Online Reviews: a Manageable Minefield
When it comes to online reviews, what you don't know can hurt you, remodelers. Likewise, what you do know—and how you respond—can make your company look good even when someone has bad things to say about it. Whether they've actually worked with you or not.
Take this one-star review (the lowest possible rating) on Kudzu, an Atlanta-area review site. From 2007, the virtual dawn of the online review era, it began:
"I sent a short inquiry which included the type of work we'd like done. I let him know that we live in south Norcross, near Decatur. I asked if his company provided free estimates. Here is his actual email:..."
The rest of the review is a copy-and-paste from an email that Peter Michelson (below), CEO of Renewal Design-Build, had sent to this homeowner. Friendly but businesslike, he noted that his company doesn't work in her area, and,
"As for 'free' estimates, you might consider asking why any qualified professional who values their time and expertise would be willing to give away their services."
Apparently the homeowner didn't appreciate that, hence the one-star review. Thankfully, Renewal Design-Build had many other positive reviews on Kudzu, and today has an average rating of five stars on the site—the maximum—from dozens of actual clients. Yet despite the review being a negative aberration, Michelson posted this response:
"Please note that we never did any work for this person, nor did we ever meet with her or talk with her on the phone. Our quality reputation is evident in all of our ratings on Kudzu.com from satisfied clients. Renewal is sorry that this person was offended, but that was certainly never our intention. To best serve our clients, we work only within a close radius of our office near downtown Decatur, and this person lives outside of that vicinity."
No anger, and even some conciliatory words. "It's always a mistake to respond negatively," says Michelson. When slammed publicly, "put on your big boy pants and take the high road." When you face adversity, each public appearance—physical or virtual—is a demonstration of "who you are and how you deal with issues. Would you hire someone who gets petty or vindictive? I wouldn't."
In fact, the sprawling world of online reviews poses opportunity as well as risk. Here's a look at some strategies for getting (and getting the most out of) positive reviews, avoiding negative reviews and mitigating the damage when those negative reviews do happen.
Get Real, Get Monitoring
Remodelers can ignore online reviews for only so long. Regardless of your stellar reputation, powerful word-of-mouth network and deep local roots, chances are good that someone, some day, will write something nasty about you.
After all, it's never been easier to do. There are literally countless ways where consumers can rant or rave, often with impunity. These range from the better-known national sites such as Angie's List and Yelp, to social media platforms like Facebook and Twiter, to the rising wave of regional sites like Kudzu, to innumerable neighborhood-, work- and school-based email lists where people ask for and share opinions. You don't have to "sign up for" these sites to be reviewed.
Wouldn't you rather know what's being said about you before someone else draws it to your attention?
"Online reviews are similar to graffiti. It’s a form of expression whether positive or negative," explains Marci Karales (right), vice president of marketing and business development at Newpro, a Massachusetts-based installer of windows, doors, siding and roofing. And like graffiti, "you can’t control [online reviews] but you can take what is done and use it for a positive impact."
Nor can you control what is often essentially gossip. "Online reviews are the community barbershop," says Michelson, continuing the metaphorical thread. "Where our community happens now is virtually."
For her part, Karales is something of a specialist in taking online reviews and using them for positive impact. It's a business necessity, given that Newpro does between 1,800 and 2,000 jobs each year. In many ways, this necessity has helped Newpro beyond the nature of the reviews themselves.
"Online reviews have brought more awareness to every area of our business," Karales says. "Transparency is key—although we strive to deliver an exceptional experience, the receipt of our experience is what matters. We can always do something better and the public’s perception of what we deliver is so subjective that we can never rest on our laurels."
To that end, try to know what's being said about you. Some sites notify you when someone has posted a review (one example is GuildQuality, which provides third-party customer surveying for more than 500 member remodeling companies). Technology can be your friend. At Newpro, Karales uses online tools such as Hubspot (paid), Google Alerts (free) "and other notifications direct from the source via email and in addition to regular reviews and visits to the sites," she says.
Be Proactive. Rally Your Supporters
Before we talk about negative reviews, let's focus on positive reviews. Earning them begins with setting and managing expectations—and that's a topic for a future d5R story. Getting those reviews written and posted comes next.
"Online ratings have a level of credibility that testimonials on a remodeler's website don’t because the remodeler does not get to pick and chose the ratings or edit what is posted," says David Alpert of Continuum Marketing Group, which works with many remodeling companies "I view having online ratings you can point to as having a good reputation you can point to. Online ratings are kind of being able to ask neighbors what they think of x or y remodeler."
To that end, don't let your best clients become your missed opportunities: Make it easy for them to share what went well in their remodeling experience. Don't coach them on what to say—that's a no-no—but do leverage the positive experience and let them do the talking.
When online review sites first appeared on the scene, Chris Stebnitz (left) of Stebnitz Builders , Delavan, Wisc., emailed some past clients about posting reviews. "Many of them were clients before the Internet came along," he explains. "They never had a chance to say good things about us, so I threw it out there for them." He continues to "throw it out there" to this day, and especially looks for review sites clients might enjoy or learn from, such as Houzz.
In some cases, Stebnitz has even held contests to encourage reviews. For instance, everyone who posts in a particular time frame is entered to win concert tickets, via a random drawing. He thanks clients for posting reviews too—a nice gesture that can only further the positive vibe.
See if the review site can help you gather a review. One of the lesser-known facts about Houzz is that "reviews are an important piece of a pro's profile," says Liza Hausman, vice president. "We work with our remodeler community large and small to educate them on gathering reviews proactively from satisfied clients and colleagues rather than wait for reviews to happen, since reviews are so important to homeowners." Here's a how-to video on gathering Houzz reviews.
Put Those Good Reviews to Work
If a client raves about your business on the Internet, will anyone hear it?
Now you've got glowing reviews, and even glowing video testimonials on YouTube, consider consolidating them for the benefit of your prospective clients. Collect them in a testimonials section of your website (here's how Renewal Design-Build does it).
Where possible, piggyback the review sites on top of each other. GuildQuality, for instance, provides thumbnail icons linking to members' pages elsewhere, including on other revew sites. Here's what you'll see on Stebnitz Builders' GuildQuality page.
GuildQuality leverages other cool technology tricks too, such as using Google maps to pinpoint where certain reviews originated—fun for homeowners who want to know what their neighbors have to say. Here's the map from Newpro's page.
April Bettinger of Nip Tuck Remodeling, in the Seattle area, quickly reposts reviews on her Facebook page. In fact, there may be no end to how you can repurpose positive reviews. Recently, Chris Stebnitz has begun taking screenshots of his company's reviews and posting them on his Pinterest board—specifically, on a page called "Clients Say It Best."
Turn Those Negative Reviews into Positives: Step 1
Easier said than done, of course, as some clients may be justifiably angry or disappointed, and others may be unreasonably (perhaps even insanely) so. Quite often, however, a negative review is a matter of a misunderstanding that can be cleared up in a professional way, either via person-to-person contact or via a follow-up post. Or a perception that exists at one point in the process — and changes later.
In a recent GuildQuality survey, one client gave April Bettinger's Nip Tuck Remodeling a "2 out of 4 for 'value,'" she says. "This was a first, and I was concerned, but knew it was a large sum and they were nervous. I spoke with the designer and decided to give them time and ask when the time was right."
Later, after the project was finished, she asked the client "if they felt the value was there. They were now at a 4 and agreed that the low score was their indicator that it was a nervous time for them. Surveying clients at different points of the process will hopefully bring any issues to my attention before they escalate and become unhappy clients."
As was the case with Bettinger, contacting the reviewer is a smart first step. David Alpert recommends this. "The best option, if it works, is to contact the person and see if you can work out the issue, make them happy and have them amend or remove the bad review."
Turn Those Negative Reviews into Positives: Step 2
Can't contact the person directly? That's often the case, especially when the reviewer is anonymous. Thankfully, many sites allow businesses to respond to reviews. Use this opportunity. "We join the conversation whether it is a negative or positive experience review," says Newpro's Karales. "Our engagement regardless of the content of the review proves our commitment to listen to our clients."
If the review is negative, Newpro investigates the complaint internally and resolves what went wrong and how to prevent it from repeating. In many cases, a company owner posts a personal response, including his direct phone number or email. This simple gesture can send a powerful message that the customer is respected and their complaint will be addressed.
In one such case, a Newpro customer posted a negative review a year after his project was completed. "We immediately responded and communicated with the homeowner—inspected his concern with the installation manager and made some recommendations for resolution," Karales says. The homeowner was so pleased he offered to provide a personal reference for future clients.
He also posted a positive "resolved" review as a follow-up. That, to Karales, "is the definition of turning a negative into a positive. It positions us as a company who listens and responds."
When the Reviewing Gets Really Rough ...
Even then, rein in your combative or defensive instincts, experts say. While it may be tempting to post a word-for-word rebuttal of a review that is inflammatory or flat-out untrue—or even to file a lawsuit against the offending reviewer or hosting site—most remodelers and related experts advise containing your anger and maintaining your perspective. For one thing, many sites will ignore you and refuse to remove an unsavory review.
For another, you should have so many positive reviews that the occasional negative review is all but drowned out. If you don't have so many positive reviews, get them.
"Counteract by getting more positive reviews," advises Alpert. "People who use reviews understand that some people are unreasonable, so if they see five to 10 good reviews and one terrible one, the assumption often is that the one terrible one is because of the homeowner being difficult and not because of the remodeler."
Attorney Kevin Veler agrees. Remember who's going to read your response: perhaps the person it's directed at, but more often an unknown number of potential clients. "Most readers understand that any business will have good and bad reviews," he says. "Often what they want to see is a professional response that makes reasonable effort to work with those who have legitimate complaints, as well as a professional response to those that have illegitimate complaints." (see much more advice from Veler here.)
As for taking the offending commenter to court?
Oy, the costs: time, money, energy, reputation. And the outcome, which is unlikely to be in your favor.
"Most reviews are opinions and therefore not defamation," says Veler. He and other industry insiders explored the viability of lawsuits extensively in this d5R discussion. Here's a summary comment:
"Let's remember that OPINIONS are not actionable and that in general many of the same concepts that protect your advertising that says 'Our clients think us the best' or 'this is the greatest invention since the mouse trap' also protects the homeowner who says 'This has got to be the worst contractor in the world.'"
In any case, it's all graffitti. You can only manage it so far.