Thursday, January 30, 2014

Review of the Website

For a few months, Cramer Imaging has been working with a website called  The whole point of this website is to join customers needing a service with vendors who provide that service.  If you are a customer and you have a job that needs to be completed, the idea is that you submit your job as a lead on this website and local businesses providing that service will see your lead and bid on your job.  The competing merchants do not get to see each others' bids or even who else it bidding for the job.  This is designed to give the customer the best possible options.  It's a bit like that Lending Tree commercial where "the banks come crawling to me."  That is the general idea anyways.

The vendor side of things looks different.  A merchant can select what kinds of leads he or she views based upon what services his or her business offers.  Many websites of this caliber will not let you contact the customer submitting a lead unless you have a paid subscription, usually a year at a time.  Thumbtack is different as they let you pay for the particular lead you want or buy credits in bulk, which means this idea might be patented.  In order to bid, a business must purchase a certain number of credits, at $1.67 a credit.  These credits are your site currency to use in exchange for submitting a job quote or bid.  Most portrait jobs are a minimum of 3 credits and weddings are based on the client's budget but usually start out at 4 credits and go up to 9 easily.  Bulk rates are slightly cheaper deals per credit.

Thumbtack does not require you to have a subscription.  If the client does not view your quote within 48 hrs, then your credits are automatically refunded even if the customer views your quote just outside of that window.  After a quote is submitted, it is up to the client to decide which business to hire for the job.  Any communication is between the customer and the chosen merchant.  If there is a lack of information or more clarification needed, there is a free public question forum to ask for more information.  There is even a built-in review system to rate both the vendor and the customer.  Again, this is the general idea.

Based on this description, it sounds like Thumbtack would be an ideal resource for certain types of businesses to find lots of solid leads and be hired for multiple jobs.  This is why we initially investigated the website further and joined.  Cramer Imaging has successfully bid on 3 different jobs over the past few months out of about 20-23 leads bid on.  These jobs have resulted in some good business for the company.  That cannot be mistaken or understated.  However, some of Thumbtack's policies have noticeably have changed lately and not for the better.

In an effort to get members to use the pay-per-lead system, Thumbtack offered some free credits to us.  Using these credits, we learned how to bid.  Once the free credits ran out, we tried a few paid bids, succeeding with 1 out of 4.  Knowing how expensive submitting numerous unfruitful quotes can be, we decided to try the public questions in order to learn which leads were serious customers and weed out the non-responsive leads.  This is when we ran into issues.

Public questions we submitted were being edited or deleted altogether by the moderators.  The reasons given did not always make sense.  Every time that a moderator alters or removes a public question, there is an explanation in the email pointing you to their guidelines for public questions.  We were careful to make sure we followed all those listed.

The problems really started coming when questions were being removed for unlisted reasons.  For example, Thumbtack will no longer allow a vendor to ask a potential wedding/event client where the wedding/event is supposed to take place without first submitting a quote.  This is not, however, currently listed as prohibited conversation on their guidelines.  It seems to us, as merchants, that this is an important piece of information to communicate to any event specialty professional whether they be a photographer or a caterer.  Thumbtack's reasoning is that they do not want to make couples feel bad who have not chosen a venue yet.  This was their answer to our inquiry about deleting just such a question.  They stated that it was a new policy but it has as yet to show up on their public questions guidelines section.  This is a huge inconvenience for us as vendors.  Thumbtack is also failing to consider that there could easily be merchants with religious prohibitions who need to know whether a wedding is being held in the house of worship for another faith.  Orthodox Jews and Muslims have just this type of prohibition in their respective faiths.  Neither can enter the worship house of another faith without polluting themselves.

The problems are continuing.  Using the public questions to screen out the serious clients has worked for a couple of months but has ceased to work as of late.  The reason for this is that the moderators are deleting practically any questions that we post.  The reason given is often that the question "doesn't address the customer's needs" without any further explanation.  The customers never see the questions if deleted by moderators.  The moderators aren't even being consistent when giving reasons either.  The exact same question has been deleted for different reasons.  We are being left with little alternative than to pass on any leads or to spend money in the hopes that the lead was generated by a serious customer.  Many times, the client is one who will view the quote once within the 48 hr window and take no further action, even when we happen to be the only bidder on the job.  The money paid is completely wasted.  Yes, we do have to expect that any money spent on advertizing is a complete loss; however, the design of this site is supposed to alleviate some of that problem.  That was the general idea anyways.

We are told, in any email informing us about a public question deletion, that we can inquire about why our question was removed.  We have challenged 2 such removals.  The responses are not prompt.  In both cases, the response arrived several days after the lead has already expired.  The tardiness in moderator response does not assist in us crafting a better public question nor does it inspire us to part with money for advertizing on a quote when we don't know specifically what we did wrong.  We have often forgotten about the issue being addressed when the answer arrives.  Each time it is accompanied by an apology about how late the response is.  That doesn't help matters when we must remind ourselves of the context of our complaint in order to understand the email.

A quick search of the internet for other reviews on the site has netted many people who are complaining about many such similar situations.  The San Fransisco Better Business Bureau website, as of a few days ago, had no less than 69 closed complaints about Thumbtack for various reasons.  These are generally along the lines of dirty or unethical business practices.  One such complaint is that Thumbtack and/or its employees are submitting fake leads in order to solicit bids off of member vendors.  To be fair, this would be an unethical business practice which would run the company out of business if it were true and documented.  Thumbtack denies that any such activity is taking place.

We begin to suspect that, while claiming such unethical practices are not occurring, false leads might be generated by lower members of the company without the knowledge or consent of the senior management.  Worse would be that the company is lying about its business practices.  We make no such claims that Thumbtack is deliberately generating false leads with the intent to deceive honest businessmen and pocket the money for their credits.  We also make no claims of any similar nature either.  However, in light of these accusations on the part of others, it puts a few things into perspective for us.

Assuming that Thumbtack is engaging in the unethical business practice of submitting fake leads to its clients, then some of our previous claims then make sense.  One example is the sudden ban on vendors asking clients what venue an event is to be held in.  Local businesses would know the locations and contact information for the most popular event venues.  They would be able to check for reservations.  A fake lead generator would not want to create such a reservation, often requiring a sizable deposit, just for $15 or so of credits from a handful of member merchants.  The reservation deposit would eat up a sizable chunk of that profit and may even surpass that amount of money.

This also addresses why public questions are being so heavily moderated.  Any question, whose answer might expose a false lead, is deleted.  It might even be deleted by the very individual submitting the fake job for hire.  The explanation to a challenge would be less than satisfactory and might even be many days late in arriving while the moderator thinks up some excuse to seem plausible.  In short, we do not accuse Thumbtack of such bad business practice but their behavior towards us suggests the possibility of such.

A new twist is that Thumbtack is now, as of January, not allowing merchants to cancel a quote that is unanswered.  A vendor's options have been reduced to the "hired" button only, something not usable in the majority of quotes submitted as the quotes are generally unanswered.  Vendors are forced to cancel quotes using the conversation window instead of a simple cancel button (not performing job button).  Submitting a quote has become far more of a risk as all a merchant can do is indicate he has been hired and can only update the quote to reflect the current price.  As merchants, it is a liability to leave a bunch of quotes with potential customers who do not immediately use them with no possibility of expiring the quote.  This is highly irresponsible of Thumbtack given their mission statement of trying to aid in growing businesses.

Recommendation: We do NOT recommend as a website to any new businesses.  They have some serious policy issues which are hindering the proper exchange of information between legitimate clients and vendors.  Some leads may not even be legitimate.  For the volume of business you get based on the money you spend, there are better avenues especially if you do business in an area of high population density.  If Thumbtack were to change some of these practices, we would consider changing our recommendation.

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