Which? Trusted Traders

As a business owner it’s not unusual to get phone calls offering insurance, SEO services, software, and lots other things that I normally politely decline.  I was surprised, however, to get a cold call the other day from Which, the would-be go-to guide for any payable products and services. They asked if I’d like to get onto their books as a “Trusted Trader.” I would be listed and rated on their website, along with other plumbers local to my Bristol postcode. On the surface this may seem like a win-win; I get more business in Bristol, and customers using the service can be guaranteed that I’m a reputable and quality tradesperson. The conversation, however, left me very dubious as to what difference signing up to this would make to me or my customers, and who would really benefit from it.

Let’s start from the fact that I was cold-called. I did not have to apply or even be recommended by someone. Not only this, but the person on the phone explained that I would probably pass their application process because only 1 out of every 4 tradespeople fail to make the cut. A 75% success rate does not imply quality to me. “Which?” markets itself as a scrupulous consumer guide.  However, I had a quick look at the “trusted plumbers” that they recommend in my post code. There are 45 of them in total. That’s a very high number for just the BS2 area of Bristol. I have personally seen the work of a few of these plumbers, and I would not consider it of the highest calibre. This is bad for customers and also for the industry. What does it say when plumbers who are promoted as being some of the best are actually just anyone in the top 75th percentile? Many people already have the perception that plumbers cut corners and overcharge, and without a more rigorous selection process, is “Which?” fueling this?  Furthermore, does having 45 recommended options to choose from actually make the choice any easier for the customer?

The caller from “Which?” went on to explain that I can pay £70 to go through the selection process, and then £45 per month to be on their books.  This last figure goes up depending on the number of employees I have. At this point I really felt like I was just being sold ad space. The caller even called plumbing a “broken industry,” implying we plumbers needed all the help we could get to grow our businesses. If they are charging plumbers to be on their books, it is in their interest to have as many “trusted tradesmen” as possible.  Hence the high pass rate. It also implies that they want more big companies as they get a higher fee due to the company having more employees. Is there danger here of larger businesses being on the list because of financial gain rather than quality workmanship? I have seen some bigger employers paying their plumbers minimum wage and scheduling them to work incredibly long hours in bad working conditions. Is it a good idea for these types of businesses to be on the “Trusted Tradesmen” list?

Let me make it clear that I am not bitterly slating all internet recommendations. In posting this, I only intend to question the legitimacy of these “trusted” lists. Which(?) is not the only organisation to have this type of set up.  There is Checkatrade, Trustatrader, the AA, RAC, and many others in various industries. I would’t mind if these websites described themselves as what they were: local advertising boards. Businesses need to advertise and when consumers understand that they are looking at a business’s advert they can make an informed decision. I feel it’s a problem, however, when consumers see an advert disguised as a trusted, expert recommendation from an unbiased guide. It seems that with their monthly fee Which? are the only real winners in this scenario. The consumer and the tradesman on the other hand seem to gain very little.