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Maintaining neutrality helps BBB keep open mind in disputes

Sun., Nov. 13, 2011

It was a contentious week at the BBB. That is normal. I have always told my staff that if we are not making some of the businesses and consumers mad, we are not doing our job. A recent message from a consumer:

“I had a complaint to make. I made it but the BBB is not receiving any revenue from me, like it is from the businesses, who pay to become members.”

The writer went on to explain how unfair we are and how we always take the side of the business. And now a message from a business:

“I was very unhappy with the service that we received from the BBB. One weakness in your organizational model is the perpetuation of a false allegation from any consumer’s gripe. Unhappy consumers come from a variety of causes, not always the business owner’s fault. Your organization amounts to a 400-pound gorilla in complaint resolution. For over 30 years we have paid our fees and yet with one customer complaint your organization became the adversary in a problem that we were as yet unaware of.”

Walking the tightrope of neutrality is always a challenge. So you have a complaint. What does the BBB actually do with it?

• First, we ask you to take up the issue directly with the person listed as the complaint contact on the business review.

• If that doesn’t resolve the matter, we ask for your complaint in writing, so it’s in your own words. We forward the complaint to the business with our cover letter or email.

• The business responds with its side of the story, and that is really where our work begins. Until we hear both sides, we are only getting half the picture. If you as a business person get a complaint that is outrageous, it is difficult for us to know that until we get a response from you.

• In some cases we will close a complaint as soon as we hear from the business. Why? Maybe no money was exchanged, or the customer is simply attempting to get out of paying for the product or service with no basis for complaint. Maybe the customer was not directly involved and is speaking for someone else. Or, in car transactions, the “sold as is” issue often will close a complaint unless there are circumstances that indicate deception in the sales process.

• Often, the next step is for the business to simply take care of your problem, as this is the first they have heard of the issue.

• If we continue, we will conduct some informal conciliation in writing. If that is not successful, we can offer formal mediation or arbitration. And yes, there is a fee to both sides, as there should be. In the past we did not charge the customer and found that with no “skin in the game” people had little interest in true resolution.

If you owe the business money, we will escrow those funds to be disbursed after the mediation or arbitration. That way the business does not have to chase the payments if they prevail in the hearing. A very few customers will refuse to offer the money to escrow, proving that they are not really seeking resolve, just a free lunch. If the customer prevails in the hearing, the business has a legal obligation to carry out the agreed-upon settlement: often refunding your money or completing the job.

Companies who carry BBB Accreditation are pre-committed to resolve all complaints, and we will hold them to that promise. There is no fee to them for advanced dispute resolution. But we historically perform a higher percentage of mediations and arbitrations for companies that are not affiliated with the BBB. It is faster than small claims court, and confidential.

While we cannot force a business or a consumer to be reasonable, our complaint resolution rate is about 70 percent. Mediation in particular often saves a relationship between you and a once-trusted business.

There is value in settling disputes and keeping these relationships. The two sides come in the office glaring at each other, and leave shaking hands. Sometimes walking that tightrope of neutrality offers great views.

Jan Quintrall is president and CEO of the local Better Business Bureau. She can be reached at

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