Contractors have always had to be careful when it comes to their company’s reputation. Not too long ago, according to Jack Beers of Metcalfe Heating & AC (Manassas, Va.), contractors all followed the old adage: “If you do a great job, your customer will tell nine people. Do a poor job, and they’ll tell 22 people.” But today, as more and more customers post online reviews, Beers explained, “The difference now is that if you do a poor job, they’ll tell 22 million people.”
Websites such as Angie’s List, Yelp, Yahoo! Local, Google Places, Kudzu, CitySearch, and many others provide customers with the opportunity to post reviews and rate contractors. “People want to see what others have to say about their experience with a company or product and they now use the Internet to do that research,” said Rich Morgan, president of Magic Touch Mechanical Inc. (Mesa, Ariz.).
Most sites include a ratings system, such as giving three out of five stars, and allow customers to describe their experience with a particular service provider. According to Griffin Davis, vice president of marketing for Market Hardware Inc. and an expert in Internet and small business marketing, “Consumers are influenced by online reviews at a level only exceeded by direct word-of-mouth from their peers and friends. People tend to trust the overall perceptions of a group of consumers. And now Google and Facebook are making it easier for people to access the online reviews and ratings of people in their personal network. Those ratings are extremely influential.”
MONITORING ONLINE REPUTATIONThe first step to maintaining your online reputation is to find out what your customers are saying about you. According to Morgan, “It’s an absolute must to know what’s being said about your company on the Internet and as quickly as possible.”
Some business owners prefer to keep this task in-house, but others are contracting out this task to companies that offer online reputation management services. “Many web marketing firms, including Market Hardware, provide tracking services that allow you to keep up-to-date with ratings and reviews of your firm. You can search for ‘reputation management’ to find the many options that exist,” Davis said. However, he noted, “You can do it yourself by reviewing the local sections of Google, Yahoo!, and Bing, as well as CitySearch and Yelp, every quarter to see how you are doing.”
Brian Leech, owner of Service Legends (Des Moines, Iowa), tracks online comments through a software system. “I can set up triggers for keywords [for example, Service Legends] that notify me of any new reviews posted on our company,” he explained. “In our area, Google, Dex, and Customer Lobby are most frequently used.”
At Magic Touch Mechanical, Morgan uses email alerts and keywords to track what is being said about his company online. “Some sites allow you to choose the option of being contacted via email when someone posts or even updates a review,” he said. “There are also useful services such as Google Alerts available from Google, Yahoo, etc., that allow you to receive alerts when new content is posted on the Internet containing certain keywords or phrases such as a company name,” said Morgan.
In addition to monitoring through alerts, Morgan said, the best way to keep track of online comments is “good old-fashioned elbow grease.” According to him, that means putting in the effort to make “daily visits to your profile pages on the various websites to see what’s been posted.”
RESPONDING TO REVIEWSMonitoring online comments is the first step to preserving your company’s reputation, but it is certainly not the last. Progressive contractors not only monitor comments but have also developed strategies for how to respond to reviews.
At Service Legends, Leech said he “absolutely” responds to every negative review. “We are not perfect and I can humbly apologize if we have made a mistake with a client,” he said.
At Magic Touch Mechanical, Morgan responds to “ALL reviews - great, good, bad, and indifferent.” In response to a positive review, he will make a post thanking the customer and expressing appreciation for their business. In response to a negative review, he first investigates to determine if it is a legitimate complaint. “If we get a bad review and it’s legit, we apologize, admit we could’ve done better, and ask for the opportunity to do just that,” he said.
In cases like these where the contractor is at fault and the customer’s online complaint is justified, Beers said, “It usually comes down to something that fell through the cracks, so that’s an opportunity to get on top of it and resolve it right away.” He added, “Generally, this happens more on the service side than the install side.”
Beers noted that these initial problems can turn out to be good opportunities for forming lifelong customers. “If you have a problem with a customer and you get on it right away, 80 percent will do business with you again. So in some ways if you have an issue and resolve it quickly to the customer’s satisfaction, that concern goes away, and the customer feels, ‘Hey, this is a quality company.’ Those actually can become your best customers.”
As contractors follow up with customers who have posted negative reviews, Beers said, the most difficult situations are created by “totally unreasonable customers.” With some people, he said, “No matter what you’re going to do, you can’t make them happy.” In that instance, his company’s policy is to uphold its 100-percent-satisfaction guarantee, and refund the customer’s money. Beers said he’ll simply tell the customer, “We aren’t the company for you.” And, he added mischievously, he might pass along the names of two of his competitors.
After apologizing and following up, Beers said, he asks the customer to make a follow-up post saying the situation was taken care of, or to delete the negative comment. “Occasionally they will [delete the negative post],” he said. “If they never remove it, it’s just not important to them.”
FIGHTING FRAUDDespite contractors’ best efforts, one issue with Internet ratings that continues to plague them is fraud. There’s no guarantee in the online world that people are who they claim to be - or that the statements they make in their negative reviews are true.
According to Leech, “We have grown so fast in the marketplace that many of our competitors loathe our company. I have been subject to competitors writing bad reviews on our company. Fortunately, they are so hateful in the false post that it is blatantly obvious.”
While it is possible to ask the hosting site to remove a fraudulent post, many websites will not remove the comments. “It’s not easy to get reviews removed, and on some sites it’s flat-out impossible, but some sites will investigate if you’re persistent,” Morgan said.
For example, Yelp is one site that helps contractors take down fraudulent posts. Russ Donnici, owner of Mechanical Air Service Inc. (San Jose, Calif.) was successful in getting a negative post removed from Yelp. “A year or so ago we had a customer post a bad comment on Yelp. He was upset that we wouldn’t give him a discount simply because he wanted one,” Donnici explained. “He did use a fake name but we knew who it was. We contacted Yelp, and the comment was pulled.”
Morgan has also noticed this trend toward people discussing price in their online reviews in an attempt to “scare us into giving them a discount or even free services.” He continued, “If it’s one of these unscrupulous customers basically trying to blackmail us into free work, we answer honestly with our side of the story and let the reader determine who’s being honest. If we find something that doesn’t add up and it’s clearly a competitor posting a fake review, we respond accordingly pointing this out and have been successful working with some sites in catching the guilty.” He added, “IP addresses can be traced.”
SEEKING SATISFIED CUSTOMER COMMENTSAnother key to developing a good online reputation is to ask satisfied customers to post reviews. However, Morgan cautioned, “Encouraging online reviews is not recommended for the weak of heart or for companies that aren’t positive their employees are representing them well in the field.”
Still, progressive contractors are pushing their customers to post reviews. Leech said, “We have a lot of clients that will go to our website after the service and email me a testimonial. I will then respond thanking them and giving them a link to share their comments online.”
Morgan added, “We constantly ask for reviews.” In his opinion, “The bad reviews are going to happen no matter how you slice it.” To combat this inevitable negative exposure, Morgan said, “You need as many good reviews as possible to counter the bad.”
Davis reiterated that the key for contractors is simply to ask their customers to rate their company. “This is going to sound simplistic, but the key is to ask them. Most contractors don’t ask their best customers to post honest reviews because it seems awkward,” he said. “But online ratings and reviews are commonplace, and if you just ask customers with whom you have a long working relationship to provide an honest post because it’s important to you, most will do it.” Davis also recommended that contractors limit what they ask customers to do. “Don’t ask them for a post on the 10 or so major review sites. I suggest contractors only ask their customers to post on just one or two sites, a search engine like Bing and pure local site like CitySearch or a pure review site like Yelp.”
FORGING AHEADWhile the widespread exposure and increased scrutiny afforded by online reviews may make some contractors cringe, others are turning it into an opportunity to open up the dialogue with their customers.
“Every contractor should keep in mind that online reviews are a double-edged sword and you are going to get negative reviews - deserved or not,” Morgan said. “If you’re not one of the ‘good guys’ who truly has a company culture of doing the right thing, online reviews are probably one of the worst things that can happen to you. But if you truly run a good company with good values, ethics and a sincere mission to do the right thing by your customers, community, and industry, customer reviews will help you prove it.”