December 3, 2023

The Haggler: Better Business Bureau Makes Its Case

Complaints about companies often appear to be deflected by the Better Business Bureau, and some companies keep an A-plus rating on the group’s Web site despite dozens, even hundreds, of gripes. More than a few of the companies are paying annual dues to the bureau, leaving the unfortunate impression that the organization may be shilling for its underwriters.

A spokeswoman for the Council of Better Business Bureaus — the patient and unflappable Susan Kearney — has been asking for the opportunity to respond. Which only seemed fair. So in this episode, the Haggler conducts an interview with the president and chief executive of the Council of Better Business Bureaus, Stephen A. Cox. We spoke by phone on Wednesday.

“One point is that we are a 100-year-old nonprofit that is in transition, and that’s a good thing,” said Mr. Cox, who is based in Arlington, Va., when asked for a kind of opening statement. “We’re transitioning from who we were to who we have to be to meet the needs of today’s marketplace.”

What that means, he went on, is that the Better Business Bureau is evolving from its beginnings as a “grass-roots, look-’em-in-the-eye organization,” as he put it, to “an online provider of consumer information.”

All well and good, sprucing up the technology, the Haggler replied. But let’s talk about the perils of a business model that is financed, in large part, by members that it grades. Is that not a conflict of interest that is just begging for abuse?

“First, our funding model is not new by any means,” Mr. Cox said. “There are certainly critics of our funding model. I’m not trying to back off it, or apologize for it. We’ve got a longstanding history of doing right by consumers and businesses.”

That said, he noted that a committee formed last October had been charged with taking a look at the ratings system, with a final report due in June.  The group is considering whether letter grades   — which have been used for just two years, having replaced the simple “satisfactory” or “unsatisfactory” approach used for decades — are the right way to go.

“I would highlight,” Mr. Cox said, “that not every accredited company has an A-plus rating, and we’ve revoked the accreditation of 4,000 businesses” in 2010.

(Haggler aside: Can you imagine if the bureau gave every accredited company an A-plus, and had never kicked out an accredited business?)

“Are we perfect? No. No organization is,” Mr. Cox went on. “Are we always trying to improve? Every organization is.”

The Haggler noted that for years, members of the Better Business Bureau were not allowed to publicize their membership, for fear that it would tempt the organization into pay-to-play shenanigans. Why not go back to those old-school rules?

Mr. Cox did not exactly leap at this suggestion. Instead, he noted that a survey of people who used the Web site had found that 85 percent of respondents felt that the organization’s ratings were helpful, and that 88 percent felt that they were fair. Yes, he added, the survey was paid for by the Better Business Bureau.

“Can you go out and find other issues that are head-scratching?” he asked, referring to previous Haggler columns. “I guarantee you can do that. On the whole, though, I think we’re doing pretty well. But I’m not satisfied with pretty good. We’ve got to do better.”

One theory about the Better Business Bureau’s current rash of troubles — it’s been criticized on “20/20” and in other newspapers — is that the organization is facing a serious threat from opinion Web sites, like Yelp, where consumers can post their own ratings and positive and negative reviews.

The Haggler related to Mr. Cox a recent Yelp experience of his own. A company, which for the sake of mercy shall not be named here, recently installed some window shades in the Haggler’s Cave of Justice — a k a, his home — and after some confusion about price, a rather stunning conversation with a salesman at the company ensued. We’ll skip the details, but the Haggler opened with a benign, “I think we have a disagreement about cost,” to which the salesman responded, “You misled me!” and promptly hung up the phone.

A withering review was posted on Yelp. The next day, the owner of the company e-mailed to ask what it would take to have that review taken down. The Haggler asked the owner to double-check the cost of the shades, and for an apology from the salesman.

The next day, a partial refund and remorseful e-mail from Mr. You Misled Me! were both issued. Down came the review.

CONTRAST this with the experience of readers who’ve been e-mailing the Haggler to report their lengthy and ultimately futile attempts to agitate through the Better Business Bureau. How, the Haggler asked, can Mr. Cox and the 120 bureaus across the country compete?

“We fully recognize that our complaint system needs to be simplified and it needs to be streamlined,” Mr. Cox said. He noted that the bureau provides ratings of its own, which is quite a different service than a free-for-all of opinions. Mr. Cox was conciliatory at other moments, but politely stood firm on the basics of the bureau’s  economic model. Which, the Haggler would argue, makes “head-scratchers” totally inevitable.

And so we wrap up this four-column series with a solemn vow. In the past, the Haggler has cited Better Business Bureau ratings to suggest that a given company is either beloved or despised by the public.

Oopsy daisy. That will never happen again.

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