Know somebody who is thinking about buying windows? Sure you do. Chances are you have a stack of lead sheets on your desk that contain information about where your prospects live, what type of home improvements they're interested in, and how they heard about your company. All the information you need to sell them a job, right?

But what do they know about you?

If they're Internet users, they might know plenty. A recent study indicates that an increasing number of Americans log on to the Web before making any kind of major decision. The survey, by the Pew Internet and American Life Project, found that 45% of an estimated 120-million-plus Internet users now use the Web to help them make life decisions such as changing jobs, making a major investment, or managing their own or someone else's health care needs. Researchers concluded that these changes are being driven by the increased sophistication of site content (streaming video, etc.), the growth of broadband, and the expansion of advertising for Web sites.

For most people, spending upward of $10,000 on new windows or siding counts as a major decision. And, increasingly, more people are going to search the Web for information before they make such a purchase.

What's also true is that these days bad experiences with a home improvement company can be shared with a worldwide Internet audience. Should customers use Google to search for a company, they are likely to find any complaints that might be posted. The result could be a canceled sales appointment, a rescinded contract, or worse. In fact, a dissatisfied customer's Internet blog helped put one of the largest companies in the home improvement business — Pacesetter — out of business.

Fortunately, you can take some easy steps to help control your company's online reputation. First, be sure to respond to any and all customer complaints. Your goal should be to achieve 100% customer satisfaction.

Second, be aware of your company's current Internet reputation. Imagine yourself as a prospective customer in search of new windows and do a Google search. See if your company turns up and what people are saying about you.

And third, have an attention-grabbing Web site. Feature customer testimonials, preferably in streaming video. Buy pay-per-click so your site pops up first in any search. Make sure you're the first company that potential customers want to do business with, not the last.

Jim Cory