Angie’s List is an Internet-based ratings and referrals organization that collects customer satisfaction ratings on companies in scores of home service categories, everything from plumbing to pet sitting to piano tuning. Roofing contractors are included.
Formed in 1995, Angie’s List has been used by more than 500,000 homeowners in 124 cities nationwide, and it is steadily expanding. Most people who use the list pay a modest membership fee, which gives it some tangible value. When members access the list via telephone or the Internet (www.angieslist.com), they are typically given the names of three to five companies in their requested category.
Angie’s List is one of a bunch of consumer referral businesses that have popped up over the years, and perhaps the most successful one. (Founder Angie Hicks takes issue with the “referral” label, saying her business is a rating service; she’s technically correct, but it’s largely a matter of semantics.) This type of business exists as an alternative to playing Yellow Pages roulette. It wouldn’t exist if so many people didn’t have terrible experiences patronizing service firms.
Homeowners everywhere would love to find service firms that are honest and reliable. Many ask friends, neighbors or business associates for recommendations, but often those contacts don’t know anyone good. Even when they do, every job is different. A plumber who performed to someone’s satisfaction on one call may run into problems at a neighbor’s house. People who buy into Angie’s List can see detailed assessments from various customers and choose accordingly.
A distinguishing characteristic of Angie’s service compared with some others I’ve seen is that it does not accept advertising from companies referred, and businesses have no say in getting on the list or not. Some Internet referral services require companies to register and undergo background checks in order to be on their approved list. This is a different approach to the same concept, but from a consumer’s perspective Angie’s List seems a better way to go about it. As everyone wise in the ways of the business world ought to know by now, a clean bill of health from the local Better Business Bureau doesn’t necessarily mean a company is reputable and competent. It simply means that company hasn’t been caught doing anything wrong. But just because someone doesn’t have any traffic citations doesn’t mean he or she never exceeds the speed limit.
Members of Angie’s List fill out detailed reports on service companies they use. They may not be unanimous in their opinions, but someone looking to check out a particular company can judge from multiple customer ratings. If one negative review is balanced by a half-dozen ratings, most people would chalk it up to a bad day or perhaps a misunderstanding that might even be the customer’s fault. The thing is, the companies getting reviewed might never know it. This is especially true if it accumulates bad ratings and never gets called by Angie’s List members. And that’s something worth contemplating.
Word of MouthWord of mouth is said to be the best form of advertising, but it can also be the worst. It depends on your reputation. Companies that leave mostly satisfied customers behind can get a boost from the community grapevine. Those that habitually draw complaints may want to consider paying hush money to their suffering customers.
What most service firm owners don’t realize is the deck is stacked against them when it comes to word of mouth. Various studies have shown that people are about five times more likely to tell friends and neighbors about bad experiences with a business than good ones. Do a good job without any hassles, and the average person thinks, hey, that’s what I’m paying you to do. But mess up just a little bit and it’s like applying a branding iron to the customer’s psyche. They relieve the pain by blabbing about it to everyone they know. About five years ago I asked Angie Hicks what were the most common complaints she gets about plumbers and other trade service firms. Specifically I asked about price, and she said that while price is one of the categories graded by Angie’s List members, home service firms generally don’t get hammered in this area. “It’s the little things,” she said.
“Getting people to return phone calls, showing up for appointments - that’s what our list members mostly complain about. The little things make a big difference. It’s especially bad this time of year [late May] when remodelers and other trade firms are getting busy,” Hicks said.
Good observation. Many contractors will be conscientious when they need the work, but as soon as things get hectic, they lapse into a “you-need-me-more-than-I-need-you” mindset. Their time suddenly becomes so valuable they can’t be bothered returning calls or showing up on time.
You could get away with such crusty attitudes back when word of mouth got spread one person at a time over lemonades on the front porch. In the Internet age, it’s hard to stay ahead of electrons. Angie’s List has grown by leaps and bounds, and there are various other places online where consumers can exchange gripes, fair or not, about various companies. Some Web sites have been set up by disgruntled customers specifically for the purpose of bashing some company they feel did them wrong.
You can’t stop this information from spreading. And nobody’s perfect. None of you is ever going to leave every last customer 100 percent satisfied with everything you do on a job. Some jobsite surprises are beyond your control.
But the “little things” are absolutely within your control. Nothing can prevent you from returning calls, showing up, being polite, wearing a smile, and treating customers with respect. Nothing can prevent you from drumming it into all your employees that their livelihood depends on doing these things just as much as it does their talent in installing a roof system. Customer care can overcome the glitches that inevitably arise mechanically and logistically.
In the Internet age, customer care is more important than ever.