The Angry Plumber: ‘Don’t Misappropriate My Online Listing!’

A flurry of business lead services have cropped up, each a variation on the model that has been successfully developed by ServiceMagic and others. They basically provide a directory, information, leads and marketing services.

One of the new crop of lead services is HelpHive in Seattle, which recently launched and was profiled here. It provides a basic directory. It also provides several tiers of SMB services (including customizeable home pages, leads, SEO, multiple ways of contacting businesses, and free video).

HelpHive, however, has inadvertently brewed some controversy by putting in a dedicated phone number for EVERY business listed – not just those that opt-in to its system. Evan Conklin, who owns a plumbing and heating service, is absolutely furious at the practice, and has been venting at the company via calls for class action suits, letters to government officials and bloggers like me.

Conklin raises some important points about the practice of building an alternative directory with proxy phone numbers that might be used as a substitute for “neutral” Yellow Pages. Here is the gist of them.

1- HelpHive uses an SMB’s trademark without permission.
2- The customer may think that HelpHive’s dedicated telephone number is real. “When nobody picks up the phone and they are told we are unavailable they think that we are not paying attention to our phones.”
3- “They call you on your real phone number and try to sell you an upgrade to improve your position in their listings or whatever.”

“I have yet to find one business owner or individual that did not react negatively to the idea of some unrelated third party posing their name or business with a false telephone number on the Internet or any other public space,” says Conklin.

I shared Conklin’s comments with HelpHive’s Karim Meghji , who is getting very familiar with Conklin via phone conversations, Web postings and other communications. It is Meghji’s strong belief that HelpHive hasn’t crossed the line in any way at all. He also says that HelpHive is completely transparent, and emphasizes that SMBs have full opt-out rights.

“Yes, we do have a HelpHive phone number on each business listing,” says Meghji. “We do this so we can provide a low-risk, low-cost, performance-based model to businesses interested in generating referrals and business from HelpHive. Our business approach is ‘we get paid when the business is getting paid.’ In order to do this, we employ a proxy phone number to track and report to business referrals that originated from HelpHive and HelpHive customers. This is not like other approaches where evaluating the return on investment can be challenging at best.”

Meghji also confirms that HelpHive did call Evan Conklin. But it was not a sales call. In fact, it was “only as a followup to questions that Evan Conklin POSTED via our customer services system about how the contact information on HelpHive works. It was not, nor was it intended to be, a sales call.”

As for misrepresenting whether a business is available to answer phones or not, Meghji says that when a customer calls a business via HelpHive, “the first thing they hear is a welcome from HelpHive and then a request to enter the HelpHive extension of the business they are trying to reach.”

My view: It is kind of harsh to pick on HelpHive specifically – there is no reason to doubt that it sincerely wants to help SMBs while building its own business. In fact, it has a lot of good and helpful ideas that provide a lot of value to SMBs. But we are living in an era where new directories are aggressively soliciting SMB business, and sometime misrepresenting themselves in order to better engage with the SMB (and sell them). In the interest of consumers and businesses, there probably needs to be strong disclaimers about directory information when proxy numbers are used without specific opt-in. Doing so wouldn’t necessarily hurt the new directory.

6 thoughts on “The Angry Plumber: ‘Don’t Misappropriate My Online Listing!’

  1. Are you freaking kidding me?

    I suppose if you can’t simple call a business and make a meaningful presentation that results in a deal to advertise, you resort to tactics such as this or the MerchantCircle widespread deception you identified a few years back.

    My advice to anyone wanting to sell advertising to small businesses.

    1. Get off your butt and meet with them or call them.

    2. Explain exactly what you are doing and exactly how you charge.

    3. If you need to, prove that you’re for real by doing before charging.

    4. If the business owner wants no part of you, either remove them entirely, or publish their information unmolested.

    This plumber has every right to be furious, and HelpHive has no prayer of being successful long term if they can’t run a legitimate business without hijacking.

  2. This came in from Evan Conklin, the “angry plumber” who has raised these concerns…. provides no real service to our community but seeks to corrupt the relationship between homeowners and their service providers. is not like other home service locator websites. They look like other sites and they are similar but they are very different because of these unique characteristics:
    1. They have harvested all merchants and/or contractors in the home services/home repair categories in a particular region. (Like a real directory). Unlike a real directory that actually may serve some useful purpose to the public, they do not faithfully provide the information a directory provides, namely the company name, address and phone. They remove the phone number of the listed company and substitute their own proxy phone number for the real one. At this point the website is no longer a public serving directory but a tool for manipulating the public and the business community in a local area. The phone number attached to the service providers’ listing now misdirects all incoming calls to Helphive’s data collection servers. The caller thinks that they have called the service provider. They get a recording that states that the service provider is unavailable. The message recording then proceeds to collect the callers name, contact info, type of service desired, how soon they need the work etc. Helphive has effectively just hijacked the service providers incoming customer.
    2. Once the hijacked customer data is collected the question is what is Helphive doing with the stolen customers information. Well, they simply attempt to sell it. First of all, they attempt to sell it back to the company they stole it from. They call it “Referral Pro Plan. For an annual fee plus 5% of the job value the service provider can buy his own lead back from Helphive. Of course Helphive maintains that it is “their” lead in spite of the fact that the lead was generated with false contact information in their faux service provider directory. If the service provider balks and does not agree to pay Helphive then Helphive simply utilizes the lead for their own purposes. Since Helphive gets a percentage of all actual work done by any participating service provider, it is obvious that Helphive is not going to allow that hot active lead to go to waste. The stolen lead has nowhere to go really except to one of their participating service providers that are willing to pay Helphive 5% of the job value.

    The Helphive business model is based upon an unethical, and I believe – illegal, misappropriation of an entire communities’ business’s property. There is benefit to neither the business community nor the public with such a scheme.
    The Helphive business model is apparently based upon:
    1. Their belief that they are entitled to do what they please with property belonging to others.
    Specifically registered trade names, trademarks and contact information including a business telephone number.
    2. Their belief that it is OK to create the illusion to the consumer that the information presented in a directory format is real and that it belongs to the service provider when in actually it is a bait and switch technique. The entire directory is a half-truth; The company name, logo, address etc is accurate but the phone number is a fraud. The message conveyed to the caller is a lie “The service provider is unavailable please leave your info etc).
    3. The mistaken assumption on the part of the principles of Helphive that those of us in the service industry are going to lay down and take this corruption of needed and useful directory information on the internet shows profound ignorance on their part. These marketing geeks need a reality check in a big way.

    Since this situation came to my attention last week October 30, 2009 I have had to compromise my normal work schedule and concentrate my efforts on getting this situation remedied. Apparently nobody else has noticed has dangerous the mindset and business activities of Helphive are to the public and service companies like mine.

    As of today I have taken the following actions:
    A complaint was filed with the Washington State Attorney General
    A complaint was filed with the Washington State BBB
    I contacted 6 Washington State contractor groups and associations
    I contacted my attorney regarding a civil suit and requested research regarding a possible criminal complaint
    We are actively seeking others that feel they have been damaged or believe that may suffer future damages that are willing to participate in a class action lawsuit.

    The media is starting to pick up this controversial subject. Here is a tech blog that is generating some comment::

    I contacted 20 service providers from Helphive faux directory asking them to take a look at the site and comment. Every one of them reacted the same way I did when they examined the website.
    If you have an interest in this matter Please contact me:

    Evan Conklin
    Evan Conklin Plumbing and Heating Inc.

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