Ten years ago, creating a brand for your remodeling business was straightforward. Design a logo, a slogan and a mission. Then, push all of it to customers, and boom, the business has been branded. The rules of today’s branding game have changed, mostly due to social media sites like Angie’s List and Yelp that give because customers the same power to affect a brand as the business owner.
Remodeling business owners aren’t defenseless, however. In fact, the same websites that empower customers provide the same opportunity to remodelers. Remodelers and brand experts agree that if a brand doesn’t have an identity on social media and customer review sites, customers will create the brand whether remodelers like it or not.
No remodeler is more aware of this phenomenon than Chris Dietz, owner and president of Dietz Development in Washington, D.C. “A customer created a negative image of me, and now I’m playing catch-up trying to re-establish my good brand,” he says. Dietz filed what is now a high-profile lawsuit aimed at removing the negative and harmful comments about Dietz and his business. The trailblazing case has potential to redefine this country’s rules about what can and cannot be written on sites like Yelp.com.
Dietz’s case has reached Virginia state supreme court level. “Make sure you’re involved in social media, or at least monitor what is being said out there. Social media is very important. Be aware of your surroundings.”
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 they get out of hand,” says Howard Rittenberg, president, Roof Masters in Rockville, Md. Rittenberg’s contracts include terms and conditions stating that disputes must be settled with the homeowner, who can’t post anything online without his permission. “It’s in there with 30 other things. Everyone signs it.”
John MacDougall, owner and president of JMC Home Improvement Specialists, Parsippany, N.J., has similar language in his proposals. “Point two [in the proposal] 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. “At our final good bye 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.”
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. 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.”
Define your brand
For remodelers who think they don’t need to worry about what’s being said online about their brands, think again. Any past clients who weren’t 100 percent satisfied can post anything on the internet, and, they might already have done it. This is why remodeler Joe Levco, president, Levco Builders in Boise, Idaho, promotes and defines his brand on his blog.
“My blog is an opportunity 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 this by being a clear communicator of who I am, what I’m about and what I stand for.”
Levco’s blog is updated each Tuesday and is blasted via email to roughly 600 addresses. “I simply discuss what’s going on in my world. Lately, most of my calls come from people who have found my blog. By the time they call me, they know who I am and how I think, so my blog practically sells work for me.” Because remodeling comes more easily to Levco than writing, he began paying a high school student, who has now graduated, to edit his blogs.
Reacting to Negativity
Because negative reviews tend to draw the most attention, it’s important to respond to them. Accountability 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. “I’ll stand up for any mistakes I made. I have no problem doing that, but sometimes you get an unreasonable homeowner you just can’t do anything about.”
MacDougall agrees that all negative comments must 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 acknowledge that our communication could have been better. We appreciate your 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 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 tied, it’s Dietz, who successfully sued to have a customer’s negative comments removed from Yelp.com, only to have the Virginia supreme court overturn that ruling. It’s impossible to remove the client’s assertion that Dietz stole property from the client’s house, despite possessing a letter from the state’s attorney general stating Dietz nor his company have no criminal record.
“I can say you’re a racist, and good luck getting me to take it down,” Dietz says. “Until there’s national or state legislation that changes the Communications Decency Act of 1996 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, 1996 is ancient history, and it’s time the legislation is updated,” 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,” Dietz says. “This is essentially what’the former client is doing to me. 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, it’s easy to rule out that place. That’s what’s happening to me. People are comparing me to my competition, they 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 clients 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 the remodeler doesn’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. At least the Better Business Bureau will mediate a dispute. That’s a fair process. But with most other sites, homeowners can say whatever they want and remodelers have no recourse.”
Advice from the Experts
Nikki Golden, marketing and communications manager, National Association of the Remodeling Industry, Des Plaines, Ill., also agrees that getting in front of a brand is better than doing damage control. “There’s a quote from Scott Cook, founder and CEO of 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 consumer it is; it’s what consumers tell each other it is.’ This is why branding from inside a business is better than outside. Everyone at the company must sing the same tune, which makes 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.”
Remodelers who don’t have time to monitor what’s being written online about their businesses have a simple alternative, Golden suggests. “Remodelers can set up a Google Alert to keep tabs on online comments made about their company. They can cimply 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.”
Another way to look a a brand is to think of it as a company’s reputation, which is difficult to defend if one hasn’t been established, says Darren Slaughter, founder and president, darrenslaughter.com. “If a remodeler has no reputation on these sites and suddenly a customer posts a bad review, that bad review just became your reputation, because that’s all that’s out there. 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, he says. “If you take the fight to sites other than where it began, all you’re doing is spreading the negativity to other platforms. Localize the damage.”