Prevent silent attrition

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During an average 24 hours, Appletree Answering Services takes 70,000 phone calls. The company (2007 revenue: $12 million), based in Wilmington, Del., operates 12 call centers, a bland appellation for a fiercely competitive business. Appletree's customers include doctors and lawyers, for whom it provides messaging services, and companies such as Siemens (SI), for which it provides after-hours help-line support.

"Our customers depend on our services every single day," says CEO John Ratliff. "That puts us on a hyper track for good and bad experiences."

Appletree conducted its first NPS survey in 2006 and scored a 26, a mediocre mark for its industry. Ratliff, 37, took the result as a wake-up call. To push the score higher and to get a better read on customers, he has taken a particularly rigorous approach to NPS. Each quarter, Appletree surveys its 5,600 customers and gets a consistent response rate of around 20%. Appletree doesn't focus solely on detractors as some companies do, and finds that there's also much to be learned from the other groups. Each department within Appletree is charged with following up with different sets of customers. For example, the call center managers contact the passives.

"This is our sweet spot," says Ratliff. "The 7's and 8's are the silent-attrition group. Something is likely nagging at them, but they're currently just satisfied enough not to complain. One day we'll look up, and they'll be gone."

Feedback from that group has yielded some useful insights. For example, customers consistently expressed annoyance that it took several calls to resolve a billing issue. That surprised Ratliff. He had thought about Appletree mostly in terms of its core service: answering phones. Here was something ancillary to that core service - the billing process - but it was irritating customers. Ratliff responded by giving Appletree's service reps more latitude to solve simple billing issues, such as the ability to waive certain computer-generated late fees.

Meanwhile, the company's most enthusiastic customers are handled by the sales department. That's right: Sales gets to make all the fun calls. But there's a practical reason for it.

"It helps fire up the sales force," says Ratliff. "It reminds them what customers like about us."

The feedback also helps the sales team tailor its pitches. Appletree's best customers, for example, particularly liked the way the company treated them when they first signed up for the service. An account manager always contacts new customers to go over options for handling each call. For a doctor, the service rep might suggest that the phone operator inquire whether the call is an emergency. Now when Appletree salespeople try to land a new account, they emphasize the customer "welcome experience."

The 1's are reserved for Ratliff, Appletree's intrepid leader. He dismisses the feedback of cranks and loonies. But often, he says, people who've rated Appletree the lowest score have legitimate gripes.

"You tend to hear the same things over and over again, albeit loudly and with colorful language," says Ratliff. "You can often learn more in a customer call than from an entire focus group." One steamed customer complained that when Appletree takes a phone message, too much time elapses (generally several minutes) before an e-mail notification is sent out. That was an easy fix, says Ratliff. Appletree now offers an instant-notification option to customers.

Appletree gets feedback from a variety of customers. So how does the company keep track of it all? It maintains a database with brief summaries of each of those interactions. Type in a search term such as "billing problem" and find out how many complaints were registered and when.

For the latest survey, Appletree's NPS rose to 56, evidently the result of responding to customers. But the clearest sign of progress: Customer referrals were up about 200% in 2007 vs. 2006, and profits climbed as well, according to Ratliff.

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