Can Home Services Really Be Uber-ed?

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Over the last several weeks, there’s been an enormous amount of interest in announcements by Amazon and Google about moving into the home services space. The “on-demand” economy seems to be finally descending on one of the oldest of sectors: taking care of your house.

Having led a lead-generation company serving the home services industry for the past 10 years, I’ve read these announcements with great curiosity. How, exactly, are Google and Amazon going to make waves in this notoriously scattered and diffuse marketplace?

After studying it for a while, I don’t know — and I’m not sure they know either. Here’s why: only certain types of home services lend themselves to the kind of on-demand service model that has taken off in so many other industries.

Companies like Rooter-Man and ServiceMaster Restore are ripe for this type of new venture. Rooter-Man fixes clogged toilets, stops frozen pipes, unclogs drains, etc. ServiceMaster Restore cleans up after floods, smoke, or fire damage. They are already — and have long been – 24/7 on-demand services, perfect for the immediacy that Google and Amazon can provide. When your toilet’s overflowing, you want someone to fix the problem NOW – and you likely won’t be picky about who does it.

But things get complicated thereafter – for both the contractors and the big online players of the world.

First, for most home services, “on demand” is just not critical. In fact, many homeowners put careful thought and consideration into who they are going to invite into their home. And then they put even more thought into product, pricing, and the reputation of the provider who is going to replace their windows, or re-shingle their roof.

In short, homeowners don’t “Uber” a $15,000 window replacement job. They don’t contract for a new sunroom on their mobile phone. And they don’t sign on for a $30,000 kitchen remodel without spending hours of real time with a designer and salesperson.

Second, most online services these days consider any contractor who can soil a tissue to be “pre-screened” or “certified.” Truly certifying contractors – and networks of contractors – who can actually handle large home improvement jobs reliably and honestly is a major challenge.

The home improvement market is full of fly-by-nighters, scammers, and less-than-reputable players. I had a client years ago who stopped showing up for jobs because he’d been sentenced to 30 days in jail – without telling his suppliers, customers or, in my case, his lead provider.

Putting together large networks of reputable, high-quality providers is hard work. Not because home improvement companies aren’t dying for good leads. But because providers who can execute for both Amazon, the homeowner, and their own bottom line are a rare breed.

Sure, everyone will line up and salute the big players who have leads – but executing is another story.  It’s going to be much harder than other industries that have already been Uber-ed.

Moreover, home improvement is fundamentally a phone-based business. When you need windows, new garage doors, a kitchen floor or bathroom lighting, you want to talk to someone. On the phone. To discuss products, process and the project.

This phone contact is a key vetting step for homeowners who are often looking at spending five figures, while also allowing total strangers into their homes. And demographically speaking, most homeowners who commission larger renovations are 45+, and aren’t as comfortable with a technology-only process. Of course they want to talk with someone.

The phone is also key to home improvement companies. They need to qualify homeowners, to make sure they are suited for products, that they can send a salesperson to the home, and that they have a reasonable likelihood if successfully selling and completing the project. It’s a multi-step process that’s much more complicated than sending over a cleaning person, or someone to mow a lawn.

This phone step is also where many contractors actually drop the ball. Calling homeowners back, setting appointments, responding to Web inquiries and qualifying leads is a lot of hard work – and as we’ve all experienced from the other side, most home improvement companies do a poor job at this.

But it’s a process that can’t really be automated. When it comes to large-ticket home services items, there’s nothing that beats a great first impression.  And that means talking to a person who knows home improvement.

There’s clearly a role for Google and Amazon in the home services sector – and it could be a big one. But there’s a reason that their announcements to date have been so light on specifics. The home services business will be tougher to Uber than many might think.

Todd-BairstowTodd Bairstow is the Founder and a Partner at Keyword Connects, which specializes in online lead generation for remodelers and home services companies across the country. He is a popular writer and speaker for the home improvement industry and writes a blog that speaks to all things internet- and home improvement-related.