Smashing Success: Online Review Sites Drive Contractors Crazy
Four years ago, Jimmie Johnson relocated from Charlotte to Roaring River, NC, and started Jimmie Johnson Air & Heat. He often uses highly rated reviews from Angie’s List and Yelp as collateral in his sales calls. “Many times, those reviews help attract business and gain new customers, especially in a small town where everybody knows each other,” says Johnson. “But,” he adds, “some reviews can be hurtful.”
There, in a nutshell, is the love/hate relationship HVAC contractors have with online review sites. One minute you can be basking in the glow of positive reviews posted by 99 percent of your customers, and the next minute, you’re smarting from the biting comments made by the other, cranky 1 percent.
Like them or not, online review sites are here to stay. In fact, such sites are growing in importance to consumers. In North America, nearly 9 out of 10 consumers (88%) regularly or occasionally read customer reviews to determine whether a local business is good, a 16 percent increase in two years, according to the Local Consumer Review Survey 2014 conducted by Bright Local. Additionally, 62 percent of respondents said they trust online customer reviews as much as personal recommendations, provided a business has multiple reviews that seem authentic.
While Angie’s List, for one, evaluates every review for authenticity such as a negative review from a competitor, or even a positive one posted by one of your employees, many review sites lack such controls. Gary Marowske, owner of Flame Heating and Cooling in Warren, MI, says his blood pressure still rises when he thinks about a negative review aimed at his company back in 2010. It was posted by someone Flame had never done business with. “We had called the city and said we thought a boiler was going in without permits,” Marowske explains. “The city followed up, and the owner had to pay for the permits. So the person took it out on us by giving us a negative review, which the review site won’t take down.”
“On some sites, you can get bad reviews taken down only if you’re a member, which I hate. It’s like holding you for ransom,” observes David Snyder, who manages sales and installations for R&B, Inc., Alexandria, VA. “People can get mad and plaster something online in a matter of minutes, but those bad reviews can linger for years.” When potential customers ask him about R&B’s negative reviews, never minding the Super Service Award the company received from Angie’s List, Snyder answers honestly, “I tell them some of the reviews are so old the employees aren’t working for us anymore. And I emphasize that how the company responds to the criticism is what’s most important.”
Ready to Respond
Having a response strategy at the ready can help you capitalize on positive reviews and promptly address the issues or customer disappointments behind negative reviews. Here are some components to consider:
Regularly track customers’ comments. This is easier said than done because of the proliferation of social media. Customers don’t necessarily restrict their comments to designated review sites, but also take to Facebook, Twitter, and the rest.
In addition to his weekly visit to national sites such as Angie’s List, Yelp, and Google+, Johnson keeps tabs on a high-traffic site geared toward residents of his county. Similarly, Snyder pays attention to small sites, such as an online community on Capitol Hill called Moms on the Hill, where the word-of-mouth reviews are highly localized for residents.
While Johnson does his own tracking of company reviews, recording them on a spreadsheet, Marowske outsources the task. “With so many review sites out there, we pay a monthly fee to a company for reputation management. They find out what people are posting about us, and then we handle the response,” says Marowske.
Another option is to employ technology. Digital tools such as Mention, Google Alerts, and Talkwalker can be configured to notify you when mentions of your company appear on social media platforms and the internet.
Ask for reviews. Most management systems designed for service companies have the capability of automatically sending review requests to customers, says Snyder. Or, technicians can request a review in person, immediately after completing a service call. “Sometimes, it’s harder for customers to give your company a negative review when the technician is standing right in front of them,” he adds.
Angie’s List, for one, offers a “fetch” program whereby you provide your customer list and the site actively solicits feedback from among its membership. You might also direct traffic to an independent review platform, such as Trustpilot, or one affiliated with a manufacturer. Johnson, for example, asks satisfied customers to visit hvacfeedback.com, which is sponsored by Nortek Global. Typically, such sites protect the homeowner’s personal information and confirm the reviewer has done business with your company before allowing the review to be posted.
Keep your cool. Quite naturally, a negative review might trigger anger on your part. Resist the temptation to fire back immediately, as a response posted in haste could escalate into a very public war of the words. “Never go negative in your response back to the customer,” Johnson advises, “even though that can be difficult when the person has unreal expectations.” He strived to remain calm even when a negative comment about his company showed up on Facebook, posted by someone living in an area where Johnson has never worked.
“I private messaged him, said I was sorry about his troubles even though I hadn’t done work for him, and asked him to take down the review,” says Johnson. The alleged customer never responded, leading Johnson to wonder if one of his actual customers asked someone else to post the negative review so he or she could remain anonymous.
Respond professionally to all reviews. Johnson, who always responds publicly to positive reviews, is often thanked by customers who appreciate his acknowledgment of their comments. As for the negative reviews, he politely apologizes and offers to fix the problem.
Ideally, once you’ve posted an initial public response, resolve the issue privately via e-mail or phone. This gives you the opportunity to research the situation by asking detailed questions, while sparing other members of a social site from any back-and-forth dialogue or negotiations. Still, keep your communications unemotional and focused on the matter at hand, since nothing can stop a customer from posting your private messages on a public site.
One cold Sunday, for example, Marowske discovered his company being tarred and feathered on Facebook by a customer who didn’t have heat. Marowske immediately e-mailed the woman privately to apologize and express his concern, provided his phone number, and encouraged her to call so he could arrange to fix the problem. Every day, for three days, Marowske contacted the woman to offer assistance and she never responded.
“No matter how much you try, some people you can never make happy,” he says philosophically. “But most of the people who have legitimate gripes give us another chance to get it right,” he continues. “And after we fix the problem, assuming we’ve made them happy, we ask them to retract their negative review and put up a positive review instead. Ninety-nine percent of the time, they do.”
Whether positive or negative, online reviews certainly play a role in some customers’ choice of a contractor. Yet, the people posting those reviews are not always significant in number. Bright Local’s 2014 survey asked which methods people usually use to recommend a local business to people they know. Fewer than 15 percent of respondents selected Twitter, Yelp, or another review site, and slightly more than one-third (38%) used Facebook. By far the most popular means of recommending a business remains word of mouth, cited by 61 percent of survey respondents.
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