It pays to be discriminating when you shop, because a little bit of shopping around can save you some big bucks. You may have found the best price for goats at Goat Mart, but Goat Mart might not have the best price for goat food. You may need to go to Chow Town for that.

You might want to be discriminating when it comes to customer service, too. Just taking your chances with a retailer can leave you with hassles and a headache.

Here are some companies that have recently been singled out for offering solid customer service:

  • A survey by the National Retail Federation and American Express rated Nordstrom as the top retailer in customer service. Other top-10 finishers included Coldwater Creek, Kohl's, J.C. Penney, and Best Buy (NYSE:BBY). Top direct-selling vendors included Amazon.com (NASDAQ:AMZN), privately held L.L. Bean, and Overstock.com (NASDAQ:OSTK). Among discounters, Wal-Mart (NYSE:WMT) led the pack.

  • In the land of computer vendors, Dell (NASDAQ:DELL) has long been known for good customer service. That boast has been disputed recently, but a CNN/Money article noted that, according to the company, "customers reported a 35% increase over last year in customer satisfaction." Apple Computer (NASDAQ:AAPL) is another good-service computer maker.

  • Among telephone service providers, according to the 2005 J.D. Power Residential All-Distance Telephone Customer Satisfaction Study, the following companies were rated highest, in billing, image, cost of service, and offerings and promotions: in the Northeast, Verizon; in the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast regions, AT&T (NYSE:T); in the North Central region, Telephone & Data Systems; in the Southwest, AT&T and SBC Communications; in the West, newly private Cox Communications.

  • When it comes to travel service providers, InsideFlyer magazine gives out annual "Freddie Awards" for the best service. In 2004, Southwest Airlines won with its Rapid Rewards program, as did hotelier Starwood for its Preferred Guest program. Starwood brands include Sheraton, St. Regis, W, and Westin.

What are the secrets to offering a good customer experience? In essence, a company needs to anticipate its customers' needs, meet them, minimize hassles, and make it easy for customers to get what they need. University of Michigan professor Claes Fornell has suggested, especially for this holiday season, that retailers should try to have their best staff on duty during peak hours and should have as many checkout lines open as possible, according to need. The layout of the store might be simplified or clarified, to help people zero in on what they want.

The NRF/American Express survey revealed that some 85% of consumers said they spend and shop more at retailers that provide good service. And 82% said they'd be likely to recommend such retailers to friends and family. This has major implications for investors -- when you're thinking about investing in a company, assess its customer service. You want it to be bowling customers over -- or at least not driving them away.

While you're at it, check out The Motley Fool's customer service. Sign up for a free trial of any Fool investing newsletters and see for yourself how well they're doing.

Amazon, AT&T, Best Buy, and Dell are Motley Fool Stock Advisor recommendations. Overstock is a Motley Fool Rule Breakers pick.

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Longtime Fool contributor Selena Maranjian owns shares of Amazon and Wal-Mart. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.