© eternalcreative | Thinkstock

People are shopping around more than ever before making their buying decisions thanks to review sites and social media. Your reputation will precede you, so make sure you know what it is.

A recent survey of 1,2396 individuals by Software Advice, a site offering research and comparisons of field service software, found that 68 percent of respondents find online reviews extremely or very valuable when looking at residential service providers, and 86 percent will pay more for a business with higher ratings and reviews.

Ken Hyatt, founder of Village Green Lawn & Landscape in Garland, Texas, keeps close tabs on his company’s online reputation and knows first-hand how important it is.

“The main area where that helps is our pricing is a bit higher than some of the other companies and when the customers are looking at our reviews, they feel like it’s justified,” he says. “They understand that we’re earning that extra money because we’re earning the reviews that we’re getting.”

Dick Bare, owner of Arbor-Nomics in Norcross, Georgia, and his two sons pay close attention to the company’s online reputation and even go hunting for different sites.

“Both of my sons are incredible computer geniuses – being young,” he says. “They find some really unorthodox things sometimes with reviews and so on that we can fix because half the problem is there’s a lot of them out there that you may not even know about.”

The good, bad and ugly.

Village Green has about 800 reviews on Angie’s List and includes a sample of them on its website, both good and bad. Hyatt takes advantage of negative reviews to show potential customers how he handles problems or complaints to show credibility.

“It’s not unusual for me to get a call from somebody saying ‘Hey, I read all of your reviews, including the bad ones, and I was impressed by the way you responded to them. You were respectful and gave your side of the story,’” Hyatt says.

“Sometimes you admitted you were wrong and sometimes you pointed out where you disagreed with the customer. If it’s possible for us to fix it, then we do. If we made a mistake, we’ll own up to it and sort out problems and that ties back into then being able to get a better review the next time around.”

And customers are looking for reviews before they buy. From Yelp to Facebook to Angie’s List, 56 percent of the Software Advice survey respondents said they used the web to find a service provider, with 74 percent checking Yelp.

Hyatt also includes both positive and negative reviews on his website to show how the company solves problems, and to add credibility. “I think if you handle it in a positive manner, it’s good,” he says. “You do need some negative reviews because when people see that you just have all 100 percent great reviews, they get suspicious of it.”

Take advantage of negative reviews to show potential customers how you handle problems or complaints.

Bare has been monitoring his company’s online reviews for the past five years and tries to respond to every review personally. But back when he first got started, he got reviews and leads through Home Reports, a book with contact information and customer reviews. The book is now a website but the print version really helped Arbor-Nomics take off.

“The people that called in to us, we had about a 95 percent closing rate from people that called in because they found us in that book and they really started using the book,” he says.

Get ahead of the game.

Potential clients aren’t just looking for reviews before hiring a lawn and landscape company. They’re also looking for a way to make sure a company is knowledgeable. Customers are doing their research before they buy and providing that information gets you ahead says Paige Worthy, client services at Landscape Leadership, an inbound marketing agency for the green industry.

“Your prospective customer already has their mind made up 70 percent of the way by the time they contact you,” she says. “So it’s safe to say I think that the customer is fully in control of the buying process now.”

Helping potential clients solve their lawn or landscape problems and providing them with quality information puts you in front of the customer first, and Worthy says they’ll likely stick with you to a sale.

A website that shows your knowledge as a landscaping expert separates you from the competition.

“It’s about information and it’s about trust and understanding – that’s how buying happens these days,” Worthy says. “Being ready with answers and information puts you ahead of the game.”

Village Green provides a blog and a newsletter with localized tips and tricks for maintenance. Hyatt says it helps his company stand out against the national competitors and adds credibility. “The Texas climate is different and the Dallas area in particular,” he says. “The soil is different, the climate is different than other places and by sending out educational information it helps establish our authority in this area.”