From consumer watch-sites to search engines, the Internet is changing the way plumbers market their business online.



Plumbing business owners have always counted on customer referrals as a reliable way to generate new business. However, word-of-mouth is not only a win for plumbers. Studies have proven that consumers consider it their most trusted form of advertising.

In short: People still value other people’s opinions.

Today, with the advent of the Internet, e-mail and online communities, word-of-mouth has been “turbocharged.” Online customer feedback now can influence consumer buying decisions on a global scale. And the rate at which consumers venture online to shop and compare keeps rising each year.

In addition, traditional oral delivery of word-of-mouth is on the wane. Instead of turning to their geographical neighbors for advice, your customers are turning to their computers to get much-desired feedback about the products and services they’re hoping to buy.

One online community that has taken the “ask your neighbor” approach to the next level is AngiesList.com. This site serves more than 600,000 consumers in 124 major cities who are looking for reliable, unbiased reviews of local service companies. And, according to founder and Chief Marketing Officer Angie Hicks, savvy business owners are making Angie’s List work for them. By using List reports as customer satisfaction surveys, they are able to monitor potential issues and take care of them before they adversely affect their business.

Since service companies can’t put themselves on Angie’s List - or pay to be listed - fee-paying Angie’s List members trust that the companies they find will live up to their reviews.

“Angie’s List helps small [service] businesses because it allows them to compete head-to-head against larger companies,” Hicks tells us. “By providing good customer service and earning positive reports, they can attract a loyal following from among Angie’s List members in their community.”

Hicks can point to dozens of companies that have built their businesses utilizing Angie’s List reviews. But what about negative reviews?

“We go to great lengths to ensure the information we provide is accurate and fair,” Hicks assures. Companies need only one member recommendation to be listed at Angie’s List. More than 20,000 reviews come in every month, and real human beings read every report submitted before it’s posted.

Also, reviews cannot be submitted anonymously and you need to be a member to submit a report, which holds the consumers accountable for what they post. In addition, members can only report on a specific company once every six months, ensuring that no one can “stack the deck” against - or in favor - of a company.

But even with a negative rating, Angie’s List offers a chance for the contractor to make good. “We added the ‘company response’ function at the suggestion of service companies, who reminded us that there are always at least two sides to a story,” Hicks says. She also notes that consumers can learn a lot about a company by the way it responds to dissatisfied customers.

“Let’s be honest: Anyone who’s in business knows you can’t please everyone 100 percent of the time,” she admits. However, Angie’s List believes it’s very important companies respond to reports when they think the whole story isn’t being told. “Providing both sides allows members to decide for themselves if the company deserved the grade they were given, or if they were graded too harshly.”



Go Google Yourself

As a business owner, monitoring consumer watch-sites such as Angie’s List and Consumerist.com are an important part of Internet marketing. Paying attention to what is being said about you on the World Wide Web could be as simple as typing your company name into a search engine. You may be surprised at what you find.

“The Internet has transformed the intimacy of word-of-mouth behavior into a broadcast-like ability to communicate with the masses, whether a group of friends or hundreds and thousands of online-but-connected strangers at computer keyboards,” according to a white paper by Nielsen BuzzMetrics, a third-party online consumer research group. It recently studied consumer-generated media to uncover how this influence will challenge today’s marketers.

As for monitoring your Angie’s List company profile, the site has made the process even more user-friendly.

“Plumbing contractors can monitor their profile by registering - free of charge - on our CompanyConnect Web site,” Hicks says. The site allows plumbers to provide more detailed information about their business, access the Angie’s List Web site, and even receive report notification e-mails when members post reports about them.

However, the best way to turn around your bad rating is to learn from what the reviews have said and work to improve your business, Hicks offers. Clearing up any confusion goes a long way with gaining a consumer’s trust. But providing consistently good service and responding in a timely manner to customer calls is sometimes all it takes. “One of the complaints I hear all the time is that service companies don’t return phone calls. That’s something that can be fixed.”



Conquering The Search Engine

While you were Googling yourself, did you notice anything? How high on the organic* search results was your company listed? Did you have to scroll down the page to find your listing?

You’re not alone. Search engines are another place where contractors can get lost in the shuffle of online marketing. While some larger companies can afford to purchase search engine “keywords,” or have a slew of IT geeks on-staff to monitor SEO (search engine optimization), we’re willing to bet most small plumbing businesses throw their hands up when it comes to understanding the search engine secret formula.

However, your “Web-fortified” customers are going online to search for you and the plumbing services you perform - bypassing traditional phone books entirely.

“I was one of those people who said, ‘Why would you go on the Internet to find a plumber?’” says New England plumbing business owner Mike**. But he quickly came around. “The Internet is the next place to market yourself.”

Mike enjoys the fact that his smaller-size company can “play with the big boys for little cost.” While his three-truck company has an aggressive Web campaign, and enjoys high organic search result listings among his local plumbing competitors, he extends his reach even further by buying into online directories, such as FindaPlumber.com, ServiceMagic.com, Contractors.com and others.

“Internet for our company has been phenomenal,” he says. “We receive one, three, five calls a day from new clients just by being online.” And one online directory in particular has made a difference. But first some facts.

During a research project into the mind of the typical online searcher, Enquiro Search Solutions Inc. found that 70 percent of participants liked to start with a generic, inclusive keyphrase and narrow it down from there. Type in “Plumber” into any search engine and watch the madness ensue.

But also notice near the top of both the sponsored and organic results is FindaPlumber.com, a plumbing-only contractor referral site.

“The consumer is getting more sophisticated,” says Sal Ialuna of FindaPlumber.com. “Whether through search engines or typing directly in the address bar, they are better able to find the information they need quickly.”

For the past seven years, FindaPlumber has taken advantage of its prime search engine results listing to help consumers easily find local plumbers - and its plumbing company clients find customers.

By staying customer-friendly (visitors simply type in their zip code), potential customers are given a list of local plumbing company names and contact information. It’s the customer’s choice who to call, and is put in direct contact with the plumber. And there is no competition for leads between three or four other companies.

“If a plumber answers the call live, the deal’s pretty much done,” Ialuna advises. “If they leave a voice mail, you might call them back, you might not, and the customer will shop around.”

Listings on FindaPlumber go in order of priority - first come, first served. Plumbing service companies subscribe to various FindaPlumber packages and purchase zip codes. A 30-mile radius of coverage determines the list.

Packages for top-of-the-line placement (if the zip code isn’t already secured) run $189 a month with no sign-up fee. This deluxe listing can provide a color logo, phone number, e-mail and Web address, pictures of trucks, etc., for the company to set themselves apart.

“We let them promote their business,” says Ialuna. “Even smaller companies without a Web site can still compete with larger ones that do.”

Ialuna and his team remain entirely flexible with the packages they offer, with no long-term contracts and no charge for switching plans. They even offer a pay-per-call option ($18 per call with a small sign-up fee), which allows contractors to pay only when a customer calls a trackable phone number.

Also, there’s a money-back guarantee, which Ialuna says is great for people “on the fence” or want to ease into online directories with a smaller investment. “They might be wondering, ‘Is this a waste of money?’ But once they see how user-friendly it is, and see prosperous leads come in, the choice is easy.”



Keeping Watch

Roger**, a plumber from New York, conducted his own online searches and finally called FindaPlumber to discuss his options. “They kept popping up in the results,” he tells us.

His small plumbing company is now able to support six full-time employees because of the Internet. He received more than 200 calls in a single month just from online sources.

“We’re able to target the people who don’t have word-of-mouth. They go to the Internet looking for word-of-mouth,” Roger says. But he didn’t take his decision to market online lightly. “Before I jump into anything, I beat people into the ground with questions,” he admits. And he also doesn’t leave his advertising budget open-ended.

“Diversify these dollars,” he advises. “Have a good marketing portfolio. From the Internet to local church and community campaigns, too.”

As the old saying goes, you gotta spend money to make money. But don’t just throw it away, warns Mike. “For me, FindaPlumber is working well; we’ve recouped our money ten-fold.”

But he realizes that not everyone is willing to take the online risk.

For those still unsure about online directories, Mike suggests you start out with the smaller investment. “Track your phone calls; try it for three months. Buy the zip codes that work for you, and after you’ve seen it work, purchase the flat-fee package you’re comfortable with.”

“The average plumber can get hurt spending themselves into trouble,” Ialuna warns of the many types of online directories currently available. He says red flags should pop up if you’re asked to lock into a contract, or if the directory wants to severely limit the number of listings on a Web page. It could put you at a disadvantage.

“Exclusive directories might sound great at first because you’re front-and-center, but remember that consumers want choice,” Ialuna says. The ability to choose for themselves is one of the main draws of shopping and comparing online for consumers. Take that away, and you’ll see a drop in leads.

The best advice for making the Internet work for your plumbing company: Act like an online mystery shopper.

“Do your own research,” Ialuna says. “Think and search like a customer might.” Take a fresh look at your own Web site and have friends search your site, too. Then use what you’ve learned to design your own online marketing strategy.

** Our sources wished to remain anonymous in print, due to the upper hand they felt they had in terms of competition online. They didn’t wish to let all their secrets out!



* ORGANIC SEARCH RESULTS:

“Free” search results, or nonsponsored links, and heavily rely on popularity. Nearly 75 percent of B2B searchers ignore sponsored links and click on organic search results first.
Source: Enquiro