The wide reach of the web means that more customers can easily find out more about your firm--for better or worse.
Illustration by Redcow Creative The wide reach of the web means that more customers can easily find out more about your firm--for better or worse.

When Aaron Blank was looking for a remodeler for his new rental property, he didn’t ask for recommendations from friends or family. Instead, he did what more and more people are doing today: He used one of the growing number of home services sites to find a remodeler with a good online reputation.

“I’m someone who doesn’t have a lot of time to research and find these contractors,” says Blank, president and CEO of the Fearey Group public relations agency. “Porch and these other solutions are phenomenal for people like me.”

But the question remains: Are these sites phenomenal for remodelers? The answer depends on how well remodelers are managing their online reputations, say experts. And even remodelers with great word of mouth can no longer afford to ignore the growing world of online review sites, they warn.

“It affects everybody,” says Andy Beal, CEO of Reputation Refinery. “Whether you’re an individual contractor or a multi-million dollar company, anybody can be Googled or Yelped and have their reputation analyzed. Whether remodelers think they need to be online or not, their customers are already checking their reputation online before they make a decision to call them.”

In fact, 92% of all local business transactions now begin with online reviews, adds Beal, also the author of Repped: 30 Days to a Better Online Reputation. And while online review sites are meant to help customers finds qualified remodelers, they also can help remodelers find qualified customers, says Michael Menn, principal of design-build firm Michael Menn Ltd.

“If they haven’t taken the time to investigate me, they may not be 100% committed, or they may just be shopping for price,” explains Menn, who does all his marketing online.

Go Back to Basics

While reputation management—not to mention the increasingly crowded online world that comes with it—may sound new, the principles behind a good online reputation remain the same, says Bill McGowan, marketing consultant for Northern California’s Save Energy Company.

“You always want good word of mouth. With the internet, it’s now turbo-charged. It’s like everybody can hear the conversation in the grocery store,” McGowan says. “But just because it’s amplified doesn’t mean the basics have changed. You still have to manage your reputation. You have to know what people are saying out there about you—and you have to make sure what they’re saying is good.”

That’s especially true since, unlike traditional word of mouth between a limited group of people, what’s said online lives there for everyone to see indefinitely.

“One unhappy customer can really do damage to your reputation on the internet,” warns Beal. “It’s almost like having cancer in your body and not being aware of it.” And like cancer, beating even one bad online review can become costly and painful, especially if it’s ignored. Beal’s services for reputation management clean-up start at $5,000 per month, though other services can cost $1,500 to $2,000 per month, he says.

That just shows how valuable a good online reputation is these days—and how fragile it can be, says Blank, who’s also on the Board of the Counselor’s Academy for the Public Relations Society of America. “It takes 20 years to build a good reputation, but it takes just one second to blow it,” he warns.

Get Proactive

With proper care, online reviews can be a remodeler’s best lead generator, McGowan says. But it often means working with unhappy customers. In fact, his company’s five-star Yelp rating is the result of doing just that. “We have no compunction coming out and saying, ‘We’d like you to change your review,’” McGowan says. “It’s not that we manipulated anything. It’s just that we did what had to do to take care of the customer.”

For example, when a product failure led a customer to write a scathing Yelp review, McGowan’s company contacted the customer to learn more about what went wrong. The company then contacted the manufacturer and produced a solution to satisfy the customer—including paying money back to them. After it was all settled, the customer agreed to change their review.

“Your commitment to customer service isn’t judged by never doing anything wrong,” McGowan says. “It’s how you correct what you did wrong.”

But online reputation management also means getting customers to talk about what you did right. Remember, just because you did a great job doesn’t mean a customer will automatically write a glowing review. Sometimes, you have to ask for it, Blanks says. “And sometimes you have to ask repeatedly, because I’m so damn busy,” he adds. “Don’t just ask once.”

To start the process, Blank recommends sending customers an email once you’re done with a job asking them how you did. Then direct them to the review site of your choice with a link that makes it easy to write a review. You can also incentivize customers to write reviews through coupons and the like, but read the site’s guidelines to make sure you’re not running afoul of any terms of use.

At the same time, make you know how each site is used and who goes there. “Understand your market,” Menn says. “Understand the platforms. Go out and use them so you personally know what they’re about.”

Start Small

While all of this may sound overwhelming to the uninitiated, when managed properly online review sites actually give remodelers an advantage they never had before. “Prior to this, how could you manage someone saying something nasty about you in a grocery store line?” McGowan asks. “You couldn’t. But now you can. If someone makes a negative post, you’re aware of it, and you can take charge of it, own it, and turn it around. If you manage it right, it’s going to pay off for you.”

And contrary to the popular misconception that online reputation management is a time suck, staying on top of review sites can take as little as 10 minutes a day and doesn’t have to cost a fortune, Beal says. Here are his tips for managing your reputation like a pro without breaking the bank:

  • Find out where customers are talking about you. To do this, simply Google your company’s name and see what sites show up on the top 10 listings. Although many sites exist, their popularity is often regional, For example, Porch currently seems to have more of a West Coast following. “You don’t have to go chasing the latest fad. Find the sites that have an impact on your reputation and focus on cultivating your reputation on those particular networks,” Beal says. He adds that most companies should only need to focus on two or three sites.
  • Set up a Google Alert for your company. Google Alerts allow users to create search terms and get an email anytime that term is found on the Web. Then you can quickly see what’s being said about you and determine whether it needs your attention. Companies looking for more refined services can turn to pay sites such as, Beal says.
  • Create clear communication channels with customers. Remember, reviews start the minute you start working with a customer. A lot of poor reviews are the result of poor communication from the outset, especially around payment and scope of work. “Maybe I wanted a premium stain on my deck and I got a budget stain. Now I have a discrepancy and an argument,” Beal explains. “Clarity in communication and everyone signing off on the work will solve a whole lot of tittle tattle complaints.”