More than a decade ago, my wife and I lugged ourthen-small offspring for a number of weekends one summer on car-shoppingexcursions.

We were looking to replace a deteriorating Mercury thatnot only had accumulated a heavy amount of mileage in a relatively short periodof time, but the upholstery and rear dashboard now bore all the classicremnants of years of ossified Happy Meals and spilled sodas.

Exhausted, we ambled into an import dealer, where a gruff-lookingsalesman with a clip-on tie immediately plied us with bottled water,comfortable chairs and gave each child a toy to play with while mom and dadmulled what is generally accorded as the second-biggest purchase of theirlives.

"So what can we do to earn (which came out"oin") ya business?" he asked. As far as I was concerned, he waswell on his way. Long story short, we bought the car and 126,000 miles later,it still transports me to the train station each morning.

By contrast, when I suddenly discovered the magic ofhigh-speed DSL and tried to bid adieu to my dial-up AOL account, therepresentative there spoke with me for 15 minutes and proceeded to deliberatelyevade my cancel order with more fakes and jukes than the Harlem Globetrotters.

I mention this dichotomy, not only because customerservice is one of my pet obsessions, but that MSN Money last week released itsfourth annual customer-service survey, naming the top 10 and worst 10 companiesacross a variety of industries, including fast-food chains, airlines, grocersand, of course, financial-services companies.

I must admit a twinge of schadenfreude that AOL easilyvaulted into the No. 1 slot in the Money poll's customer service Hall of Shame,and conversely, Amazon was ensconced in the top slot of its more desirablecounterpart the Hall of Fame.

Other cellar-dwellers included Citibank, HSBC, andCapital One, while customer service favorites included the perennial winner inthe retail category, Nordstrom, along with Southwest Airlines and Marriott.

While CPA firms don't quite operate like HSBC orNordstrom, I don't believe that common sense customer/client service edictsshould take on any less importance.

A good economy presents far less of a challenge to enticecustomers to spend money.

When you consider what has gone on the past year and ahalf, it sort of surprises me that many of the entities relegated to thisyear's Hall of Shame continue to deploy little more than superficial customerservice practices.

I would think that best practices matrix could apply toclient service and client retention in CPA firms, with retention currently oneof the top challenges for the profession, particularly at a time when many ofthe midsized and smaller firms are being squeezed on fees and often being undercuton price by the Big Four and those just below.

But I offer up the higher-ticket Nordstrom as an exampleof how pricing sometimes becomes secondary to sterling service levels. It'shardly the most budget-minded brand, but yet has, for nearly 100 years, hadlittle trouble in getting repeat business.

I've always believed that customer service remains thehub of any successful business, and that includes CPA firms and clientsthereof.

I should reveal at this point, we've since purchased twomore cars from that same dealership. It's all about how to "oin" orkeep business - in any industry.

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