It used to be that service organizations found customers by branding their trucks, placing a Yellow Pages listing and relying on their work (and their happy customers’ referrals) to keep the work orders coming.

That’s no longer the case — any business that relies solely on the Yellow Pages is destined for the trash heap, just like those bulky books. Consumers are increasingly going online to find and vet plumbers, contractors, electricians, and other service providers. Yelp and Angie’s List are two of the largest sites people turn to, but they’re only the beginning. A new crop of service-oriented websites are helping customers find service providers easily, but they’re also helping businesses find new customers inexpensively and with minimal effort — although some companies say they haven’t seen many results yet.

Outsourcing Lead Generation and Scheduling

For smaller service businesses with a shoestring advertising budget, it can be challenging enough to focus on business itself without having to drum up new customers and coordinate scheduling. For these companies, online listing services can be a huge boon, and with little effort required to register and log basic business information (industry, rates, contact information, website, etc.), service organizations can very easily increase their chances of being found online.

Take Thumbtack, for example. The site allows organizations to list their services and basic business information for free. Businesses can pay a monthly subscription fee to receive leads, which, depending on the business, ranges from $8 to $40 per month. But business owners shouldn’t just sit back and wait for the money to start rolling in.

“From a professionals perspective, it’s in their best interest to sign up for as many different companies like ours as possible,” says Sander Daniels, Thumbtack’s co-founder and director of business development. “The reason is that the huge proportion of consumers are going online to find professionals. It’s random chance which companies appear at the top of search results.” offers a similar service, though, as the name suggests, the site is focused on connecting consumers with businesses when time is of the essence, perhaps during the holidays when the heating’s gone out and there’s a house full of guests. Businesses pay a finder’s fee for any leads sent their way. (The site recently launched in D.C. and has a couple hundred businesses signed up.) For a small fee, businesses can be connected to jobs that are close to them to fill gaps in their schedules.

And there are others. ServiceMagic and Redbeacon (which was acquired by Home Depot earlier this year) all match businesses with customers, while also allow helps with scheduling by allowing technicians to upload their appointment calendars.

No Magic Bullet

Third-party listing sites are becoming increasingly important to service businesses, but they’re certainly not a panacea.

Steve Hodes, who owns Moonlight Decks in Overland Park, Kans., a decorative deck lighting installer, said he spreads his efforts all over the Web in the hopes of attracting customers. He lists his business on Thumbtack and focuses on optimizing his site so it ranks higher on Google, Yahoo, and MSN, and conducts local advertising to drum up business.

Mike Hassler, who owns Hassler Heating & Air Conditioning in El Cerrito, Calif., takes a similar tack. He said it’s tough out there, and to find customers he turns to the usual suspects. He’s listed on Thumbtack, though he doesn’t recall the site sending any relevant leads his way, and he spends some money on Yelp, which has led to some work.

Though these service middlemen won’t and can’t entirely replace the traditional means of finding customers (local advertising,  word of mouth, etc.), they can be an effective — and inexpensive — supplement.

An online presence, whether through a website, basic advertising on the major search engines, or a listing on a service middleman site — or, ideally, a combination of all of the above — is a must these days. Businesses have to go to their customers. The problem, of course, is that those customers aren’t easy to pin down.

More: As Yellow Pages Fade, Web Services Are Offering Smarter Listings.

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