In preparation for this year's edition of the AQUA 100, we sat down recently to go over just about every detail of our awards program, now in its 14th year.

We looked at everything from the layout of the entry form to the deadlines and staff allocations for the project. And most importantly, we considered the questions we ask and the kinds of information we gather. We spent a lot of time talking about customer service — what questions should we ask so that the responses will give the judges a really good sense of the quality of their customer service?

Since then, I've been thinking a lot about customer service. I've been paying attention to my own behavior as a consumer, trying to analyze why I prefer one merchant to another. This will come as no surprise to you: it usually comes down to customer service.

Now, I'll admit that I'm a statistical outlyer at best; always one or two standard deviations from center. So even though a demographer probably wouldn't know what to do with me (Which category is for women who drive an old truck, are boxing fans, grow orchids and spend a lot of money on pedicures.), customer service is really a universal concept. I think my observations apply to spa and pool retail stores, too.

At my favorite bike shop, they not only know my name, but they also know my bike's name. Because I know I can always rely on them for answers, advice and quick adjustments to my bike, I make a point of buying my bike stuff from them, even though I might be able to find less expensive products elsewhere. Another chunk of my discretionary income goes to yarn stores. Over time, I've observed that I often drop in at Lakeside Fibers or The Sow's Ear just because I enjoy being there.

At the Greenhouse Mall in Austin, Texas, everyone is welcome to shop for casual furniture, greenhouses and other backyard living items while strolling or travelling by golf cart through the expansive grounds. Customers bring their children and their dogs and make a day of it. You'll be able to read more about this business in a future Success Stories column.

I suspect a lot of your businesses are like that: a place where customers enjoy spending time. Smaller, independent operations that don't try to compete with the self-serve warehouses on price, but blow them away with service.

But I am curious: what do you think is the mark of excellent customer service? And how do you evaluate the success of your customer service policies?