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9:48am EDT July 22, 2002

I recently received a letter from my 13-year-old nephew in New Jersey. He was asking for help with a class project.

What I got, in the course of helping him, was an unexpected lesson in customer service.

Everyone in his English class was writing to someone in a different state, requesting information about the climate, history and attractions, as well as a small, inexpensive item depicting something special about the state. Of course my husband and I were more than willing to share all we knew about the Buckeye State.

My husband quickly typed up some state trivia, while I accepted the task of shopping for a small Ohio trinket — a refrigerator magnet, a key chain, a postcard, a bumper sticker — anything that could fit in the envelope along with the letter. Turns out I got the harder part of that deal.

After striking out at three general merchandise stores, I headed for the mall. Certainly there would be some sort of tourist stuff there.

My first stop was Hallmark. Already a bit frustrated by searching in vain at other stores, I went directly to the clerk to query her. She briefly consulted with another clerk and then shook her head. Her store didn’t have anything like that.

She could’ve stopped there and let me walk out disappointed and uncertain of where else to look. Instead, she offered a surprising option. She suggested I try a competing card shop upstairs. She thought they had some Ohio postcards.

I thanked her and left the store smiling. On my way up the escalator, I thought about what she’d just done.

She’d put competition aside to help a customer. She took the chance that by helping me find what I wanted — whether it was in her store or not — I would consider my visit there worthwhile and return to her shop another day. It was a bit of a gamble on her part, to be sure, but it’s one that will pay off — at least in this case.

I won’t take my business to her competitor next time around simply because it had what I needed in this particular instance. I’ll give her store another try first. Her helpful attitude, knowledge and courtesy gave me a positive image not just of her, as a store clerk, but of her company, as a whole.

Whether she realized that or not, I don’t know. What I do know is the holidays are now upon us and her card store is about to get a lot of business from one grateful shopper. And that was just for helping me find a 50-cent postcard.

More of us need to remember the value — and the power — of genuinely helpful, go-out-of-your-way customer service. If practiced routinely, it can be a competitive advantage, in and of itself.

Sure, it’s harder to measure than the volume of merchandise you move off your shelves or the profit you make on each sale, but how you treat customers — even potential customers — can carry a much greater, longer-lasting return. And isn’t that what we’re all really looking for?

Nancy Byron (nbyron@sbnnet.com) is editor of SBN Columbus.