investment in this couple, who she knew traveled heavily, she was rewarded by an increase in repeat business and referrals.

After reading my first column about customer service, a reader from Charlotte, N.C., wrote to tell me about a new business in her area that had made an impression with its customer service: a 5-month-old transportation company called Taxi Shuttle Express.

Owner Roosevelt Talford and his staff provide transportation to and from airports, special events, hotels and corporate functions.

The reader and her husband had contacted Taxi Shuttle Express for transportation to and from Charlotte airport. Having taken the same trip in a traditional taxi in the past, the reader was impressed by Taxi Shuttle Express' careful driving, clean vehicles, timeliness and reasonable prices.

While these qualities certainly would have encouraged her to use this business' services again, she was especially pleased to receive a thank-you note from Talford after her trip. Included with the card was a magnet, which was imprinted with his company's name, phone and address. The personal note and magnet were creative ways for him to provide personal attention while reinforcing his company's image.

Talford recognizes that this special attention will build his reputation and set Taxi Shuttle Express apart from the competition.

If you have set your business apart with great customer service, I would like to hear about it. Please write and let me know.

You can't do everything at once

On my way back from a recent business trip, I had a four-hour layover at the Atlanta airport. I decided to use the time to get a jumpstart on my holiday shopping at a local mall. My side trip yielded only 30 minutes in the stores and one gift, partly because I was juggling my cell-phone calls with shopping (which kept both activities from receiving my full attention).

The way I chose to use my layover provided a reminder of the pitfalls of the upcoming holiday season. In retrospect, I realize there wasn't enough time to shop successfully during my layover. A better use of time would have been to relax at the airport and focus on making a few phone calls so I could arrive home rested.

But the holiday season brings out our personalities in full force, and my foray is an example of my tendency to attempt to make all time productive. Many people who work at home share this tendency. This is because working at home whether running a business or telecommuting forces you to juggle a broad range of tasks. This juggling act can encourage you to try to make every minute of the day productive. During the holiday season, this inclination is even more pronounced.

I learned a lot from my trip in Atlanta, and I may try to take the holidays at a slower pace this year. If you anticipate the same kind of pitfall this holiday season, use the following tips to help manage your stress level:

? Focus on one item at a time. When you are tempted to divide your attention in many directions, try instead to concentrate on one task until it is complete. For instance, avoid thinking about writing holiday cards while working on a business proposal. If you find your thoughts slipping back to what is on your to-do list, remind yourself that thinking about something doesn't help get it done.

? Conquer, rather than divide. Don't divide your time between too many tasks, or you may find yourself facing a full list of half-completed items. For example, rather than running out to buy gifts for 30 minutes during a busy day, set aside a full morning or afternoon to take care of everyone on your list.

? Give yourself a hand. Reduce your workload by hiring temporary help during the holidays. If you telecommute, you may want to hire someone to assist with personal chores such as household projects or cleaning. Home-based business owners can hire temporary office help to reduce the business workload.

? Lower your standards. If you have a demanding work month in December, you may have to let up on some of the Martha Stewart-type activities. Buy cookies instead of baking, get things gift wrapped instead of wrapping yourself, write short notes instead of full letters in holiday cards. It can be difficult to accept that you can't give as much attention to holiday projects as you'd like, but maintaining your health for the holidays should be high on your priority list.

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

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