Victim of Contractor Bashing?

An online rant by some unhappy, embittered, or enraged customer may be on the cards at some point for your company, but you can take steps to limit the fallout

September 10, 2015
Thumbs up or down? Online reviews left unchecked have the potential to ruin your reputation

Ever wonder what happened to the Virginia contractor who sued a client named Jane Perez for $750,000 over her Yelp and Angie’s List reviews of his company? He won, in a way. But so did she.

The contractor, Christopher Dietz, initially filed in small claims court again Perez, who had contracted for $9,500 worth of work around her newly purchased townhouse. When Perez became dissatisfied and fired Dietz, she still owed him money. He filed in small claims court. Perez then took to the online review sites, saying that Dietz did shoddy work (she cites instances) and that he was the only other person with a key to her house when some jewelry went missing. Those accusations are what led Dietz to file for defamation.

Back and forth it went. A judge ordered Perez to rewrite the reviews. The Virginia Supreme Court overruled that decision on First Amendment grounds, saying that Dietz should instead seek monetary damages. Finally the case came to trial. After eight hours, the jury found that Dietz had been defamed, but awarded neither party any money for damages.

Inept Handling Costs You Plenty

Sound like fun? If you’ve had an unjust, ignorant, or vengeful review posted online, you know exactly what would drive a contractor to the point of calling an attorney. “A negative Yelp review can feel like a punch in the gut,” observes CustomerThink.com. And the site ReviewTrackers.com says that, “For many segments like foodservice or contractors, a negative review is without a doubt a trigger for worry and anxiety, and something you wish would disappear.” 

So, what do you do? Oftentimes contractors ignore demeaning reviews—a strategy not recommended by marketing companies such as 2nd Mile Marketing. Or, if not ignoring it, they may address the complaint directly, often while in a hurry, so that their response mirrors the irritated tone of the complaint. But the brusque point-by-point refutation or scalding comeback is far from persuasive.

And then there are those who simply respond when they feel like it or whenever they have some spare time. For homeowners scanning review sites at the research stage of their possible home remodel, such an approach only contributes to the overall impression of a company’s sloppy organizational skills and doubtful reputation. Take, for example, John Day, General Contractor, in Anaheim, Calif., who specializes in roofing repair and painting. His 85 reviews on Yelp average 3.5 out of 5 stars. OK, you’re thinking, not great but not bad. But when you start reading the reviews, a pattern quickly emerges. There are a bunch of one-star reviews and a smaller number of five-star reviews, with not much in between. That’s the trend with review sites: Individual reviews tend to be contributed either by customers who are enraged and seek vengeance or those who are thrilled and want to let the contractor and the wider online community know it.

Many of the reviews on Day’s Yelp page are concerned with the company’s failure to get a bid back to the client. In other words, John Day, General Contractor never actually worked for some of these people, but the review writers were annoyed enough by the company’s failure to send them a proposal that they went online and vented.

Of the reviewers, Nestor M., in Mission Viejo, for instance, got plenty riled after repeated calls and promises from the contractor that a bid would be forthcoming.  Nestor M. was willing to give Day a chance, he says, in spite of all the one-, two-, and three-star reviews on Yelp. Then … no bid. (“Today is June 3, I have not heard from him or received a bid. I consider myself lucky that he did not bid and I did not hire him for the job after my experience and looking at the 1, 2 and 3 star reviews for John Day General Contractor,” Nestor M. writes.) The seemingly imperturbable Day responds with a friendly note saying that after reading the complaints he did get a bid to “nester” and will “also give you a bigger discount.” We don’t know if the work was ever done, but the impression left by Day’s response is less than wholly professional. Other complaints cite Day for “mansplaining” (condescending attitude toward women), hiring subs he’d never used before, then not inspecting their work, failing to return phone calls, changing scope and price in the middle of the job, and lying to clients. All in a Day’s work, so to speak.

But from time to time even the best companies with solid reputations get slammed with charges like these. What seems apparent is that management at John Day, General Contractor (a 2014 Best of Houzz award winner) is no better at managing these negative public messages than it is at communicating with its clients.

Turn That Frown Upside Down

Contractors are often at a loss for a response when someone publicly calls them out on bad service, shoddy work, or lack of ethics. They’re not alone. "Businesses aren't used to being effectively criticized," said Paul Alan Levy, an attorney with Public Citizen, a nonprofit consumer rights advocacy group and think tank based in Washington, D.C., that provided pro bono legal representation to Perez in the Dietz case. (See “Sued for posing a negative online business review? It can happen.”

ReviewTrackers makes this point: “When consumers resort to third-party review sites as part of the research processes for the purchase of products and services, they are not necessarily looking for a perfect provider. The goal for many is to find a healthy balance, where a business is able to deliver a multifaceted service or product that covers areas such as location, value, hours of operation, and customer commitment.” In other words, a list of stellar reviews is great, but a few negatives actually adds some interest to the picture of your business in the homeowner’s mind. “A negative review does not necessarily deter a customer from engaging with a business,” the site continues. “It serves as a counterbalance to get a better understanding of the worst-case scenario, as well as the business’s ability to provide timely and responsive resolutions to issues escalated via an online product or service review.”

How do you do that? The publication Contractor offers its mechanical contractor readers a strategy for managing negative reviews. Author Matt Michel’s 12-step process suggests: immediate response, thanking critics for the information, no arguing publicly or privately, finding out what actually happened, creating a solution that satisfies the client, then following up to ensure satisfaction. Once you, the contractor, are informed that the client is satisfied, politely ask him or her to take the hostile review down. If they don’t or won’t comply, use a reputation management service to bury that review under a pile of press releases and positive reviews. Meanwhile, regular, systematic communication with customers during each step of a project, long or short, will ensure that negative reviews are few and far between.

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Philadelphia-based writer Jim Cory specializes in covering the remodeling and home improvement industry and is a contributing editor for Professional Remodeler. Reach him with comments or story ideas at coryjim@earthlink.net.

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