"Most companies," insists customer-service expert John Tschohl, "do not value their front-line employes. They may put it in their annual reports -- 'Our people are our most important asset' -- but they really don't care about them."

That lack of caring can cost companies big money.

Although they may have grown accustomed to rude, indifferent service, people still are most likely to do business where they're treated with respect. And, more important to many companies, says Tschohl, "Consumers tend to avoid doing business where they are given slow, discourteous service."

For every 10 complaints, he says, more than 2,300 consumers have heard about those -- and other -- complaints that weren't filed.

In his capacity as a sales and management consultant, Tschohl often saw firms spending "an incredible amount of money on capital renovation, advertising and expansion of inventories -- all designed to bring people into their places of business -- only to see the front-line employes working as hard as they could to drive the consumer away."

That is when he founded Better Than Money Corp., a Bloomington, Minn., firm specializing in customer-service training for a wide variety of companies, including banks, department stores, airlines, hotels or "any service-driven organization."

Tschohl's program -- it's called Feelings -- is designed to teach customer service to front-line employes and supervisors, who then turn around and teach their colleagues to use customers' names, to be fast and prompt, to show warmth and courtesy, to listen and pay attention to what the customer wants.

The program, consisting of three 60-90 minute training sessions, uses videotapes and other educational aids. Follow-up sessions are given every few months. It costs from $6-$50 per employe, depending on the number of employes.

Many employers have "a hidden agenda," declares Tschohl, "that says 'I've got 200, or 20,000, employes and, when you're paying them $4, $6 or $8 an hour, there's nothing you can do about them.'

"What they're really saying is 'I don't believe in my people.' I think that's a terrible error. They may be the least-trained and least-recognized, but with proper training they can do you the most good financially."

Although company executives may be committed to customer service, they are not the ones dealing with the consumer. "All too few," says Tschohl, "have dealt with the front-line employe."

Now a growing number of companies are deciding that they'd better take a good look at customer relations, and, if necessary, hire someone to help them. "Providing good customer service is, in essence, the hotel business," says Gary Gillis, president of Continental Hotel Management (CHM), Bethesda. "The difference between one hotel and another is how well they treat customers."

CHM, with 1,000 employes in 11 hotels across five eastern states (including the new Ramada Renaissance Hotel at Dulles Airport and a new Comfort Inn in Gaithersburg), introduced the Better Than Money program in two of its hotels just before they opened.

"When the hotels opened," says Gillis, "I noticed a tremendous improvement in employe attitude about good customer satisfaction over the attitude in hotels where we hadn't introduced the program."

Federal Express, a major Tschohl client, trains all employes in its 300-plus Business Service Centers around the country. "We took the Tschohl program," says Federal Express vice president Ken Newell, "and changed it around where it all directly relates to situations our people would run into."

The training, says Newell, "gives our employes some feeling for the need to communicate with customers, to try to understand what they want and not what we perceive they want."

The Landover-based Jacobs Companies -- Jacobs Leasing, Jacobs Transfer, Jacobs Truck Sales -- began putting its 400 employes through the Tschohl program two months ago.

"One of the advantages of the program," says president H. Lindley Grubbs, "is that it provides the employes with a chance to see how important they really are, for them to feel more a part of the team, to help them feel good about themselves."

Is the customer always right?

"It's a good premise to start with," says Tschohl. "If you can start with the premise, 'The customer is king,' you're going in the right direction."

However, if customers escalate minor complaints into major, irrational demands, "It's still important to listen to them, treat them with warmth and respect . . . and hope they take their business to your competitor."