ORLANDO — For Lauri and Dan Knowles, the difference between being at the top or the bottom of the local Better Business Bureau's rating scale came down to a single dispute with a customer over a delivery date and refund.
The co-owners of a Winter Park cabinetry business couldn't resolve the customer's complaint, which triggered a fight with the BBB, which slashed their grade from "A+" to an "F" despite seven years of stellar ratings. They refused arbitration and were booted from the BBB in January, a move they have appealed.
The Knowleses' case is a cautionary tale for companies that seek to burnish their brand by joining the BBB accreditation program. A top grade can boost sales; a low grade can drive customers away, especially these days, as savvy consumers can easily search the BBB online guide, along with other Web-based sources, for reputable providers of goods and services.
The national BBB, which celebrates its centennial this year, has long been viewed by the public as a referee in business-consumer disputes and by members as an implicit seal of approval.
But while some criticize the BBB as too lenient, allowing members to "game" the rating system, the agency's zero tolerance for what it judges to be unresolved complaints can rattle any business that hits an impasse with a customer. And when one problematic dispute can derail years of good standing, some experts say, it raises questions about how well the BBB system really works.
"There are some customers who are out to get at a company any way they can," said Britt Beemer, the Orlando-based chairman of America's Research Corp., a retail consulting company. "It's not a large number — only about 3 percent of consumers — who become problem customers. But it's enough to make your life miserable — and the BBB often doesn't do a good job of filtering those out in the complaints they deal with."
BBB officials say such criticism is off base. They say companies aren't required to make every upset customer "happy" — just to make a good-faith effort to resolve the dispute. The BBB says it thoroughly vets all complaints and makes decisions based on the facts, not outside influence or the financial position of the parties.
The BBB was compelled to downgrade the rating of the Knowleses' business, Carolina Cabinetry Inc., according to Judy Pepper, president of BBB of Central Florida. Not only did the business fail to deliver the custom-made computer workstation ordered by the customer or to provide a refund — allegations the company disputes — it refused to enter BBB arbitration, which, by itself, can be grounds for disqualifying a business from BBB membership.
"From our standpoint, this was a simple case, really," she said. "The customer ordered the piece, paid a deposit of more than $2,000 and was not able to get it delivered."
The BBB touts its accredited-member program as a reliable way to promote good business practices and to boost consumer confidence. From accurate advertising to transparent sales agreements, members must uphold about 50 standards detailed in a four-page agreement with the BBB.
But it is unclear exactly how companies are "graded." The BBB uses a formula based on various factors, such as a company's complaint volume and how quickly it responds to complaints. How much each factor figures into the final grade is not disclosed.
Still, the Central Florida BBB says it revokes relatively few memberships; perhaps 15 companies a year lose their accreditation out of an accredited membership of more than 2,300 businesses.