Mike Damora is vice president of sales and marketing at K&B Home Remodelers, in Succasunna, N.J. Reach him at madamora@kbhomesnj.com. Follow him on Twitter @madamora.

Listen Up and Own It

Customers can easily tarnish your reputation with a bad review. Avoid that by holding your company and its people accountable.

October 08, 2018

I got a call once from a customer: “Tell your installers to go down to the gas station and quit peeing in my bushes!” Today that’d show up in a review.

Remember the days before reviews? Seems like ages ago. You could send a bunch of pirates out to tear the place up, drop debris all over the lawn, and leave the homeowner holding the bag, i.e., your uncompleted punch list.

Today? Forget that. There’s an excellent chance that that homeowner will call you out for bad or unfinished work, sloppy jobsite management, or snippy or non-existent communication.

What’s Unfair?

Some contractors think reviews give homeowners too much power. And it's true, to some extent: Every now and then they can be unfair.

The classic example is when a dispute occurs and the homeowner uses reviews to have the last word. Of course, that last word is posted in exactly the place potential customers are looking at as they search for a contractor.

Whether you like them or not, whether you believe them or not, reviews are here to stay. And if you have them in double digits, or triple digits, they’ll mostly reflect the way your business is actually practiced.

Digital presence, by third parties and especially on social media, is itself a powerful argument. People believe online reviews before they’ll believe anything you say about yourself on your company website.

Seeing Both Sides

Less than 10% of the customers who work with our company write a review, and we don’t solicit them.

But as a consumer, I’m a fairly frequent writer of reviews, especially on Yelp. Since I dine out a lot, I comment quite a bit on restaurants. Like anyone, I want to share a great experience. I’ve also had occasion to write a scathing review if the service was somewhere between hostile and sloppy, or the food careless to inedible.

Writing restaurant reviews has made me pay a lot more attention to what goes on there. I also now take the reviews seriously when I’m picking a place to eat. I know the restaurant business not an easy one, and restaurant customers are a tough crowd.

So are home improvement customers, and the reviews happen much the same way. They have a great experience, they want to share it. They have a lousy one, they want revenge.

Think about it like this. A top way you can get a bad review is if you’ve frustrated a customer to the point where they want to scream. They feel a review is their only way to vent. It’s not malicious, it’s the customer bellowing their disappointment into the digital wind.

Broken Promises

We don’t get many bad reviews, but when we get them, it’s usually because we fell down on the job.

Here’s a recent case in point. We went out and looked at a property whose owner wanted us to build a portico. Not a big job. We sold it online and probably should’ve charged more.

Our production teams, like yours, have been crazy busy this year and last. So we worked up a design and arranged for financing, but we got so booked up that we didn’t have the manpower to do the job. So, the job kept getting pushed back, and pushed back again, so we could get the more demanding jobs on our docket completed. 

Finally I called the customer. I told her I felt terrible, but we couldn’t do her job. I told her why. I could hear her disapointment. She wanted to know why I’d waited so long to tell her that. What was I going to say? There was no excuse. We bit off more than we could chew, and made a promise we couldn’t keep.

That’s what happens when you don’t carefully manage your schedule. Managing a schedule is managing resources. She thought one thing was going to happen, and we thought something else was going to happen ... maybe.

On A Mission

A week or so later, she was everywhere. She was out to vent her frustrations and boy, did she ever.

She started out by saying she had never done anything like this before—that is, write a nasty review—and then proceeded to lay into us. She posted it on Angie’s List, then shared it Facebook and Google. She was on a mission.

I went on all three platforms and responded. I wrote that everything in her review was true. I wrote that I was embarrassed to even have to respond to her review, and that we truly regretted what had happened and were taking steps to make sure that it never happened to another one of our customers again.

How To Set Expectations

Of course I wish we’d handled it differently from the beginning. I also wondered how we’d stepped in it to begin with. It comes down to setting reasonable expectations that you can not only fulfill, but exceed. In contracting it’s not that hard to do.

First off, communicate regularly and politely. Once a contract is signed and the work is scheduled, we send a letter before we go out. We email pictures of past jobs that are similar—we’ve built a lot of porticos—so homeowners know what they’re getting.

The week the job starts, we send a message with the name of the foreman and his picture. The foreman introduces himself when he gets there. We show up in company trucks. There’s no smoking, no shirts off, no radio on. On our jobsites you’re not going to find anybody sitting around yelling at his girlfriend on a cell phone.

When people review us, they typically write things like: “I can’t believe the way these guys work.”

No Surprise Policy

We now manage using something we call the No Surprise Policy. Just like we show them what their job is going to look like, we also tell them what to expect in doing business with us. We email that, too, to every customer.

Say, for instance, it’s a window job. Once they sign the contract, Brenda, our production manager, calls and goes over the policy point by point. This all but eliminates the possibility of someone getting righteously angry because he or she thought we were going to be there on Monday when we had actually scheduled the job for Tuesday.

Yes, things can go wrong on a job, and customers can get frustrated. When that happens, we train our people to listen. Let the client vent, then explain what happened. Then let them vent some more before explaining how you’re going to correct the situation. Then wait for a possible third round of venting, which will likely be considerably diminished in volume and intensity.

Not long ago, we had a roofing job where the owner of the house next door—not even our customer!—said that nails from the job had caused him a flat tire. Obviously you could argue all day in denying it. Instead, our foreman apologized, we paid to fix the flat—$60 or $70—and sent them a $40 gas card. Within a couple months they ended up spending $40,000 on a siding job with us.

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