Customer Service

Ale-8-One, a ginger-flavored soda, has developed a small but devoted following over the more than 80 years since its invention. Although its core distribution is confined to 25 counties in central Kentucky, Ale-8-One Bottling Company ships an average of 150 to 200 cases a month to customers around the world, including troops serving in the Middle East.

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A look at the history of Smith Software Development is a trip down technological memory lane. The company was founded as Tri-State Data Processors in 1970 by brother- and sister-in-law Joan and Andrew Smith. Joan’s son, Noel Smith Sr., now 55, began working for the company in 1975 but left to join the Navy. He and his wife, Nannette, now 49, opened Alabama Business Computers in 1979, the year he returned from Navy service. The company had offices in Montgomery and Mobile.

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It may seem odd that a company that generated an estimated $13.2 billion in revenues in 2005 and was ranked at No. 10 on Forbes’ list of America’s largest private companies is considered a small player in its market. But with 65,000 employees and 170-plus stores, Meijer Inc. (pronounced “Meyer”), a grocery and merchandise chain that operates in five Midwestern states, is vying with Goliaths like Wal-Mart.

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It was a restaurant owner's worst nightmare.

In 1996, a customer contracted salmonella after eating at one of five Duke Sandwich Shop locations then owned by the Smart family in the former textile town of Greenville, S.C. And then another person got sick. And then another.

Within a few days, the state health department determined that the salmonella outbreak, traced to spreads made at the restaurant, had affected more than 200 people. It was the worst outbreak of salmonella in South Carolina history, a state record that stood until 2005.

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When you think about servicing customers, you should consider that consumers shop fewer stores today. Because of increasing time constraints, by the year 2000, Americans making a major purchase will probably visit only 1.3 stores.

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From all outward appearances, this company could be just another one of those slick, high-tech ventures in California's Silicon Valley. The suburban headquarters is filled with casually dressed, friendly young people who could pass for yuppies. The president has years to go before turning 40, and the 300 or so office workers attend monthly wine-and-cheese parties.

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Stew Lenard, watch out. The Kowalskis of St. Paul, Minnesota, may steal your crown as the champion of customer service among the nation's grocery markets.

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