Who You Gonna Call? Ask Angie

By Annie Groer
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 13, 2006

"One of my pet peeves -- and I know this is a generality -- is that in Northern Virginia, customer service is terrible," says Stephen J. Boykin, who has lived in Herndon since 1987. "You call folks, they don't show up."

So on the enthusiastic advice of their daughter in Ohio, Boykin, a Commerce Department program manager, and his wife joined Angie's List when it debuted here in January. They quickly found recommendations for two pressing needs -- a mechanic to service his aging Volvo (Chantilly Automotive) and someone to sell and install Silestone kitchen counters (Home Depot).

Now, he says, "Every time I have a problem, I go to Angie's List."

So who is this Angie, she of the recent radio, TV and newspaper ad blitz promising names of reliable tradespeople in 255 categories, from air-duct cleaners to funeral homes to wrought-iron fabricators? And what is her list?

Angela Hicks, 33, is an Indianapolis entrepreneur with a Harvard MBA who, over the past 11 years, has helped create what she calls a Web-based "homeowners' grapevine." The first was in Columbus, Ohio, where she went door to door in 1995, trolling for subscribers for the venture originally called Columbus Neighbors.

Since then, she and CEO Bill Oesterle have steadily built the online network to about 430,000 members in 53 cities. Washington (15,770 members and 4,756 listed companies) and Baltimore (10,810 members, 4,074 companies) became Nos. 32 and 33 in January; Richmond debuts next month.

Think of Angie's List as a very large community bulletin board where neighbors exchange references and anecdotes about carpenters, roofers, landscapers and appliance stores. Or a household version of Zagat Surveys, those ubiquitous city restaurant guides in which diners praise and pan thousands of eateries.

Users pay $10 to join, plus $6 a month or $51 for a year. The fee includes Web site access ( http://www.angieslist.com/ ) and a local monthly magazine filled with ads for the companies listed. It is mailed to members (the Washington and Baltimore editions arrive next month). There is also a call-in service "if you have water pouring down and can't figure out who you need," she says.

Craig Sterling -- an Oakland, Calif., analyst who tracks ways of bringing consumers and advertisers together online -- calls Angie's List a pioneer in "electronic word of mouth. The online-offline combination is very interesting. This is not a full-fledged community site, but a directory with ratings and reviews that are generally perceived to be unbiased. It's not seeking to be a place where people spend a lot of time and hang out, but is helping you make decisions about finding services."

Now, says Sterling, giant search engines such as Yahoo and Google have created localized sites where people discuss everything from restaurants to travel.

Washington was not virgin territory for consumer help when Angie's List arrived on the scene. Since 1974, the nonprofit Washington Consumers' Checkbook has offered comprehensive surveys and ratings of home services -- dry cleaners, fence builders, plumbers -- as well as doctors, dentists, hospitals, health plans and Lasik eye surgeons.

Checkbook membership fees are considerably lower than Angie's: $34 buys a two-year subscription to the semiannual magazine (the latest arrived last week and carries ratings of 11 service providers, including locksmiths, auto body shops, window installers and tree-care companies). The fee also covers Web site access to http://www.checkbook.org/ . The nonprofit organization, available in seven cities, does not carry ads or accept donations from businesses. There are currently about 40,000 local subscribers.

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