Want happier customers? Try having more fun

    Heather Faulding remembers it well: She was sitting at her desk at Faulding Architecture on East 19th Street one day last September when a breathless bunch of staffers from M5 Networks burst in, announced they were on a scavenger hunt and started making odd requests.

    M5 Networks, a purveyor of voice-over-Internet protocol phone systems, provides service to some 1,100 New York City businesses, including Isaac Mizrahi, Brooklyn Brewery and the New York Health & Racquet Club, as well as Ms. Faulding's firm.

    "They were asking for a list of things that showed they really know us," Ms. Faulding says. Like what? "One item was, find someone who speaks an African language," she recalls. "I'm originally from South Africa, so that was me."

    It might seem odd that deep in the doldrums of the worst recession in decades, M5's employees had time to run around the city on such a wacky mission.

    "It's true that 2009 was a hard year for us," says Dan Hoffman, M5's CEO. He co-founded the company, which now has 120 employees, in 2000. In 2008 alone, M5 grew 52%, reaching $23 million in revenues. Then the bad times hit: "About 700 of our clients cut 10% or more of their work force, which meant we disconnected thousands of phones," he says.

    That's when Mr. Hoffman decided "to use the downturn as an opportunity to get better at the fundamentals." By further enhancing customer service, he hoped to stir up enough positive word-of-mouth to bring in new customers.

    "What gets measured, improves," Mr. Hoffman says. "When you give people an interesting way to measure how they're doing, they compete to get better."