Putting Lousy Service Providers in the Penalty Box: An Interview with Angie Hicks
Admitted introvert Angie Hicks, co-founder of Angie’s List, seems to be everywhere these days — on billboards, radio spots, and TV. It’s a role she’s getting more comfortable with, but would never have imagined 20 years ago when she was knocking on doors in Columbus, Ohio, to sign up the very first member for “Columbus Neighbors,” a telephone referral service that published reviews of service providers.
But her Midwestern persistence paid off. The company grew fast, buying out an Indianapolis competitor, and migrating to the Internet. In 2002, Angie’s List made Inc.’s list of the 500 fastest-growing companies.
Fast-forward to 2015. The publicly traded $350 million company is an established national brand with more than 3 million subscribers, 700 service categories, and nearly 2,000 employees. But the original premise remains. “We want homeowners to have great outcomes when they hire a provider,” says Hicks. Those not up to snuff are put into a “Penalty Box,” a hiring-beware zone, she notes.
Earlier this month, The Home Story asked Hicks for tips on hiring and working with local service providers.
THS: A lot of first-time homeowners may never have hired a home contractor, or may answer their door to someone offering to trim trees or power wash their home. What advice do you have for them?
AH: My best advice is to put yourself in the driver’s seat when it comes to hiring any service provider. First, you should find them versus them finding you. If someone’s going door-to-door, you should pass on hiring that company and go do your research. You want to work with a company that has a good local reputation that will stand behind its work. If you want a new roof put on your house, for example, that’s a job that’s going to stick around for 20 years. So you want a company that’s going to be around that long and stand behind its work.
THS: What mistakes do first-time homeowners typically make?
AH: One of the things that’s hardest for first-time homeowners is being surprised by things that unexpectedly break down, which is easy to do because you don’t know how long things like a furnace should last.
My advice is that if you don’t know, be sure to find out. When you’re buying the house, attend the home inspection to understand the condition of the items in your home. Ask the home inspector lots of questions like “If my furnace is 7 years old, what does that mean?” Being there and asking an unbiased professional for these answers can be a great educational process for first-time buyers, or any homebuyer for that matter.
THS: Should homeowners set aside money for unexpected repairs like a furnace or air conditioning unit?
AH: Yes, absolutely. I would advise that you set aside 3 to 5 percent of the value of your home every year to use for repairs and improvements. Because things need to be maintained, and some will break down. You’ll want to tuck that money away so you don’t get stressed when something goes wrong because things can, and will, go wrong.
THS: Should homeowners have a list of project to-do’s?
AH: I encourage people to walk around their home at least once a year with the eye of a “buyer” because nobody is more critical of the property than someone walking through who’s thinking about buying it. And list everything you see, from a crack in the walkway to a door that needs to be refinished, regardless of your budget.
Then start prioritizing the items so essential repairs to structural and mechanical items come first, and nice-to-have projects like putting in a new patio are further down the list. Then you can lay your budget against the list so you won’t skip down to pay for a new patio when what you really needed was to put in a new furnace. Because having a house become a money pit is stressful to any homeowner. Having a list of priority repairs, and having set aside the budget for them, puts you in charge.
THS: What key questions should you ask before you hire for a big home improvement project?
AH: I would say number one is to make sure their credentials are in order, including licenses, bonding, insurance, and references. And when it comes to insurance, don’t just take their word for it. Ask to see their insurance policy so you know they’re well-insured. You’ll want to make sure they’re insured for damage to your property and injury to any of their workers who are hurt on your property.
Number two, have a contract in writing so you understand what the project will entail, what’s included and not included. You don’t want to have a situation where you’re doing a $6,000 bathroom remodel and they’re asking for all the money up front — red flag! You should understand how the contract works and that there are performance approval milestones tied to the payment schedule. And include a “what if things go wrong” section in your contract: How are we going to handle it?
While it might seem laborious to have a contract that is so detailed, there can actually be a payoff down-the-road. You never think you’re going to have a problem until you do.
THS: What if things don’t go according to plan?
AH: The most important thing is don’t stop communicating with your contractor. I often find situations arise, especially on big projects, because the consumer and the service provider just aren’t communicating.
You need to communicate with the contractor every day. Tell them what you like, and what you don’t. The more transparent the conversation is, the easier it will be to fix things and the faster it will be to get them done right.
Also you should document what you’re not happy with in case a third party does have to become involved.
THS: Do people recognize you in public and what is that like?
AH: Yes, they do, more often now than in the past. The marketing campaign with my image was the marketing department’s idea. I hadn’t thought through what that really meant for me. People recognize me now, and we’ll talk a bit. Since I’m an introverted person by nature, it’s allowed me to interact more with people who use the product, which is awesome.
THS: Can you tell us about the recent Career Day at Washington Irving Elementary where you brought craftsmen in to speak with students about careers in the trades and the importance of having students consider non-tech careers?
AH: There is a lot of emphasis these days about going to college, which is great, but could leave some people behind. It may not be for everyone. I felt there was a widening disconnect between the demand for hiring in the trades and young people’s understanding of the opportunity. (The trades) can be high-paying jobs and good careers: A heating-and-cooling technician can make a lot of money and someday own his own HVAC company. I saw Career Day as an opportunity to start educating young people about these careers.
We started with a local school, and the kids loved it. As we were wrapping up, the principal suggested we do something similar for parents. So in August we’re going to have our first Job Fair. We reached out to providers on the list to participate, and the response was overwhelming. For the most part these are small companies that may hire just a few people a year, but they don’t have the front office resources to do that for them. They don’t have HR departments. The Job Fair will help these companies and the people in our area who are looking for jobs.
My goal is to continue both programs, Career Day and the Job Fair, and roll them out to cities across the country.
THS: Looking back are there things you would have done differently in growing your business?
AH: I was 22 when I started Angie’s List, and there were lots of things I learned on the job. Managing people was probably one of the hardest lessons. I didn’t have much experience, but luckily I had a good support system of people outside of the company who helped me.
Also, sometimes when you’re fresh out of college you tend to sweat the small stuff. If every day you learn from your mistakes and you learn something new, you’ll get better. You’ll learn that those hard days were actually wonderful opportunities. Don’t stress out about those. I always tell people, “Hey, we don’t run the ER; keep things in perspective.” You need to give yourself a break sometimes.
THS: What’s next for Angie Hicks?
AH: I have three kids who are in elementary and middle school, and I’m just being a mom and enjoying time with them because I know that time goes incredibly fast.
I got advice early in my career that nobody is going to make spending time with your family a priority. That’s going to be up to you. I am enjoying this quality time with my family just as much as I can.