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Image courtesy of the Connecticut Real Estate Blog

Back in the day, if you needed a plumber or electrician or carpenter or whatever to work on your house, you plowed through the Yellow Pages (ask your grandparents), looked at the various ads, and tried to decide which one sounded the most likely to be competent and reasonably-priced.  Or you asked a friend or (if they lived nearby) a relative.  Basically, it was a roll of the dice.  And if you got a stinker, you told your friends and relatives so that they wouldn’t hire him or her, and you tried someone else next time.  Inefficient and kind of ridiculous, but this was the Mesozoic age as far as information flow was concerned, and we did the best we could.

One advantage of this for providers (as we call ’em nowadays) is that word was slow to get out; if you sucked at your job, you still had a reasonable chance of obtaining enough work to live on, staying ahead of people’s accusations of ineptitude, as it were.

How quaint.

Now of course we have almost the opposite problem:  There is so much information about a given service provider that the tough thing is to filter it out.  When you go on Yelp for example and search on “Austin best plumber”, you get 8 hits just for the “downtown” area.  Eight?  They can’t all be the best, right?  So you start plowing through the reviews and, if you are an compulsive review reader such as myself, you’ll notice something:  Everyone seems to provide either 5-star or 1-star reviews.  To put it in math terms, the standard deviation is huge.  (To put it in Tom Lehrer terms, “You can get a standing ovations for pretty much anything in this country”.)  I’ll talk about how to filter in a future post–I think it’s an interesting topic, but then I’m a nerd–but the gist for today is:  How does the provider respond?

Look for some service on Yelp–doesn’t matter what.  Then just filter the results from “worst to best” ratings.  Then take a look; does the provider respond?  How does he or she respond?  Is it some kind of canned response, very generic, the kind of thing you expect to get if you complain to a big corporation or your Senator or something?  Or is it personal, well-written, to the point, and does it directly address the complaint?  I can’t under-state how much data this gives you; if the provider ignores bad reviews, or is rude in response, or only posts canned responses, that tells you a lot, don’t you think?  But on the other hand if he responds, is friendly and courteous, and provides reasonable explanations for the customer’s bad experience . . . well, that’s a lot of quality information for you.

And this is the only way I think a service provider stand out can stand out these days:  By providing good service for the money, yes, but also by providing quality customer service.  This is much more than just being polite to nasty trolls on Yelp; you have to be response and respectful to your customers in every forum.  Is your voice-mail polite, helpful, and friendly?  Do you answer phone messages within a reasonable amount of time?  Do you work with potential customers to provide them service at their convenience?  Are you responsive to complaints?  Do you charge a reasonable price, and do you make your fees clear at the beginning of the job?  All little things by themselves, but combined with vast amount of data available on line, this is the kind of thing that makes a difference.

I’m a tech writer in a marketing organization right now.  This is an odd place for a tech writer to be; we’re usually in engineering.  But one thing I’ve learned is that the marketing trope “we’re all marketing people” (i.e., we all need to sell our product to our customers, and thus constantly be thinking about that during every interaction) is especially true for independent service providers.  You may think this is trite, but think about it:  If a plumber or electrician or landscaper or whoever comes to your house and is surly, irritating, and difficult to work with, are you going to want them back?  If they are instead helpful and friendly, aren’t you going to sing their praises not only to your friends, but also on Yelp or wherever?  I think the answer is obvious.

This is the brave new world of online Big Data; the only way to stand out is via superior customer service.  That is your market differentiator.  Do with it as you will.