The Internet has made customer care more important than ever.

Angie's List is a consumer organization that collects customer satisfaction ratings on local service companies in more than 250 categories, everything from plumbing to pet sitting to piano tuning. Formed in 1995, they are organized in 13 cities nationwide and steadily expanding. The List serves some 75,000 consumers who pay about $45 a year to belong. When members access the list via phone or the Internet (www.angieslist.com), they are typically given the names of three to five companies in their requested category.

Angie's List is one of a bunch of consumer referral businesses that have popped up over the years. (Founder Angie Hicks takes issue with the "referral" label, saying her business is a rating service; she's technically correct, but it's largely a matter of semantics.)

This type of business exists as an alternative to playing Yellow Pages roulette. It wouldn't exist if so many people didn't have terrible experiences patronizing service firms.

Homeowners everywhere would love to find PHC and other service firms that are honest and reliable. Many ask friends and neighbors for recommendations, but often friends and neighbors don't know anyone good.

Even when they do, every job is different. A plumber who performed to someone's satisfaction on one call may run into problems at a neighbor's house. People who buy into Angie's List can see what various customers had to say about a firm and choose accordingly.

A distinguishing characteristic of Angie's List is that businesses have no say in getting on the list or not. List members assign ratings with no input from the service companies. Some companies may be listed and never know it -- especially if they have bad ratings and never get called by list members.

And that's something worth contemplating.

Word Of Mouth

Word of mouth can be the best form of advertising, but it can also be the worst. It depends on your reputation. Companies that leave mostly satisfied customers behind can get a boost from the community grapevine. Yet, those that habitually draw complaints may want to consider paying hush money to their suffering customers.

What most service firm owners don't realize is the deck is stacked against them when it comes to word of mouth. Various studies have shown that people are about five times more likely to tell friends and neighbors about bad experiences with a business than good ones. Do a good job without any hassles, and the average person thinks, hey, that's what I'm paying you to do. But mess up just a little bit and it's like applying a branding iron to the customer's psyche. They relieve the pain by blabbing about it to everyone they know.

In researching this article, I spoke with Angie Hicks. One of the things she told me ought to be burnished on the walls of every service business.

I asked her what were the most common complaints she gets about plumbers and other trade service firms. Specifically I asked about price, and she said that while price is one of the categories graded by Angie's List members, plumbing firms generally don't get hammered in this area. "It's the little things," she said.

"Getting people to return phone calls, showing up for appointments -- that's what our List members mostly complain about. The little things make a big difference. It's especially bad this time of year (late May) when remodelers and other trade firms are getting busy," said Angie.

Who Needs Whom?

Good observation. Many contractors will be conscientious when they need the work, but as soon as things get hectic, they lapse into a "you-need-me-more-than-I-need-you" mindset. Their time suddenly becomes so valuable they can't be bothered returning calls or showing up on time.

Such crusty attitudes could endure back when word of mouth got spread one person at a time over lemonades on the front porch. In the Internet age, it's hard to stay ahead of electrons. Angie's List has grown impressively, and there are various other places online where consumers can exchange gripes.

You can't stop this information from spreading. And nobody's perfect. None of you is ever going to leave every last customer 100 percent satisfied with everything you do on a job. Jobsite surprises are beyond your control.

But the little things are absolutely within your control. Nothing can prevent you from returning calls, showing up, being polite, wearing a smile, and treating people with respect. Nothing can prevent you from drumming it into all your employees that their livelihood depends on doing these things just as much as it does their talent in turning a wrench. Customer care can overcome the glitches that inevitably arise mechanically and logistically. In the Internet age, customer care is more important than ever.

Olsztynski At ISH NA

Jim Olsztynski is a scheduled speaker at the ISH North America tradeshow debuting in Toronto Oct. 31-Nov.2. Jim will present "Kitchen & Bath Best Practices" on Thursday, Oct. 31, 10-11:30 a.m.; and "Supply Chain Best Practices" on Friday, Nov. 1, 10-11:30 a.m.To register for the show, visit www.ish-na.com.

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