Philadelphia-based writer Jim Cory is a senior contributing editor to Professional Remodeler who specializes in covering the remodeling and home improvement industry. Reach him at email@example.com.
About two years ago a California window contractor who was not a regular visitor to Yelp became curious. He went to his company’s page and found ten reviews. “Eight were by people we’d never sold windows to,” he says.
That is, without having ever had windows installed, those homeowners had gone on Yelp to complain about the company’s canvassers knocking on their door, about the company’s call center trying to set up a two-party appointment, and about the company’s prices being higher than anyone else’s. The other two reviews were from homeowners who had actually bought the company’s windows. Those two reviews were glowing. What particularly irritated the company president was that his entire operation was geared to delivering the best possible customer service. And yet, here was the business with a one-star rating on Yelp.
How Dare You
Online reviews have changed the retail landscape. Ninety-seven percent of customers read online reviews for local businesses, according to a survey by BrightLocal. And 49 percent of consumers “need at least a four-star rating before they choose to use a business.”
But some contractors regard the power of a review as akin to blackmail. What defense is there against a customer out to ruin a contractor’s reputation? Sure you can take the reviewer to court for libel, but winning those cases is extremely difficult.
That’s what happened in December of 2012 when reviews on Yelp and Angie’s List prompted Virginia contractor Chris Dietz to sue a homeowner demanding retraction of defamatory reviews and the $750,000 he estimated the potential lost business and damage to reputation was worth.
Consider The Options
When confronted with a negative review of your company, obviously you have options. Before jumping into them, note that the earlier you respond, the less potential damage will occur. The best way to be aware of something popping up on an online site is by engaging a reputation monitoring service, a so-called ORM (online reputation management) company that will notify you when reviews appear. They should also be able to detect fake reviews published by competitors.
So a nasty review appears, now what do you do? First off you can ignore it. But in today’s world, that’s akin to ignoring a small growth suddenly appearing on your face. Your refusal to respond will be seen by many readers as indifference, and will serve to confirm whatever accusations are made, whether true or false.
Secondly, you can lash out with sarcasm and harsh language. That approach ultimately cost Chris Dietz a lot of money. Dietz responded with verbal online attacks to the negative and defamatory reviews published by his client. And though a Virginia court initially found (in Dietz v. Perez) that the client had defamed his company, the court, in a split decision, also noted that Dietz had defamed his client in turn and awarded him nothing for all his efforts.
So the best course is to act, but before acting, calm down and place yourself in the mindset that’s logical rather than emotional. Be strategic, not angry. “Bad reviews can sting,” points out blogger Steve Ball, “but losing business because potential customers think you’re a hothead will sting a lot worse.” He also suggests that contractors “take the time to truly understand what happened” before undertaking a response. “If you receive a review about how rude and unprofessional your foreman acted on the job, it’s your responsibility to check in and see what really happened.”
Crafting A Response
Once you’ve interviewed whoever was managing the job, and gathered the facts, then craft an explanation. Add just enough detail to indicate that you are familiar with the specifics of what happened. At LinkedIn, Mark Hayward offers a succinct best practices review response template: “1) thank the reviewer, 2) write in a “human” voice, 3) if necessary, apologize, 4) address issue, 5) consider future readers.”
Sometimes this seemingly humble approach moves complainers to take down the offending review. But of course many posting negative reviews will leave it right there, dragging your overall rating down. Now your best bet is to generate so many positive reviews that the negative one looks like an anomaly.
In the case of the California window contractor, the key to solving the problem, he determined, was the company’s installers. They are “the biggest part of the customer experience.” He called a company meeting to announce and explain a bonus program. At the end of the job, installers ask homeowners to rate or review the company on Yelp, Google and Facebook. If homeowners do, and the customer mentions an installer by name, that installer gets a bonus check for $50. To help them do that, he had their names printed on thank you cards that they could hand out on completing a window installation.
Getting installer buy-in proved essential. And it wasn’t cheap. In one month, he handed out $8,100 in bonus checks. But in the next year, the company generated 40 Google reviews, 50 Facebook reviews and 160 Yelp reviews. Its rating on Yelp rose from one star to three-and-a-half (and would’ve been higher but for the Yelp filter). Every monthly meeting at the company includes a discussion of current reviews. “When I consider,” the company president says, “that anyone who hears our name, from any source, is likely to go to that Yelp page before contacting us, and how much of an interest we have in the content of that page, I consider it one of the best marketing investments I have made lately.”