Ten years ago, creating a brand for your remodeling business was pretty straightforward. You created your logo, slogan and mission and push all of it to customers and boom, you’ve branded your business. The branding game today is played differently, on a level playing field with your customers, and they have the home field advantage. Thank social media and websites such as Angie’s List and Yelp for giving customers the power to alter your company image, and potentially destroy your hard work.
Remodeling business owners aren’t defenseless, however. In fact, the same websites that give your customers the power to define your brand provide you with the opportunity to do the same, should you choose to take the initiative. Many remodelers and branding experts agree that if your brand doesn’t have an identity on social media and customer review sites, your customers will create a brand for you, and you might not like it.
No remodeler is more aware of this phenomenon than Chris Dietz, owner and president of Dietz Development in Washington, D.C. “I had a customer create an image for me, and now I’m playing catch-up trying to re-establish my brand,” he says. Dietz is filed a high-profile lawsuit aimed at removing negative and harmful comments a customer made about Dietz and his business on Yelp.com. The case has groundbreaking potential to redefine this country’s rules about what can and cannot be stated on sites like Yelp.
Dietz has learned much from his case, which has reached Virginia state supreme court level. “I had never used Angie’s List or Yelp. I hadn’t been involved in online, social media. Make sure you’re involved in social media, BBB, Manta, if not up there at least monitor it. I think you should have a presence, but if don’t monitor it you’re in trouble. Social media is very important. Be aware of your surroundings. Be professional, mind yourself. I treat customers the way I want to be treated.
Remodelers can take additional proactive measures to minimize the potential for clients posting negative online reviews. One such action is good communication. “Do a good job communicating with a customer, maintain an open line of communication, and most problems can be resolved before it gets out of hand,” says Howard Rittenberg, president, Roof Masters in Rockville, Md. “Communicate well, and there will be trust and confidence, which will avoid any disagreements or help to resolve disagreements with your clients.”
Rittenberg also includes terms and conditions in his contracts that state disputes have to be settled with the homeowner, who can’t post anything online without his permission. “It’s in there with 30 other things, too. Everyone signs it,” he says.
John MacDougall, John MacDougall, owner and president of JMC Home Improvement Specialists, Parsippany, N.J., also has an agreement page on front of proposal. “Point two states that the homeowner agrees to write a review on Houzz and/or Angie’s List if they are satisfied. It’s all about controlling expectations, that’s all it’s doing,” he explains. “And on our final goodbye with clients we ask them for a review. Then we send them an email with a link to the comment sections, to make it easy for them to do. Quantity is what you’re looking for when it comes to reviews.”
Additional proactive measures can include weeding out potential trouble-making clients before they hire you, Rittenberg adds. “Maybe you can ask a potential client about their experiences with other remodeling projects and other contractors, and listen to what they say. If they say that they’ve taken every contractor they’ve worked with to court, well, that’s a problem customer. Beyond that you have no idea who’s going to be a problem client.”
Define Yourself Before Others Do
For remodelers who think they don’t need to worry about websites like Facebook, Yelp and Angie’s List, think again. Any one of your past clients who weren’t 100 percent satisfied with your work can post pretty much anything they want to say about you on these sites. And, they might already have done it. This is why remodeler Levco, president, Levco Builders in Boise, Idaho, uses his blog to promote his brand and define his corporate image.
“My blog is an opportunity for me to define what differentiates me from others in terms that are not purely financial,” Levco says. “For example, my next blog post is about my approach to contracts. I want to make sure that it’s clear to people who I am. I want to protect my niche, and I do that by being a clear communicator of who I am and what I’m about.”
Levco’s blog is updated each Tuesday and is blasted via email to roughly 600 contacts on his distribution list. “I simply discuss what’s going on in my world. Lately, most of my calls come from people who have found my site. They already know who I am and how I think, so my blog practically sells work for me.” Because remodeling comes more easily to Levco than grammar, he began paying a high school student, who has now graduated, to edit his writing.
Reacting to Negativity
Most remodelers and experts agree it’s important to respond to negative comments about one’s brand. Negative reviews tend to draw the most attention, which is why a response is required to show potential clients that you are responsive, and to tell your side of the story. Honesty is critical too, especially if the remodeler gave the reviewer reason for the negative comments.
“If I screw up I will admit it and correct the wrong,” Rittenberg says, “but sometimes you get an unreasonable homeowner you just can’t do anything about. I’ll stand up for any mistakes I made. I have no problem doing that.”
MacDougall agrees that all negative comments about his business must at least be acknowledged. “You can’t go on the defensive right away or you’re shooting yourself in the foot. For example, if there’s merit to the negative comment, I might respond with, ‘This job could have gone better. It’s true we had scheduling issues with this job. We try to communicate if we’re going to have delays. In this case we acknowledge that our communication could have been better. We appreciate input and will do everything we can to avoid it in the future.’
Even Dietz, who is losing revenue because of negative comments, agrees that initially a remodeler must determine if the complaint is legitimate, then respond regardless of merit. “You must treat them as a good client, because if you can turn a negative into a positive through your online response, then you can have a client and referral source for life.”
Remodelers’ Hands Are Tied
If anyone fully understands the concept of having one’s hands figuratively tied, it’s Dietz, who won a legal battle which removed a customer’s negative comments only to have the state supreme court overturn that ruling. Despite possessing a letter from the state’s attorney general stating Dietx has no criminal record, no one will force Yelp to remove the client’s assertion that Dietz stole property from her home.
“I can say you’re a racist, and good luck to you getting me to take it down, “Dietz says. “Until there’s national or state legislation that changes the 1996 cda section 230, people can say whatever they want on the internet, and you can’t do anything about it. With the speed at which technology advances, a1996 is ancient history, and it’s time the legislation is updated. “I’m flabbergasted!” Dietz proclaims.
“And here’s a warning to all of the remodelers reading this. You have no idea how screwed you are until you’re in my situation, so pay attention to my case. This lady is ruining my pocketbook,” Dietz says. “It’s like this. If I want Thai food tonight, I look it up. If I see three places that look good and one of them has a negative comment about it, it’s too easy to rule them out. That’s what’s happening to me. People are comparing me to my competition, see the negative comment, and eliminate me. They think, ‘The comment might not be legitimate, but it’s not worth risking my $200,000 remodel with him. Let’s go with a different remodeler.’ I’m losing a client without even being given a chance to earn their business.”
Rittenberg believes there’s not a remodeling contractor who hasn’t been threatened to be held hostage by a customer who says if they don’t do what the client says, they will go online and write how bad the remodeler is. “I’ve had two instances of online reports that are inaccurate, but I have no recourse; there’s nothing I can do about it. I’m held hostage, and it’s not right. The fact remains that the customer has an unfair advantage over remodelers. At least the Better Business Bureau is fair. They will mediate a dispute. There’s a process, and it’s fair. But with most other sites homeowners can say whatever they want remodelers have no recourse.”
Advice from the Experts
Remodelers who don’t have time every day to monitor what’s being written online about their businesses have a more simple option, suggests Nikki Golden, marketing and communications manager, National Association of the Remodeling Industry, Des Plaines, Ill. “Remodelers can set up a Google Alert to keep tabs on online comments made about their company. They just go to google.com/alerts and set up an alert for the company name. Then, any time someone mentions their company on the internet, they will get an email.”
Golden also agrees that getting in front of your brand is better than doing damage control after someone else slams their brand. “There’s a quote from Scott Cook at Intuit that brings home the point about being consistent with one’s branding message. He said, ‘A brand is no longer what we tell the consumers it is, it’s what consumers tell each other it is.’ So, the more consistent a remodeler’s brand is and everyone at the company sings the same tune, you’re making it easier for customers to be your brand ambassadors. In the past, you would put your logo out there and hope people would see it and feel the way you intended them to feel, but now you have to tell them how to feel.” Branding, Golden says, is the personality of a company. “It’s the feeling you want to evoke when people see your logo or signage; the message you want your customers to take away from your company.
Another way to look at branding is to think of it as a company’s reputation. A reputation is difficult to defend if you don’t have one, says Darren Slaughter, founder and president, darrenslaughter.com, so if remodelers don’t already have a presence on social media and sites like Yelp and Angie’s List, they should create one. “If a remodeler has no reputation on these sites and suddenly a customer posts a bad review, that review is your reputation now. However, if you’ve been actively working on building an online reputation and have a nice following, when one bad review comes in it’ll look like a blip. For any business that has been online for awhile, it’s OK to have one or two bad reviews mixed into 20 or 30 good ones,” Slaughter says.
One final piece of advice from Slaughter is to keep the fight where it begins. If a negative review is posted on Angie’s List, respond on Angie’s List and don’t take it to Facebook or LinkedIn. “If you take the fight to sites other than where it began, all you’re doing is spreading the bad vibes. Localize the damage.”