Make us your home page

Better Business Bureau's tough approach on rating upsets some business owners

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.

Better Business Bureau's tough approach on rating upsets some business owners 03/20/12 [Last modified: Tuesday, March 20, 2012 9:15pm]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

Copyright: For copyright information, please check with the distributor of this item, Tribune News Service.

Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

  1. Tampa man pleads guilty to forging check for fake investment

    Personal Finance

    A Tampa resident was convicted Thursday for forging a check for a fake investment. The Florida Office of Financial Regulation said that Eric Franz Peer pleaded guilty. He served 11 months in jail and will have to pay $18,000.

  2. Minority business accelerator launch by Tampa chamber to aid black, Hispanic businesses


    A "minority business accelerator" program was launched Thursday by the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce geared toward helping black and Hispanic business owners identify and overcome barriers to grow their companies. The accelerator, known as MBA, will provide participants with business tools to cultivate opportunities …

    Bemetra Simmons is a senior private banker at Wells Fargo, The Private Bank. She is also chair of the new minority business accelerator program for the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce. [Photo, LinkedIn]
  3. Terrier Tri brings unique triathlon training to South Tampa


    Over a decade ago, Robert Pennino traded late nights in the music studio for early mornings in the Terrier Tri cycle studio.

    Terrier Tri, a cycling studio in South Tampa celebrates a grand opening on June 27. Photo courtesy of Tess Hipp.
  4. New bistro hopes to serve as 'adult Chuck E. Cheese'


    YBOR CITY — Inside Cheezy's Bistro and Speakeasy, a new restaurant opening in Ybor City, customers will find a mix of family recipes, games and secrecy.

    Cheezy's Bistro and Speakeasy readies to open in Ybor City. Photo courtesy of Cheezy's Bistro and Speakeasy.
  5. Ramadan having an economic impact on local charities, businesses

    Economic Development

    TAMPA — Dodging the rain, a few families and customers gathered inside Petra Restaurant on Busch Boulevard. Around 8:30 p.m., the adham (or call to prayer) music begins, signaling Iftar, the end of the daily fast. Customers grabbed a plate to dig into the feast.

    Baha Abdullah, 35, the owner of the Sultan Market makes kataif, a common dessert that is eaten during the month long celebration of Ramadan in Tampa. [OCTAVIO JONES   |   Times]