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Living Up to Your Online Reputation

Season 1: Episode 12


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Some businesses are centered around a great product. Others are about dependability, reliability, and honesty. A great locksmith focuses on the latter. This week, we talk with Jay Stofer, founder and CEO of NYC business, Lockbusters, who knows that his reputation is everything. Find out how he earns his exceptional reputation and what others can learn from it.

On the Yelp Blog: Get Jay’s top tips for building a solid reputation that keeps customers coming back.

CHARLOTTE: When you have big purchases in life, you remember the people who helped make it happen. Any experiences that you had—whether they were scary or really frightening—that just stays to your core. And that time, because I had some of these experiences occur in other cities that I’ve lived in and then moving to New York, which is the largest city I’ve ever lived in, it was one of those days where I needed somebody right away, and they showed up, and it was just, I still remember it. I still remember opening up the door, and my apartment wasn’t renovated at the time, he came in, where he put his toolbox. I remember it vividly only because of that situation and because he was so calm during it.

EMILY: That’s Charlotte. She’s telling me about an experience she had with New York locksmith Jay Sofer. She had just bought her first place, and her building super had been entering her unit without permission. When I read that in her review and talked to Charlotte in our interview, I was shocked to hear the story. I just couldn’t believe that would happen! But of course, Jay told me it happens all the time. Before we dive in, I want to take a moment to tell you all about the first time I met Jay. I had known about him and his business since my early days at Yelp in 2014. His business took off on our platform back in 2008 simply because of his integrity and the exceptional service he provided to people who were in some pretty unfortunate situations. He wasn’t your typical locksmith. The way he made customers feel caused a natural cascade of online reviews. He was communicative, honest, and fair. He wowed people, and they couldn’t help but share that experience with everyone they knew. I had the great pleasure of interviewing Jay in front of our San Francisco employees back in 2017. He came to Yelp HQ to share how reviews and his digital presence allowed him to develop from a guy making ends meet through a trade he learned growing up to a guy running an extremely successful and well-known business serving the greater New York area.

Jay and I have worked on a handful of projects together over the past few years. Our biggest collaboration, though, started back in 2019, when the editor-in-chief of Entrepreneur Magazine, Jason Feifer, locked himself out of his downtown office. He hopped on Yelp and connected with Jay! Jay came to the rescue, and in the process, a relationship sparked. Jason invited Jay onto his show Problem Solvers to talk about Jay’s business.

So much of his story is how his services inspired customers to head to Yelp and share how great he was. That got Jason’s wheels turning—what about a show for entrepreneurs with takeaways and learnings through the lens of reviews. Long story short, Jay put me in touch with Entrepreneur, and about eight months later, the first episode of Behind the Review went live! So all of that to say, Jay here is the real reason this podcast exists. He’s a business owner with charisma, heart and has a real way with people. So much can be learned from his business development and the way he runs Lockbusters, regardless of industry. I’m so excited for you to hear his story as well as how Charlotte was able to achieve safety and peace of mind in her new home.

Let’s start with her review.

CHARLOTTE: The reviews speak for themselves. All it took was a simple message to Jay and a photo of my door lock. I moved into a new condo and needed my locks changed ASAP since my super kept coming into my unit without my permission. This was for my personal safety and comfort.

Jay quoted me the exact price. No hidden fees. And he showed up professionally and got the job done, no loud noises or drilling required. I paid with my credit card, and it was a seamless transaction. I will only resort to him for any future lock issues, A plus plus plus plus plus.

EMILY: Quoted the exact price. No hidden fees. Showed up professionally and got the job done. These seem like pretty low standards of excellence, but they make a difference. I asked Charlotte to take me back to the point when she was deciding between multiple options and how she knew that Jay was the best choice.

CHARLOTTE: Yelp has this feature where, on some accounts, it tells you they’re quick respondents or how quickly they respond. So if I saw that green light next to their profile, I would message them quicker because I would think they would get back to me sooner. Some of them, I just called right away. I was on hold for some of them for quite a bit. And then when I did get ahold of some of them, they quoted me. I would just jot it down on my phone really quickly, and I would say, okay, great, thanks. I’ll get back to you.  Some of them were just really vague because they said, we’re not sure how long it’ll take for us to get there. It could be 45 minutes to two hours. This is the quote. So I was just thinking, I don’t want to commit to somebody if they’re not going to show up for another two hours, and it was pretty late already.

So I just figured, let me hop around just to see what everyone’s offering. But Jay, for some reason, right away—because he texted me—he asked for the photos. He got me the numbers right away. And then the timeframe, I just felt like, okay, I didn’t even have to retell him a lot of the same stuff that I was telling everyone over and over. He knew it. He knew what kind of questions to ask right away. So I just felt a sense of comfort.

EMILY: Jay’s friendly and direct approach has a lot to do with his personality, but it’s also the business model that boomed for him during the recession, and because it’s rooted in trust and honesty, it’s continued to serve him into the 2020s.

JAY: I went from having no intention of starting a business—this was really just to make ends meet. The goal was to get back into school, was to have enough money to hopefully rent a room, and then get, just get back on my feet, and the recession had other plans for me.

Yelp had other plans for me too, and I started getting reviewed a lot, right? And this happened so organically. The business model I had, unbeknownst to me, was actually perfect for the recession. A lot of people were broke. Things still happen, like they always do with the movement of the city. People accidentally lose their keys, get locked out, leave their bag or jacket at a restaurant or bar, kick out a crazy ex, have a creepy super walk in, you know, so like all the ebb and flow of what happens in the city. However we’re at a time where people just can’t afford to be ripped off, they can’t afford anything less than a perfectly transparent service.

And this is an industry that does not have that. So people really appreciated that.

EMILY: Now I have to say, it’s not as simple as just not ripping off your customers. There’s some “bedside manner” required in being a locksmith. And without it, you may never reach “Jay level,” if you will. Let’s take Charlotte’s experience, for example. She had just bought her first place in a building in New York City that had a doorman, a super, and rules. Service providers could only come between 9-5 and the building had to be notified. But in Charlotte’s situation, all of that had to go out the window, and she needed a service provider who would be on her side.

CHARLOTTE: When I would come back from work into my apartment, either the toilet lid would be lifted or there were marks on the towel, like black marks. I was like, wait, this is not me. This is not how I left it. So I went to the doorman downstairs, and I asked, did somebody come into my apartment? And he said, yeah, we had the super come in. He had to fix something. I believe the apartment below or above you had some plumbing issues. So I thought to myself, well, why wasn’t I told? So here I am thinking, okay, I’ve lived in different cities before, and I’ve had crazy experiences—one in Philadelphia where the doorman decided he could just knock on my door, and he used his keys to come in. So I’ve had safety concerns before. So what do I do? I go on Yelp, and I just start looking for people who can change the locks because I feel like the previous owner never changed the locks, and the supers are supposed to always have a copy of your key. But no, I am not going to get them a copy of my keys. I am going to change the lock completely.

JAY: First, I appreciate people’s caution. I see people in really volatile and vulnerable situations, like sometimes after they’d been robbed. In her case, it was illegally entering your apartment. That’s not a very good feeling. So people are pretty cautious and on edge. And I appreciate that—it’s my job, you hired me—I’m the guy that’s going to help you.

I need to come across as that person—let me help you. You hired me, you chose me because you read good things about me. There are literally a thousand other people you could have hired. Right? So I already appreciate that. And that’s awesome. You also hired me because you read about what other people have wrote about me. So there’s an expectation there. So the things that seem monumental, that are enough to encourage someone to write something nice about me, to motivate something nice about me. I’m happy to do that. It’s not a big deal for me. You know, I’ll throw on another sweater that doesn’t have a locksmith logo. I have a bag for these things.

EMILY: Jay got the job done, but more than that, he was on Charlotte’s side! She’s the customer, and her safety is his top priority. Jay understands and acknowledges that emotions are high when changing the locks is involved. His communication, transparency, and caring attitude create a memorable experience that blows the customer away.

Let’s go back to the initial contact Charlotte made with the company for a minute. Jay stood out because he texted Charlotte, asked her for pictures of the lock and told her he could arrive quickly. I asked Jay about how he manages incoming requests and has the ability to provide this transparent communication in an efficient manner.

JAY: One of the most obvious ones is that smartphone technology just completely changed my business. So this is a real fun fact about Lockbusters, right? So I started the company with an AT&T prepaid GoPhone. No email. I don’t even think I could text on that. I mean, it was literally the size of a brick. And I would go and wait in a Kmart line to put 10 bucks at a time on it. I didn’t even know when I was reviewed because you know, there’s no email. And the now smartphone technology comes out. Originally I had a Blackberry. And I’m lightning fast with email, and people responded really well to that. They were actually really happy about being able to email, and that’s come up in reviews.

I mean, could you believe how extraordinary that is, Emily? That I get positive reviews because I can answer an email? All right. But there was part of the reason why that was right. And this is the second part of your question, right? So I can be transparent on all of these different avenues of communication.

I could be transparent with you through text messages. And now with smartphones, video imaging, all that stuff, I can be transparent through email, and you can attach a picture to that. I know that you can—I might not be able to so well—but I definitely know that you can. And also over the phone, if you want to call, no problem, but once the smartphone technology came out, it’s literally now divided into thirds. A third of people will call me. A third of people text me. A third of people email me. And if I’m able to literally communicate that I’m a human and like, let me go ahead and see what your problem is. Let’s tease out the situation. People appreciate that transparency.

So maybe the bar is set low. Maybe people just don’t give a damn, which is kind of what I think. And they intentionally try to keep things vague. That’s my deep opinion on that. So, I think that’s what comes across is that my goal is to be as transparent as possible with you. My goal is, let’s make sure I’m the right fit for you. And we can figure all of that out through a text message. How cool is that?

So she was comfortable enough with what I wrote. I was able to comply with some pretty easy things, you know, like, don’t wear a Lockbusters shirt. Sure. I’ve got my Led Zepplin shirt on. Is that going to work?

EMILY: The evolution of how Jay communicates with potential customers is really interesting to me. Notice how he mentioned that as soon as email was available, customers loved that? He was an early adopter of using email as a method of communication, and many customers preferred it! Similar to how many of us prefer text or a messaging function today, as opposed to getting on the phone. But even that’s generational. The power of the smartphone allowed Jay to break his customers into three different channels. They pick which method works for them, but as long as he’s available on that little thing in his pocket and prepared to be transparent, the rest is handled by his skill and his smile. It also allows Jay to stay accessible and available while he’s on the go. He can service existing customers and not miss a beat when new requests come in.

I want to shift gears slightly and talk about some philanthropy that Jay does, in the name of Lockbusters.

JAY: As soon as I could afford it, I was donating my tips to local animal shelters. So I knew of a couple. It was like five bucks here and there. I remember the one shelter in the East Village. They would literally put like sticky notes on their window saying like what they need. Like they need clean linens, they need cleaning material. They need kitty litter, maybe some wet food, things like that. And whenever I had like the extra five or 10 bucks, I would buy those things and bring it over to them.

EMILY: Jay got pretty involved with these shelters. He ended up adopting a dog from one, and they had five great years together. After his dog passed away, he wanted to donate his belongings to a shelter, which is when he discovered Sugar Mutts Rescue.

JAY: I walk in there heartbroken, giving my dog stuff back. I immediately met Amy Marciano, the founder of Sugar Mutts Rescue. And I just say like, hey, this is what I do, and I’m here to help, whatever you want. And she’s like, great! That needs some fixing. So I would go in there, and I get to walk dogs and, you know, occasionally, put a mop on something a dog did, fix up the doors, and it just healed my heart, you know?

EMILY: Donating tips quickly turned into donating jobs. Jay’s business had grown, and one night after a really long and crappy day, he met a woman around midnight to let her into her place after being locked out. While she and Jay were talking, she shared that it was her first day volunteering at a non-profit, reading books to children at a homeless shelter. Jay was so moved and inspired by that, he told her the job was free of charge. He just asked that she donate what she would have paid Jay to Sugar Mutts. Jay told me it was just one of those times where everything had been going wrong for him and his customer, but he wanted to do something positive to end the day. And it ended up getting him incredible feedback online!

JAY: Now it’s at the point where I realize how I can bring my clients into helping Sugar Mutts together. I’m like, you know what, let’s donate a large portion of this job, or let’s donate the entire job to them. Sometimes it’s the last job of the day. Sometimes it’s the first job of the day. Other times it’s for good clients that have become friends. I’m like, listen, why don’t we just focus on whatever this project is. Let’s just come up with a number and give it all to Sugar Mutts. Or what really gets the most traction is when something extra would come up on the job—like we agreed on something through email, text message, and we get to the project, and there’s just something else that came up, something else that broke. I don’t like to say, oh hey, because this happened, now I have to charge you an extra service charge. That’s kinda ugly. So instead I’m like, you know something, this did come up, it needs to be fixed, but I don’t feel comfortable charging for this. Instead, can you donate a portion of this to the shelter? People are so happy to do it that they’ll literally donate extra, you know, by an order of magnitude. I’m like, if you want to just throw 50 bucks, they’ll go, I’m going to give a hundred. I had a rescue dog. And then they’re vocal about it online on top of it.

EMILY: I absolutely love Jay’s giveback mentality because it just further illustrates what a wonderful person he is. But as a takeaway, this concept is also valuable. Remember when Charlotte said Jay quoted her the exact price? Yes, sure, he asked for a picture and has lots of experience in the trade, so he can make accurate estimates. But he also sticks to his estimates. If something else comes up on the job, he doesn’t change the price on his customer. He explains what happened, that another expense was incurred, and then he asks them to donate the difference to a great cause. This allows him to keep his word, support a place that’s important to him, and continue to build goodwill with his customers—both between them and also translated online. People love being part of a good cause, and Jay loves expanding the support he can provide Sugar Mutts.

Let’s dig in a bit more on people sharing their Lockbusters experiences online. I asked Charlotte what motivates her to review.

CHARLOTTE: I just think it’s something that I owe to the Yelp community and the business as well. I know a lot of businesses are, especially now during COVID, they’re really trying their best to remain open, or they’re trying to cooperate with state or city guidelines. So for me, if I try a new place, I love to take photos. I’ll share them with either my friends who are also from the same area to say, hey, you really need to check this place out, and then I like to leave a review. I think leaving a quick review, like A+ great, is just so general. I really love to get into the experience because I try to picture myself as a person who is scrambling and looking at the reviews for some options. And I think of myself in their place, like what would they think? Are they looking for something that’s trustworthy? Are they looking for something based on price? I factor that into there as well all the time. So I kind of factor a little bit of everything in there, considering who’s going to be viewing it.

EMILY: And reviews mean so much to business owners as well as consumers.

JAY: Reviews meant everything to me. It’s what has made me relevant in business, has made me a relevant human being. I started dead broke in my mom’s garage, and if it wasn’t for people sharing their experience that they’ve had with me online, I don’t know where I’d be. It completely changed the course of my life, you know?  I mean, a review is just the most incredible endorsement about the best part of your business practice put in front of an entire ecosystem. This is a client sharing their experience that they had with you. And it’s just the most impactful thing that’s ever happened. It gets better and better.

I have the same enthusiasm every time I see a 5-star review ding as when I saw the first few ding, and it’s just always this elated feeling. I can’t wait to read it. I do respond as often as I can. I tend to respond privately. I don’t have a ton of negative reviews, but I usually respond to those publicly.

EMILY: To close out, I wanted to let Jay expand a bit on the negative reviews. The day I’m writing this episode, Jay has 497 reviews. Only six of them are one star. One of them is two stars. But that’s not to say negative experiences don’t happen.

JAY: I don’t have a lot of negative reviews. I think part of that is because I just try to keep an open line of communication with the client, and they tend to value that. So if there is a problem, we could reconcile it because there’s just an open line of communication. And believe me, I’ve made a lot of mistakes, you know, I’ve screwed up on jobs. I’ve had to come back. I wasn’t always at my best, and that’s part of it. I think people appreciate you coming back and fixing something as much as they appreciate you getting it right the first time—I’m not kidding. I mean, that’s just from my experience in business. I’ve never had someone get mad at me for coming back promptly to fix a mistake. Let’s put it that way.

In fact, the other way around, I’ve literally had people review me that when there was a problem, they were able to communicate with me right away and set up a time immediately to come back. So if you can funnel any complaints into an open line of communication, I think people are more inclined to use that rather than go public and say how crappy you are. I think people are more inclined to go public to say how good you are and to generally try to find more direct means of communication to reconcile any problem.

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