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It is hard to define, tough to teach, yet increasingly important to many businesses at the bottom line. It is the intangible "niceness" quotient, the degree to which employees treat customers in winning ways.

"It's the art of seeking to satisfy the customer's needs at all times through common sense, guidance and self-control," said Nazario Filip-poni of Peabody Court Hotel in Baltimore."It's the focal point of our company, basic to all our ideas," Rick Gold-stein of the Marriott Corp. said.

"It's the ultimate focus of what we do," said Linda Crosby DeBerry of Federal Express.

Peabody Court, Federal Express and Marriott are among a growing number of companies that show an exacting concern with the way their workers handle customers, in the belief that good human relations translate into higher profits. All have made a serious commitment to spend time and energy training employees to be nicer. All have won recognition for customer service.

"A lot of people can pick up and deliver packages. How we perform with customers is the bottom line on whether you'll ship with us again," said DeBerry, managing director of human resource development for Tennessee-based Federal Express. "The proof that we care about customers is that we're No. 1 in overnight air."

Of course, many companies advertise that they treat customers with kid gloves. But Federal Express is one of relatively few companies that have extensive customer service training programs, DeBerry said. She said that all "customer contact" employees receive two to five weeks of training when they are hired and refresher training later.

The core of the company's training program focuses on its army of telephone representatives, who take orders for package shipments and receive much abuse from customers whose packages go astray or happen not to have arrived on time.

In training sessions involving a great deal of role playing, the Federal Express phone representatives practice handling a wide variety of calls.

"We teach them some phraseology and give them tips on empathetic listening," DeBerry said. As the practice calls come in, the employees are encouraged to classify them mentally and respond to each in the appropriate manner.

"We teach the technique of not taking it personally when the person gets angry at you," DeBerry said. Even though the customer may be mad, the phone representatives are taught to listen faithfully, empathize and, where appropriate, apologize. "We're sorry you're upset with us," is a commonly used phrase in such conversations.

The notion that well-treated employees will treat customers well is embedded in the corporate culture at Federal Express. "It's a people-service-profit philosophy," DeBerry said. "The idea is that if we take care of the people, they'll take care of service and service will take care of profit."

A similar philosophy is used at Marriott Corp., the giant hotel, restaurant and food service company based in Bethesda, Md.

"I think J. Willard Marriott, our founder, said it best when he said, `Take good care of the employees, and they in turn will take good care of the guests,' " Goldstein said of Marriott's hotel division.

Each of the 192 Marriott hotels throughout the world offers its own, extensive "hospitality training" for all employees. Although managers of the respective hotels are entitled to determine the nature and extent of training, considered a core area of managerial judgment, the headquarters staff offers optional programs.

Part of Marriott's new "Quality Improvement Process" program is preventive, designed to make sure registrations are in order, burned-out light bulbs are replaced and keys work well. But an important element in the program is to give rank-and-file hotel employees the power to solve customers' problems and respond to complaints without having to seek clearance from managers.

"Employees have much more discretion than they would have had in the past," Goldstein said, citing this hypothetical example: A customer comes to a hotel's front desk, complaining that something has gone wrong. Maybe he had no hot water for his shower, the bulb in his reading lamp had gone out or he didn't receive the messages he was supposed to get. Under the new program, most desk clerks would be allowed to refund the room cost to the customer immediately without a manager's intervention.

But not all companies that emphasize customer courtesy believe it can be taught. At the Nordstrom department store in Tyson's Corner, Va., General Manager John Whitacre said that the retailer's philosophy is that proper screening and hiring practices are the most important element in a company's customer relations program.

"When someone asks who trains our employees, we say it's their parents. We just hope to find people with good values that are genuinely interested in helping others," he said.

Once a clerk is asked to join the Seattle-based retail chain, the company gives the person a large amount of authority to handle customer relations issues on his own, such as the right to approve checks and make refunds without the involvement of a manager. All clerks are paid on a commission basis, another factor motivating them to be friendly to customers.

Even those companies that strive for formal training in customer relations believe the hand-picking of warm, friendly and outgoing individuals is more important than anything they can teach.

Winston doCarmo, a vice president in Giant Food's personnel department, said: "People learn courtesy by the age of 6. The only thing we can do is top it off."

Distributed by Los Angeles Times-Washington Post News Service.