Many purchases we make today aren't things, but services. We hire and subscribe all the time: home contractors and plumbers, mail-order movie services, gym memberships, airline flights, and hotel rooms.
How to Buy Services, 1-2-3
The three-step process for buying services is very similar to that for buying products. But you have a few different resources and tools available to you, along with some concerns that are specific to services.
If you look carefully, the steps are basically the same three Rs: Review, research prices, and reevaluate.
Seek Reviews and References
For products available nationwide, finding reviews is relatively easy. But where do you go for reviews of local service companies, such as plumbers, electricians, and photographers? If you are new to an area, you will need a slew of service providers, from a doctor and dentist to, perhaps, a dog kennel and dry cleaner.
Trial and error is an inefficient, and potentially expensive, way to find good service professionals. Talking with neighbors and local friends can work, but opinions come from a very small sample of customers, often one. Or you can obtain referrals from related professionals. For example, you could ask a lawyer to help find a good accountant.
Listings in the phone book and online can give you an idea of some of the providers available, as can advertisements in local media. But they don't give you objective advice on whom to choose and why.
Because choosing wisely means you might receive a better price and better service, here are some better resources:
Consumers' Checkbook. www.checkbook.org is $30 or $34 for a one-year or two-year membership, depending on region. Membership in the nonprofit group Consumers' Checkbook, established in 1974, includes a semiannual magazine with articles and ratings, as well as access to its Web site, which has the most recent ratings of local service firms.
This is perhaps the most credible resource for unbiased reviews of local service companies. It accepts no advertising and has no business relationship with firms it rates.
Consumers' Checkbook doesn't just collect user reviews. It has a staff that does undercover price shopping, so it has apples-to-apples price comparisons, rather than asking members for their impressions about price. It also actively surveys consumers about the quality of service firms, rather than simply allowing anonymous posters to comment about firms, as some free Web sites do. Consumers' Checkbook won't officially list or evaluate a business until it has 10 ratings.
When it rates hospitals, for example, it examines risk-adjusted death rates and complications, based on millions of discharge records. It not only surveys patients about hospitals but doctors too.
The main problem -- and it's a big one -- is that Consumers' Checkbook is available for only seven metropolitan areas: Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia, Seattle, San Francisco, Minneapolis-St. Paul, and Washington, D.C. However, its ratings of doctors, hospitals, and health plans are for metro areas nationwide.
Angie's List. A nearly nationwide reviewer of services is Angie's List, found at www.angieslist.com. Its subscription fees vary depending on home region. Membership to the service includes access to the Web site, a monthly magazine, and a phone-in service if you want a staffer to search the site for you. It also offers a complaint-resolution service, where Angie's List personnel will try to help resolve a dispute with a service vendor.
Whereas Consumers' Checkbook is deep with information, Angie's List is wide, covering 120 metropolitan areas and 300 categories of service. Angie's List ratings are based on user reviews. It lists every report online for you to read, rather than only compiling results into ratings. The service does not allow anonymous reporting, it reviews reports that go into the system, and it limits the number of times consumers can report on a company.
A potential drawback is that Angie's List has a relationship with some service providers, including allowing companies to respond to negative user reports and selling highly rated companies the right to offer discount coupons on the site. For usability and credibility, though, Angie's List is superior to free Web sites that offer ratings of service companies.
Free Web sites. The upside of free-ratings Web sites is they don't cost anything. But they are probably the most unreliable too. That's especially true if reviews are anonymous and unregulated. That makes it easy for companies to submit fake positive reviews about themselves or negative reviews of competitors, for example.
Because they're free, however, they're worth checking. But take ratings with a grain of salt. Examples of sites are Yelp.com, CitySearch.com, and AOL Yellow Pages. Service-specific sites include TripAdvisor.com for travel-related reviews, ServiceMagic.com for home improvement, and WebMD.com for medical reviews.
The Franklin Report. Franklinreport.com offers recommended home-improvement providers in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Connecticut-Westchester County, N.Y., and Southeast Florida.
Other good resources include the Better Business Bureau, state licensing agencies, and state and local consumer affairs offices. For some national chain service providers, try sites I already mentioned for products, ConsumerReports.org and ConsumerSearch.com.
To keep it simple, subscribe to Consumers' Checkbook if you live in one of the covered regions. Otherwise, subscribe to Angie's List.