Better Business Bureau – a friend for a fee

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Every American child has been threatened with the boogeyman or an empty-handed Santa Clause to prevent bad behavior. Small business owners live under the threat of the Better Business Bureau’s (BBB) wrath should they misbehave. Should you, the small business owner, believe in the BBB boogeyman?  The simple answer is “it’s complicated.”

The BBB is a non-profit organization or 501(c)(3), defined by the IRS as a religious, educational, charitable, scientific, literary, testing for public safety, to foster national or international amateur sports competition, or prevention of cruelty to children or animals organization. So then, what is the BBB? Their motto is “start with trust” but their tactics largely demand money from businesses to validate the company as “accredited”  or compliant with certain standards and best practices. If this is starting to sound like extortion, you are not alone.

Let’s imagine you’re a consumer with a valid complaint against an unfair business practice. Naturally, you’re angry and you have options: lawyer up, file a lawsuit, air your grievances on social media sites, and/or ask the BBB to mediate and help resolve the issue. Now what the public doesn’t realize is that the BBB functions only as a result of the revenue they receive each year from the fees businesses pay for “membership” and “accreditation.” The BBB’s claim to be an impartial mediator of claims between businesses and consumers, but they have no motivation to downgrade a company’s rating because the company is their customer often shelling out thousands of dollars for said “membership” and “accreditation.”  This is the definition of a conflict of interest.

This “pay to play” culture was revealed in a shocking expose by ABC News in 2010. “Over a period of more than two years, BBB of the Southland failed to resolve concerns about compliance with several standards required of BBBs, including standards relating to accreditation, reporting on businesses, and handling complaints,” said Carrie Hurt, President of the Council of BBBs.

More and more companies are opening their eyes to the irony that is the BBB. How does corporate America feel about the BBB? General Motors is not accredited. Facebook and Microsoft are members, but Google and Apple are not.

Today’s technologically-engaged consumer is well-equipped to deal with corporate malfeasance and need not rely on the BBB. Social media outlets like Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare and LinkedIn provide consumers an open forum to voice their feedback, positive or otherwise. As a business owner, treat the feedback you receive from the aforementioned platforms as you would if it was a complaint letter sent to your legal department, an inquest from the BBB, or a complaint from the State Attorney General: be swift and serious in addressing the matter.

We live in an age of transparency with the internet and social media outlets to thank for leveling the playing field. Everyone can seemingly have a voice in the online world so corporate America can’t get too comfortable feeding us pink slime or giving us cancer. As a business owner, be aware of the “talk” surrounding your firm. Keep up to date with your social media accounts. Don’t hope that positive feedback can suppress negative reports. See each posting as an opportunity to right a wrong and create a customer for life; then build upon that example by creating a public relations buzz on your company’s stellar customer service record.  Should you sign up for a BBB membership?  It’s complicated.


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