Tradies on the line
Opinions about ‘find-a-tradie’-style website are divided, with devotees and detractors equally firm in their convictions. John Power looks at the advantages and drawbacks of different online job sourcing platforms.
The online review didn’t mince its words: ‘Good for customers. Bad for tradies’. These were the opening remarks about one particular job-sourcing website, as posted by a tradie on the independent review portal ProductReview.com.au, on 5 April 2019.
It’s not difficult to find negative comments from tradies about ‘find-a-tradie’ websites; nor is it difficult, on the other hand, to find extremely positive feedback about solid leads and good business growth. So which opinion is right?
The appropriateness of any given find-a-tradie website is a highly nuanced affair.
At present there are four main find-a-tradie-style websites in Australia: Airtasker, ServiceSeeking, Oneflare and Hipages.
In broad terms, all these sites are matchmakers: customers lodge a description of their job online and, in some cases, a budget or quote range. The website then provides leads for that job to its own database of pre-registered trade businesses servicing that geographical area – then it’s up to the trade business to pursue the lead, if desired, and win the job. All these sites operate nationally and avow customer numbers in the tens of thousands per month.
NB: The above websites each have different business structures: ServiceSeeking requires its registered trade businesses to pay ongoing monthly fees; others, such as Hipages and Oneflare, operate primarily on a ‘pay per lead’ basis; Airtasker, on the other hand, does not involve any ongoing fees or ‘pay per lead’ costs, but instead charges a flat 15% commission on completed jobs. For a detailed overview of the main features of each website, see Table 1.
Clearly, the various find-a-tradie platforms available in Australia differ in fundamental ways, and the appropriateness (or otherwise) of any given model for trade businesses gets very complicated very quickly, depending on considerations like:
- Nature of the trade business – is the trade business dependent on large volumes of leads (handyman, small painting tasks, etc), or low volumes of leads (specialist water engineering services, top-end architectural glazing, etc)?
- Demography – is the trade business operating in a low- or high-density catchment? Does the local catchment feature mainly new or old building stock, with high or low owner occupancy levels?
- Job complexity – are customers likely to present realistic job descriptions and have credible pricing expectations?
- Job costs – are average job costs small (hundreds of dollars) or high (many thousands of dollars)?
- Work demand – is the trade business seeking year-round or only intermittent work from the website?
- Tradie capability – is the tradie capable of rapidly evaluating leads, and confident enough to make a professional pitch for work? With these criteria in mind, let’s take a closer look at each of the four major providers.
Established: 2011 | Staff: 120
BMH says: “Airtasker enables me to reach more customers easily and be assured of work that is accepted and payments for that work. I use Airtasker for top up work when my regular work is slow. I have found it to be really effective.” 5/5 stars
Shadzo says: “I joined Airtasker 1+ years ago as a professional tradesperson with employees. Unskilled, unqualified people are allowed to bid on the rubbish on offer. I really feel for customers when they get absolute rubbish work from people on this site. It is a joke.” 1/5 star
As noted above, Airtasker is the only commission-based website operating in this sector. Typically, a consumer posts a task description and proposed fee/budget on the site and invites all relevant registered businesses in the area to respond. Once tradies have expressed interest in the job, the customer then chooses their referred business and makes an escrow payment to Airtasker. Following completion of the job, the tradie makes on online request for payment and the customer then releases the funds, minus 15% commission to Airtasker.
“Assessing the appropriateness of any given find-a-tradie website is a highly nuanced affair”
The deficiencies of this process in relation to the professional trade sector are easy to spot. It’s not always easy to establish an appropriate service fee before a tradie actually inspects a job. Of course, reliable cost estimates might be quite straightforward for certain simple tasks, particularly those that are effectively ‘build to a budget’ projects; however, more specialised tasks involving plumbing or electrical repairs, for instance, are virtually impossible for lay customers to diagnose or price effectively. Also, dispute resolution arising from differences between upfront quotes and final (postinspection) cost estimates are far from
clear: for instance, what if a customer has no capacity/intention to pay for a job that turns out to have a higher complexity and cost than originally described? The tradie might have to abandon the job without compensation of any kind – a wasteful outcome that might have been avoided if there had been some mechanism or better tradie-customer communication upfront.
Another problem relates to ‘wink-wink, nod-nod’ lead selection, whereby a tradie might accept a ridiculously lowcost lead based on an assumption that a fairer cash-in-hand price will be negotiated privately with the client later, thus minimising the commission paid to Airtasker (seemingly a win-win result for both the customer and the tradie, but hardly the basis for a reliable business dealing).
Overall, one might describe Airtasker as suitable for exotic, low-budget, easy-to-price, small jobs of the ‘cash in hand’ variety.
Most recently though, a $100,000 fine was issued by the Brisbane Magistrates Court to a Queenslander who posed as an electrician on Airtasker.
From November 2015 to June 2017, Amilcar Appel advertised his electrical services on Airtasker to residents of the greater Brisbane area.
After a licensed electrician made a complaint regarding Amilcar’s defective work to the Electrical Safety Office (ESO), an investigation was conducted and the results established that Amilcar had conducted similar non-compliant electrical work in eight other properties of which he was not qualified to perform in any way.
Amilcar, who failed to make an appearance in court, was convicted and ordered to pay a $100,000 fine for 13 offences under the Electrical Safety Act 2002.
Established: 2007 | Staff: 27
Brody says: “Came across the site by chance. After getting a great result … I would recommend to anyone.” 5/5 stars
John says: “Good for customers. Bad for tradies. In the process of launching legal action against ServiceSeeking for theft and misrepresentation. These people owe me a lot of money.” 1/5 stars
Established over a decade ago, ServiceSeeking is the only membership fee-based portal in this sector. The portal services a wide variety of industry sectors, including trades: “We think a membership fee model is the fairest way of charging tradies; they like certainty, they like to quote on everything (they don’t like to pick and choose), and it’s a fact of life they like cash payment,” says ServiceSeeking chief executive Jeremy Levitt.
“In total we’ve got just under 200,000 businesses registered, and on a monthly basis we get around 3,500 new business registrants.”
The portal has handled over 4 million online job listings since inception, Jeremy says, and over the past year the number of registered trade businesses has tripled.
Most registered businesses, Jeremy says, have fewer than five staff, and there is a monthly churn of 5%–10%, which Jeremy attributes to the natural volatility of small (often unskilled) businesses.
The ServiceSeeking methodology is clearcut: customers lodge an online job description on the ServiceSeeking platform. Leads are then sent to all relevant tradies in that geographical area, and it’s up to each trade businesses to lodge indicative quotes and hopefully win the job. It’s up to the trade business to perform the job satisfactorily without any further intervention from ServiceSeeking, and to handle their own invoicing. There are no caps on the number of tradies who might respond to a lead, and no caps on the number of quotes or expressions of interest received by the customer.Approximately one in three jobs listed on the portal results ina business being hired.
“We’ve got the highest liquidity in this space – our average number of quotes per job is 12,” Jeremy explains.
Different styles of membership are available to tradies, with monthly fees averaging $50.
“We’ve got different [membership] levels, like entry and then premium and master, depending on what features you want and how you want your leads developed. Memberships also vary in price according to likely demand, and might be as low as $10 per month for low-volume specialist trades like bamboo flooring, etc.”
In addition to monthly fees (no exit fees), trade businesses are welcome to take out annual memberships in return for a 20% discount – no refunds. Jeremy says approximately 40% of trade businesses opt for annual memberships.
The ServiceSeeking model, we might conclude, suits high-volume trade businesses that depend on steady streams of small jobs. The ongoing membership model might appeal to tradies who want to use online lead generation as a primary – or at least substantial – part of their business in a busy catchment. The uncapped, competitive nature of ServiceSeeking’s lead distribution and response model means this service might suit fast-acting, online-savvy professionals with good communication skills.
However, the company did land in Federal Court for allegedly engaging in misleading conduct relating to customer reviews.
From July 2016, the platform’s ‘Fast Feedback’ feature allowed trade businesses to use a template form to write their own reviews and choose a star rating after completing a job, which was then emailed to the customer.
If the customer did not respond to a business’ self-written review within three days, the review was automatically published under the business’ profile on ServiceSeeking.com.au.
The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) alleges Service Seeking’s ‘Fast Feedback’ feature breached the Australian Consumer Law (ACL) by misleading consumers, as at least 80% of ‘Fast Feedback’ reviews were not written or approved by customers.
Established: 2012 | Staff: 262
Aussie_Cameron says: “I’m a plumber and used Oneflare since it began 7/8 years ago. The app is easy to use and compared to other sites, it’s easily the best job service provider on the market. Job leads always pretty good and fair dinkum.” 5/5 stars
Bill says: “Might be good for the customer but it comes at a big price for the trades that answer the job. Costs a minimum $26 for each person just to answer the ad, but sometimes the customer won’t answer the phone, reply to emails or the job wasn’t as described. Customers need to be aware that it isn’t a free service.” 1/5 star
Since its creation in 2012 in Sydney, Oneflare has grown year on year, and now handles 60,000 listed jobs per month across approximately 300 business categories, including trades. Unlike ServiceSeeking, Oneflare operates mostly on a ‘pay per lead’ basis, whereby trade businesses pay a fee to receive full contact details for each job lead they wish to pursue. Payment for a lead, as it sounds, represents an opportunity to make a pitch to the customer for that particular job; it is no guarantee of work.
Costs per lead start at $6 each and rise according to ballpark job value, location, and other metrics. Trade businesses can also opt to take out subscriptions starting at $49 per month, which include additional exposure through online directories, and also include up to 30% discounts on lead costs.
“The important thing about our subscriptions is there are no lock-ins, you can always cancel with no exit fees,” says Oneflare chief executive Billy Tucker.
What are the advantages of a ‘pay per lead’ job sourcing service?
“We find successful business’ calendars fill up nicely, so quite often they have a gap emerge and they’re looking for a very specific type of job,” Billy says.
“So they don’t want a relationship with a new builder who’s got a whole series of homes under construction, they just want a consumer who’s willing to pay a premium to get something done… With a pay-per-lead model you offer the greatest ability to choose exactly the nature of work that fits your current portfolio perfectly.”
The same rationale makes the service ideal for tradies seeking seasonal work – the tradie pays for the service only when it is needed.
Another vital point of difference relates to capped lead numbers. Once a job is listed online, all relevant trade businesses have an equal opportunity to pay for and pursue the lead; however, the service is capped at three trade businesses (first in, best dressed) per lead, unless the customer wants more. There are several reasons for capping the number, Billy says. Not only does it limit the amount of administrative work for the tradie, but it also increases the odds of success in line with busy customers’ real-life preferences for speedy, no nonsense attention – rarely does a customer need more than three quotes to make a decision, Billy says: “We don’t think it makes sense to leave jobs open for protracted periods while businesses trickle in with responses.”
At any given time there might be 10,000 active businesses vying for work on the Oneflare platform, he adds, and most tend to “stick around”.
We might conclude, generally speaking, that this service is geared towards higher-value jobs, which might reduce the cumulative cost impacts of failed leads.
Oneflare is partly owned by Fairfax’s Domain Group, after a $15 million investment in 2016 secure the organisation a 35% ownership stake.
Established: 2004 | Staff: Unknown
Ronnie says: “Hipages is excellent. I haven’t used much, but when I do, I am more than happy.” 5/5 stars
Adrian says: “You get nothing but 90% dud calls, people wasting your time using you for quotes, changing/reducing quotes when you’ve paid full price for the lead, and worst of all as soon as you advertise on Hipages you get inundated with a storm of telemarketers for websites and community organisations asking for your money.” 1/5 stars
Unlike the other portals listed above, Hipages deals only with trade businesses, using a ‘pay per lead’ model very similar to Oneflare’s.
Its reputation is for slightly higher costs per lead, servicing a mostly serious customer base. We sought information from Hipages for this article – no response. owever, a call to a sales representative revealed that the portal, like Oneflare, offers a suite of subscription options to trade businesses. These start at $69 per month, extending all the way up to $900 per month, and include credit on future lead payments. Typical leads might cost in the order of $10–$36.
Like Oneflare, the portal has a cap (3–5) on the number of leads per job that its trade business registrants might buy. We might assume its merits are similar to Oneflare’s, i.e. it might suit professional, highly selective tradies wanting to cherry-pick intermittent or seasonal work in average-volume professions.
In 2018, Hipages announced a national partnership with Bunnings to deliver a new installation service.
Making access to licensed tradies easier and offering customers a solution for installing a toilet suite at a fixedprice, the service is now available at all Bunnings stores around the country.
Those wanting to access the service simply add a Hipages toilet installation voucher at the checkout when purchasing a toilet at a Bunnings Warehouse store. A time is then organised, either online or via a self-serve kiosk desk, with a Hipages plumber to install the toilet and dispose of the old unit.
Customer reviews are a major feature (albeit contentious) of find-a-tradie websites. These reviews serve a complex purpose, helping tradies to shore up a bank of (hopefully favourable) customer reviews, which might help them stand out from the crowd and win more business. A long and current review profile, we should add, encourages trade businesses to focus on one website, rather than dilute their presence over multiple platforms.
Trade businesses that are adept at winning positive public feedback – through swift communication, well developed quotes, timely completion of jobs, as well as reasonable pricing (not the cheapest, not the priciest, but somewhere in the middle) – will perform best on digital job sourcing platforms.
Finally, it pays to look at independent reviews of the websites themselves on portals like ProductReview.com.au. For example, Billy Tucker at Oneflare says he was gratified recently to see that his service went 35 consecutive days without a single negative review on ProductReview, during which time there were 200 different pieces of feedback.
Overall, find-a-tradie websites are like a pair of overalls – either they fit or they don’t. At a basic level, the success of a trade business using online job sourcing might depend on the raw salesmanship of the tradie, or their ability to spot potentially lucrative jobs based on sometimes meagre details, rather than the structure of the find-a-tradie website. The only way to find out if it’s the right fit is to test the waters with an entry-level registration.