Angie’s List is a consumer organization that collects customer satisfaction ratings on local service companies in more than 250 categories - everything from HVAC and plumbing to pet sitting and piano tuning.

Formed in 1995 in Columbus, Ohio, it serves 124 cities nationwide and is steadily expanding. The list claims to serve some 500,000 consumers who pay $53 a year to belong.

When members access the list through the Internet at www.angieslist.com, they are typically given the names of several companies in their requested category.

Angie’s List is one of the more successful consumer referral businesses that have popped up in recent 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.) Since then, several others have copied the business model. These types of businesses exist as an alternative to playing Yellow Pages roulette. It wouldn’t exist if so many people didn’t have terrible experiences patronizing trade firms.

Homeowners everywhere would love to find remodeling firms and contractors that are honest and reliable. Many ask friends and neighbors for recommendations, but often they don’t know anyone good. Even when they do, every job is different. A contractor who performed to someone’s satisfaction on one job may run into problems at a neighbor’s house. People who buy into Angie’s List can see what various customers had to say and choose accordingly.

No input

A distinguishing characteristic of Angie’s List is that businesses have no say in getting on the 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 can be the best form of advertising, but it can also be the worst. 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 many suffering customers.

What most contractors 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 column, I spoke with Angie Hicks. One of the things she told me ought to be burnished on the walls of every sheet metal or HVAC business.

Little trouble

I asked her what were the most common complaints she gets about trade contractors. Specifically I asked about price, and she said that while price is one of the categories graded by Angie’s List members, contractors 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,” Hicks told me. “The little things make a big difference. It’s especially bad this time of year when remodelers and other trade firms are getting busy.”

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, feedback travels fast. Angie’s List has grown impressively, and there are various other consumer information sites online, as well as business-to-business message boards and chat rooms.

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, smiling and treating people with respect. Nothing can prevent you from drumming it into all your employees that their livelihoods depend on doing these things just as much as it does their talent in wielding the tools. Customer care can overcome the glitches that inevitably arise.

Jim Olsztynski - pronounced Ol-stin-skee - is editor of Supply House Times, a sister publication of Snips. He can be reached at (630) 694-4006, or e-mail wrdwzrd@aol.com.