Karen Husted and her husband, Dean, 21-year proprietors of Scottsdale, Ariz.-based Desert Homes Development Inc., thought they were nearing the end of a contract with a particularly demanding remodeling customer. During the final walk-through with the client’s wife, Dean gave her the final bill, and they agreed on a punch list. The wife paid part of the bill during the walk-through and offered to overnight the final payment.
The next day, Karen and Dean received an email from their client stating he would only pay a lesser amount because he was convinced his landscaper completed some of the work in the Husted’s contract. The remodelers asked for a face-to-face meeting with the client to better understand his concerns, but the only response from the client was a scathing review on a trusted, nationally recognized consumer-watchdog organization’s website.
“What I found most horrifying about this situation is that anybody can go onto any site and say anything they please,” Karen says. “The rants can be full of misstatements and there’s no verification behind them.”
According to the White House Office of Consumer Affairs, Washington, D.C., an unsatisfied customer will tell nine to 15 people about his problem. Approximately 13 percent of unsatisfied customers will tell more than 20 people about their grievance. Remodelers have long understood word of mouth can make or break their businesses. However, the cyber world adds a new dimension to maintaining customer satisfaction because unhappy customers tend to be bolder about their negative feedback. And the opportunity for prospective customers to stumble across a negative online review is exponentially greater thanks to the intrinsic capabilities of search engines. However, by proactively managing their online reputations, remodelers can ensure the negative doesn’t outweigh the positive.
Dealing with Negative Reviews
Carol Flammer, MIRM, managing partner of Atlanta-based mRELEVANCE, a firm that focuses on internet marketing, social media and public relations, and author of Social Media For Home Builders 2.0: It’s Easier Than You Think, says the first step is to avoid negative reviews before they happen. A simple system of checks and balances throughout a project can help alleviate issues as they arise. Flammer also recommends surveying customers after a project to help identify problems in processes that remodelers otherwise wouldn’t know exist.
However, despite a remodeler’s best efforts, being in business increases the chances of encountering negative reviews. When one occurs, Flammer says it’s important to take a deep breath and avoid lashing out at the reviewer. “We always recommend to our clients not to freak out or panic; don’t hit delete; don’t retaliate,” she says. “Take a moment to determine the best course of action, but don’t let too much time pass.”
She adds people don’t expect to go to a review site and only see stellar reviews. “If you go to a review site to look up a restaurant, you’re going to see a couple good reviews, a couple bad ones and a bunch in the middle, and you’re going to make your own decision,” Flammer says. “If you go to a review site and you see 10 glowing reviews, like most people, you will probably think somebody stacked the ballot box. Of course, you don’t want 10 negative reviews either, but it’s not the end of the world to have a few negative reviews or one really unhappy customer out there blowing you up.”
Andy Wells, co-owner of Normandy Remodeling, Hinsdale, Ill., admits to having had a few bad reviews—some of which he thinks may have been posted by his competition. No matter who his team thinks is posting the reviews, Wells says it’s important to take your time and craft a thoughtful response. “Our marketing department knows immediately when something is posted, good or bad,” he says. “We respond quickly, openly and honestly to negative reviews. If you think it was posted wrongly or by your competition, react to it as if it’s real. You’re the only person who has a suspicion that someone is doing this underhandedly; the rest of the world would never know that, so you have to react to the review professionally.”
Another way to counteract negative reviews is to ask for positive ones. Flammer thinks remodelers should stop being shy and regularly ask happy customers to provide positive reviews. Remodelers should make it easy; they could include a link directly to an online review site within an electronic communication or invoice, for example. “We have happy customers but it isn’t a priority to ask them for reviews,” she says. “Establish a plan for asking for positive reviews because it will greatly help mitigate the bad.”
Flammer is adamantly against creating fake email accounts and posting your own positive online reviews. “You must be transparent and ethical, even if the negative reviewer isn’t,” she says.
Controlling Search Results
If you have a particularly unhappy customer, negative reviews can get out of hand quickly. Flammer has seen homeowners launch smear campaigns through blogs and websites with addresses like www.[insert name of remodeler]sucks.com. “The building industry is weird; people get mad over such little things,” she says. “One of the builders we worked with offered to buy the house back from the unhappy customer, but he didn’t want to sell it; he wasn’t unhappy with his house. The unfortunate reality is there are some crazy people out there.”
There are ways to control your search results so when someone uses a search engine to locate your company, page one is completely clear of negative activity. “By launching a series of sites, like a Facebook page, Twitter, adding your own Wordpress blog, making sure your website is highly optimized, creating a ‘name of your business reviews site’ and putting it on Blogger.com and adding two or three happy customer reviews per month, you can start to populate your own search results,” Flammer says. “When my firm helps a remodeler with online reputation management, we can’t make the unhappy person’s negative website go away, but we can push it far enough on the search results that it lessens the chance that a prospect or new customer is going to find it.”
Flammer says an online reputation management campaign can become a full-time job and may require hiring a staff person or a firm that specializes in reputation management. “Oftentimes, ‘unhappy Joe’ is posting daily or weekly, and it does become a full-time job when it’s a campaign of that level,” Flammer adds. “It involves checking the sites daily, posting new content and focusing on search-engine optimization.”
Normandy Remodeling handles its online reputation management in-house and has found that its social media presence has resulted in work for the firm. “Being proactive online is important because it’s really driving credibility, search-engine optimization and it’s getting us jobs,” Wells says. “We just sold a kitchen in Oak Park, Ill., in which the client found us through a Facebook connection in Pennsylvania. Social media channels help us push out good, solid information to the public, like tips, photos and advice. This keeps Normandy Remodeling top of mind when someone in our network needs remodeling or one of their friends’ friends needs work.”
After discussing her experience with other contractors and subcontractors in her area, Karen Husted has learned she is not the only one who has encountered an online smear campaign with little or no warning. She fears consumers are using the Internet to avoid paying for home-improvement work. “In Arizona, the last four years have been more than a recession for contractors, especially small contractors. It has been very painful,” she says. “When you see a trend developing where there are unscrupulous clients who are picking on contractors when they’re down, anything we can do as a group to protect ourselves is important.”
According to Flammer, the best way for remodelers to protect themselves is to ensure clients are happy by establishing a feedback system during and after construction, creating a social media presence and asking for positive reviews from happy clients. When a negative review appears, remodelers should provide a thoughtful response that will help web users recognize they care about their customers and want to assuage their grievances.
Even Karen can attest that most discerning people will recognize an unstable reviewer when they read his or her review. Her experience actually generated more business from the unhappy customer’s homeowners association. “The association has apologized for him and said they value the work we’ve done in the neighborhood,” she says. “I think it’s their way of saying this isn’t going to hurt our relationship.”