In early 2002, Ken and Latrice Innes of Redding, Calif., signed a contract with Pacesetter Corp. for installation of replacement windows, a storm door, a rear sliding door, and a garage door with opener on their house. The company's contract guaranteed that the work would be completed within 20 days.
It wasn't. The field crew had no means of hauling the oversize garage door to the site and they weren't trained to install it or the opener. When, a year later, the situation was still unresolved, Ken Innes, a computer programmer and Web site designer, launched PacesetterSucks.com where he told his story in great detail to anyone who cared to listen.
As it happens, thousands of people were not only listening but telling Pacesetter horror stories of their own. Soon, PacesetterSucks.com rose to the top of the search engine heap. (It still shows up as the first unsponsored link in a Google search for “Pacesetter windows.”)
When the Inneses signed their contract with Pacesetter in 2002, the company had been in business for 40 years and had about 1,500 employees; three years later, Pacesetter filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy. While that may have protected the company from creditors, it didn't stop the Inneses, whose Web site continues to track the business dealings of former Pacesetter owners and top management. (Read the whole story in “Pacesetter's Perfect Storm,” a July/August 2006 feature story at www.replacementcontractor.com.)
REPORT CARD I relate this story not just because anyone can start a Web site like PacesetterSucks.com, but because these days nobody has to. Contractor-rating Web sites are already big business. All a homeowner has to do is log on to a site such as www.angieslist.com, and they can learn everything they need to know about your company's performance record — not from the firm's marketing department but from the people whose opinion matters most to potential customers: your past customers.
According to its Web site, Angie's List currently has more than 600,000 members in 124 cities submitting more than 15,000 reports each month on their experiences, good and bad, with the service companies they have hired. The service is funded by its members, who pay a monthly or yearly fee for 24/7 access to a uniquely valuable referral system. One of the most popular features of the site is the “Penalty Box,” which is a frequently updated list of companies that have not responded to consumer complaints.
Suddenly, your business is everybody's business. Even if you've been conducting customer satisfaction surveys for years, a Web rating is very different, and not just because the evaluations are public. More important is the fact that, while consumers tend to give you the benefit of the doubt when you are the one asking them about your performance, they are more likely to express their true feelings on Angie's List because they are reporting to a third party and their identity is kept confidential on the site. Even though the reports are made available to the companies being rated, consumers feel more confident about being truthful because the site provides a supportive environment. They may even feel that they are performing some kind of public service.
GOLD STAR Which is actually the good news. Because when you get a good rating on Angie's List, it is like gold. While most remodelers instinctively recoil at the idea of a consumer-focused rating site, I've spoken with a number of top-rated exterior replacement contractors who actively pursue business through Angie's List. They are the first to admit that being rated by the list has changed the way they conduct business, changed their employees' and subcontractors' awareness of the client's experience during a project, and changed how quickly and directly they answer customer complaints.
The Web has put the tools of publishers and pollsters into the hands of ordinary folks. We can pretend that we are immune to their opinions, or we can turn the situation to our advantage. Better yet, we can run our businesses as if the whole world were watching.
Because the whole world is.
Sal Alfano, Editorial Director