The following represents an explanation of the Better Business Bureau's complaint process. It does not encompass the complete BBB operating policy.
The St. Louis Better Business Bureau has been processing complaints for more than 90 years in Eastern Missouri and Southern Illinois; yet it is surprising how many companies do not understand the process or do not recognize how complaints can actually be beneficial to a company.
In recent years, the BBB has seen a sharp increase in the number of companies that hire lawyers or threaten legal action in an effort to improve their record at the BBB.
Or, in a similar vein, the number of companies which dangle a settlement in front of a customer, a settlement which is good only if the customer withdraws the BBB complaint.
A review of BBB procedures may help companies in their dealings with their customers and with the Bureau.
First, how can complaints be a helpful tool for a company?
Complaints are an indicator of how well you are satisfying your customers. They also can tell you in which specific area you may need to improve.
Remember that a complaint may represent many other dissatisfied customers who didn't bother to complain, but who simply took their business elsewhere.
Also, studies show that if a complaint is handled quickly and fairly, the customer will become an even more loyal customer.
But if the complainant receives no satisfaction, he or she becomes a powerful negative advertising force for your company, spreading the word to as many as 50 of your potential customers.
What role does the BBB play in handling complaints?
The customer calls or writes to the BBB with a complaint and this is forwarded immediately to the company with a request that the company respond to the BBB with its position.
If the company fails to respond, the complaint is closed as no response, and any inquiring consumer is so informed.
When a company responds, its answer is forwarded to the customer.
If the customer is satisfied, or the company addressed the disputed issues and exhibited a good faith effort to resolve the complaint, it is closed as resolved.
But if the customer is not satisfied, the BBB may try to mediate the dispute or offer arbitration. Based on the outcome of the dispute, the complaint will be closed accordingly.
Complaints remain on a company's record at the BBB for 36 months from the date the complaint is closed.
As with almost all of the BBB's services, this service is free.
The BBB is constantly seeking ways to speed up complaint processing because the sooner a complaint is addressed, the better the chances a company has of retaining that customer. Except for cases that are arbitrated, the BBB does not attempt to determine who is "right" and who is "wrong" in a company-customer dispute.
Such a process would be a quasi-judicial proceeding and the BBB is not set up to process every complaint in this fashion.
This has proven to be one of the greatest areas of misunderstanding on the part of companies.
Often, companies will ask that complaints be removed from their BBB record because the customer was legally in the wrong. Sometimes they will send in a contract to "prove" it.
The BBB is concerned more with business ethics, not whether a company was legally in the right.
For example, a company representative may promise the moon in order to sell a job, but the contract falls far short of what was promised verbally.
While the customer may not have a legal leg to stand on, the BBB would consider this a proper complaint.
Along the same line when the BBB questions a company's advertising, the response sometimes is made, "But we checked with our attorney and he said it was okay."
Again, it's more important to the BBB whether an advertisement is ethically "correct" and complies with the BBB's Code of Advertising rather than whether the advertisement merely adheres to the law.
While on the subject of lawyers, companies are increasingly hiring attorneys in efforts to "clear" their record at the BBB.
Unfortunately, attorneys are accustomed to playing by a different set of rules and often will seek to prove how their company-client was in the right according to the law. Their appearance at the BBB often represents a costly outlay for the company-client with little, if any, benefit.
A final practice which the BBB sees increasing is that in which a company will privately offer to settle a dispute with a customer if the customer will withdraw the complaint filed with the BBB.
The BBB takes a very dim view of this practice. First, the BBB rarely removes a complaint from a company's record. Second, if the BBB were to allow this practice, the BBB in effect would become a bargaining chip, but without a voice, in the settlement of a company-customer dispute. Third, such a practice would skew the Bureau's reports to the public regarding the number of complaints a company has.
With the support of its members, the BBB will continue to provide its unique service of bringing complaints to the attention of the companies involved to the benefit of both the companies and their customers.