With news that Angie’s List is up for sale, some contractors who rely on that website to drive a portion of their leads may be wondering how long the company will be around. Angie’s List, which reported a third-quarter loss of $16.8 million, was reported by the Associated Press earlier this month to be “working with Allen & Co. LLC and BofA Merrill Lynch to explore ‘strategic alternatives.’” The company recently laid off 15 percent of its workforce of roughly 1,000.
But whatever its fate, contractors can safely assume there will be alternatives. Review sites are here to stay. Today, platforms such as Google, Yelp, Houzz, Porch, and Facebook are instrumental in deciding which contracting companies will be contacted by a homeowner and which will be spurned, for one simple reason: Large corporations can afford to invest in the brand-building that allows them to control public perception of company and product. Most home improvement contractors don’t have those kinds of resources. For them, brand is reputation and reputation now exists online. They know from experience that negative posts on review sites not only scare off prospects and chase away business but have a ripple effect in the marketplace. It’s not just your prospect that clicks away, it’s potential applicants for company jobs.
Time to Shine
Few homeowners actually write reviews. Carlos Rodriguez, owner of roofing and solar company Mr. Roofing, in the San Francisco Bay area, estimates that in the last 10 years, around 2 percent of his clients have posted about the company on review sites. The 200 to 250 jobs Mr. Roofing completes annually may result in four to six online reviews. The irony is that almost every person in San Francisco looking to hire a roofing contractor will probably scan those sites first—especially, Rodriguez says, Yelp.
So important are reviews that some companies, such as Renewal by Andersen of Orange County, have hired, or will hire, a person specifically responsible for tracking reviews and prompting clients to write them, that is, a reputation manager (or, as that role is called at RBA/Orange County, a “customer experience manager”).
For the moment, Rodriguez fills that role himself. He personally responds to reviews, either to thank clients for their input or to acknowledge dissatisfaction. “If we get a bad review,” he says, “we respond. If we need to fix something, it’s our time to shine.”
This was a lesson learned when his first Yelp reviewer complained that the roof Mr. Roofing had installed five years earlier was leaking and gave the company a one-star rating. Rodriguez tracked the client down through the company database and arranged a visit. He found a plugged downspout and water backing up into the house. “When I showed him with a water test and demonstrated that it was a maintenance item,” Rodriguez says, “he thanked me for coming out.” The client changed his one-star review to five stars, without being asked.
Organic vs. Inorganic
Beyond including links to review sites in email communication, Mr. Roofing has never pushed customers to post reviews, let alone rewarded them with gift cards or price discounts. “Homeowners have told me they’ve had contractors offer them $200 for a review,” Rodriguez says. “I thought that was very unprofessional.” Homeowners, he has found, are “turned off” when asked directly to post reviews. He instead takes an “organic” approach. That is, Mr. Roofing combines a quality job with a ton of communication to make it more likely that clients will post a review.
Two percent may not seem like a lot, but it’s enough. Mr. Roofing’s 50 Yelp reviews, averaging four-and-a-half stars and extending back over a decade, bring in lots of calls. Many originate at a mobile device, that is, via Yelp’s app. “I just want to be found,” Rodriguez says, “and I want the content to be good.”
Other contractors employ a similar strategy. “I don’t believe in hounding customers for reviews,” says Ariel Istueta, director of marketing for Istueta Roofing, in Miami, whose preferred review platform is Facebook. “Focus on creating a wonderful experience, then let them do what they want with it.” At the same time, he says, marketers should make it easy for customers to leave reviews by including links to review sites in all email communications.
For contractors on the West Coast, Yelp is the go-to review site, which is reason enough why Charles Gindele, president of Renewal by Andersen of Orange County, was dismayed a year ago to see his company with 10 reviews and a two-star rating there. Reviewers complained about RBA’s high prices, intrusive canvassers, and “pushy” salespeople, but only eight of the 10 had actually bought windows from the company.
Reasoning that installers spend more time with customers than anyone, Gindele created a system whereby RBA/Orange County installers would hand off signed, pre-printed cards to clients, asking them to review the project. Any installer named in a review gets $50.
Fast forward to today, and with its installer program and customer experience manager hired and in place, RBA/Orange County posts 84 reviews and a four-star rating on Yelp, almost all from people who have purchased a job. Gindele considers the slightly more than $8,000 he paid in bonuses to installers this past October a “marketing expense” and “well worth it.”
While company owners love ecstatic, five-star reviews, it’s the one-star reviews they really want to know about. Gindele, for instance, began subscribing to Reputation.com, a service that enables businesses to “ensure that their star ratings and reviews reﬂect the truth about the service they provide.” RBA/Orange County moves swiftly when someone posts a review noting their dissatisfaction. Recently, for instance, Reputation.com emailed him regarding a negative post. Gindele tracked down the reviewer through his company’s database and called. It turned out that the client had been promised drywall work for some damage to a wall that had occurred in the course of a window installation. “I talked with the guy on a Friday,” Gindele says, “and told him we’d get a crew out there on Monday. He said he would take the post down, which he did 45 minutes later.”
Istueta notes that many review sites will contact companies when any new review appears, a matter of adjusting settings. He advises immediate response to any new review post, whether that’s simply “thanks for your comments,” or something else. Such response, of course, will be posted on the review site. But then it’s up to contractors to follow up. Most sites, says Chris Cardullo, president of Castle Windows, in New Jersey, leave little room for business owners or employees to directly resolve disagreements with the homeowner via messaging. One that does, Cardullo says, is Facebook: “Facebook is the best at it. Even the BBB is good.”
Spreading the Word
With the fate of Angie’s List seemingly up in the air, contractors are again reminded that it’s smart to have reviews appearing on multiple platforms. Opal Enterprises, an exterior contractor in Naperville, Ill., boasts reviews at not only Yelp and Google but at design-centric sites Houzz and Porch. Co-owner Tara Dawn guesses that 15 to 17 percent of Opal customers ultimately elect to review the company on some platform. She’s currently focused on increasing BBB reviews. Opal salespeople ask, in the course of their presentation, whether or not the prospect has read the company’s reviews, and installers let homeowners know that Opal is there to provide a five-star experience. Hint, hint, hint. “I believe in being extremely proactive with reviews,” says Dawn, who manages the company’s marketing. “Because the competition is very real.”