Welcome to Thunderdome

Whether you want to play or not, online reviews put your reputation at stake 24/7. Here’s how to manage your clients’ expectations to ensure they feel taken care of.

My friend Ryan is a reputable irrigation contractor with more than 20 years of experience. Four years ago, Ryan started his own business serving residential and small commercial clients. Ryan hit the ground running and it wasn’t long before the word spread that he was a master of his craft and had outstanding service and fair prices.

Six months into his new venture, Ryan suffered the sudden loss of his mother who lived out of state. He left town to be with his family for one week and did his best to contact his clients. He did, however, overlook an appointment he made the week prior to replace an irrigation timer and the fallout from this oversight was a scathing review posted to two popular online sites as well as the Better Business Bureau. Here is that review:

I think we’d all agree that yes, Ryan should have called. He acknowledges that. I also think that many of us can also relate to his situation, knowing that at some point during our time in this business, this could have just has easily been us. Ryan followed up with this client and after explaining what happened, she was apologetic and was even able to remove the Better Business Bureau report.

But the online reviews stayed live. For the next year, whenever someone searched for his company, this review was the very first result they saw and he spent a lot of time having to explain what happened.

In many ways Ryan was stubborn. He wasn’t in this business so he could solicit online reviews, as you’d hear him say. He didn’t think the “system” was fair and he resented the power that online reviews held over him. In fact, he wasn’t interested in growing beyond a 15 mile radius of his shop. There was plenty of work for him right in his own area. Yet, he was forced now to encourage clients to review him to offset the negative online reputation.

In my opinion, it takes a minimum of 10-15 great reviews to offset one bad review. I encourage you to not fight this and don’t be like Ryan who was vulnerable because he didn’t want to participate.

You’re participating, whether you like it or not!

Given that, how do you participate and win? First you need to know the object of the game, which is to appear online to prospective clients that you repeatedly provide excellent service for a fair price with exceptional quality. Note the emphasis on repeatedly. You will need a LOT of people saying a LOT of great things about you.

Now the rules

First, raise your hand if you’ve ever royally messed up. Maybe some plants died, or your crew left a mess or you forgot to call when you were late – the list goes on.

Rule #1 (short version) – just don’t screw up.

Rule #1 (long version) – It’s entirely possible to not screw up. Begin by creating a client communication policy. This document can be as brief as a few key bullet points such as:

  • Write down every phone call, voice mail and email communication that requires a return phone call in a single, specified notebook used only for this reason
  • Every day at 3 p.m., check this notebook and return phone calls
  • Return all calls within 24 business hours
  • All voice greetings should indicate this process so clients are aware of when they can expect to hear from you.
  • Keep a spreadsheet or database of every client and prospect and document each communication.
  • Create a Final Walk Through Form that documents every job at completion and what, if any, small punch list items remain, along with the date they will be fixed
  • Communicate with the client every day at 4 p.m. during project construction and do a walk-through of the progress.
  • Ask for client feedback throughout the sales, production and follow-up process
  • Never end a communication without documenting what the next step or next follow up is and who is responsible.
  • Listen intently to the client or prospect and address concerns immediately
  • This type of communication brings awareness to problems long before they become serious. Addressing problems quickly often leads to great reviews. We all experience problems. The difference between a great review and a horrible review, however, is how we handle them.
  • Next, create a standard email that can quickly be copied and sent upon completion of every project that requests the client to post an online review. Also create a Client Satisfaction Survey that you can give to each client following a project.
  • Lastly, be relentless in “checking in” with the client. Read their body language, their facial expressions in addition to listening to their words. Never ask a client to live with something they don’t like. Be open to change in order to meet their needs and make them happy. A good contract will protect you from extra labor or material charges necessary to do so.

Remember that each review also adds value through improved SEO and online visibility. It’s another chance for search engines to find you before your competition.

Consistently provide great service and ask people to share their experiences by writing a review. It’s a lot easier to explain a negative review when you have 20 or more positive ones.

The author is president of Sarros Landscaping in Cumming, Ga., and a frequent contributor to Lawn & Landscape.

February 2013
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