A Website that provides reports on area businesses can be a useful tool for service companies such as HVAC contractors - especially when the contractors get positive reviews from satisfied customers. Angie's List (www.angieslist.com) is a Web portal where consumers can learn about home improvement contractors in their community and read comments from consumers who have purchased products or services from those contractors.

Founded in 1995 by Columbus, Ohio-resident Angie Hicks, the Website serves 175,000 consumer members in 25 major metropolitan markets including Boston, Chicago, Houston, Indianapolis, Philadelphia, and Seattle. Plans are in the works to expand to many other communities.

The NEWS recently spoke with Hicks about her Website and how HVAC contractors can benefit from positive feedback from its members (consumers).

THE NEWS: What is the cost of membership and why would a consumer pay to find out information about a company when they could contact either the Better Business Bureau (BBB) or Chamber of Commerce for free?

HICKS: A monthly membership for Angie's List is about $5 per month. Angie's List provides reliable, unbiased ratings based on our members real-life, first-hand experiences with the contractors they hire. Angie's List provides more information than consumers will get through other sources, including: what range or specialized services a company provides and detailed information from reports submitted by our members on the type of job a company completed for them and how they felt about the work.

THE NEWS: If a consumer makes negative and disparaging remarks about a company, what can the company do as recourse? Rebuttal? See the remarks before they are published online?

HICKS: We do realize that often there are two sides to every story. Companies are given the opportunity to respond to comments submitted by members. We don't change the member's comments in the report, but we do place the company response alongside it for other members to read to factor that into their decision about that company.

Companies can access reports and ratings about their company online, as often as they like, at no cost. They can also subscribe to our Eagle Eye service, which will notify them by e-mail each time a report is filed on their company. Additionally, we have a customer service department solely devoted to companies to help answer any questions they have about Angie's List.

THE NEWS: How can a service company protect its reputation from vengeful consumers and what responsibility does Angie's List take for publishing what could be libelous material?

HICKS: Because many of our members are anxious to share their good experiences, companies often find Angie's List to be a valuable resource in promoting their commitment to high quality service.

We do take a number of steps to ensure the integrity of our ratings and information, as well as make sure that no dissatisfied customer, nor a business owner, can inappropriately influence the reliability of our system.

First, only members can submit reports to Angie's List. Those members pay a membership fee and sign an "I swear" statement verifying that the information contained in their report is valid and for work performed for them in the last year. Second, a member can't report on the same company more than once in a six-month period, unless it is for a different job in a different category. Third, member reports are not anonymous to our data staff, which means we can monitor and audit reports to ensure the reliability of the information submitted.

Finally, companies do have the chance to see all reports filed on them - no matter what the rating - and we rely on their responses to ensure our members have as much information as possible.

THE NEWS: Are businesses given every opportunity to "right what is wrong?"

HICKS: For members who have a problem with a contractor that they can't resolve, we offer our Neighbors in Action complaint resolution service. As part of this, Angie's List will contact the company on behalf of the member to help resolve the concern/problem. We do inform the company of the type of resolution their customer is seeking, and work with both parties to reach an agreement.

THE NEWS: Are you familiar with other Websites where consumers have free rein to take potshots at businesses?

HICKS: Ratings on Angie's List reflect an average of all reports filed on a company, not just the opinion of one consumer and not just bad experiences. People come to Angie's List to find companies that are best suited to their needs, not to gripe. Over the years, we have found that our members are especially anxious to spread the word about companies they have a good experience with. As a result, we often hear from companies that a large number of their customers learned about them first through Angie's List.

Companies are placed on Angie's List when a member submits a report. Because of that, a member looking for an HVAC company often has access to information on dozens of companies in their city. For example, there are 143 different HVAC companies listed in Indianapolis; 102 in Minneapolis/St. Paul; 126 in Columbus, Ohio; 90 in Boston; and 73 in Charlotte, N.C.


Alan Winters, owner of Control Tech Heating and Air Conditioning, Zionsville, Ind., (www.control-tech-inc.com) said that being on the list has its advantages, since business owners can gauge their successes - or shortcomings - by reading and reacting to comments from consumers.

"One person who called and couldn't get an appointment during a hot streak made a comment out of anger on the Website," Winters said. "We couldn't get to her right away because we were taking care of our [service agreement] customers." But Winters had the opportunity to reply to the person and he sent her a coupon for a discount on future service.

Angie's List also publishes a monthly magazine in which contractors can run ads by invitation only. Invitations are based on the number of positive comments received about a company. Control Tech, as well as its sister duct cleaning business, has been invited several times.

Mark Baker, general manager for Swiss Air Heating & Cooling Inc., Columbus, said his company is so proud of its affiliation with Angie's List that the company has a graphic at its Website (www.swissairohio.com) showing that it is a three-time winner of the Angie's List "Super Service Award." "Only 5 percent of businesses win that award each year," Baker said.

Like Control Tech, Swiss Air publishes an ad in the magazine, too. Baker said he likes to track all of the leads that come in and he is impressed with the responses he gets from the ad.

"We got about 30 good leads in June, and they average about $80 per lead," he said.

"Referrals from the ad and Website are very important."

Baker noted that he can track customer comments at the Website and the more positive ones his company receives, the more room is available for advertising in the magazine. The most highly-rated companies based on customer satisfaction get preferential ad space in the magazine.

"I think I get better leads with Angie's List than the BBB," Baker added. "And I recommend Angie's List for anyone interested in generating leads."

Publication date: 03/06/2006