You've probably seen the small blue logo on the websites of businesses you frequent. The minimalist-style torch — sometimes with an accompanying letter grade — signifies that the business in question has been rated and reviewed by the Better Business Bureau, a nonprofit with a vision of "an ethical marketplace where buyers and sellers trust each other."
But can the BBB be trusted by consumers?
Its accreditation system seems to favor businesses willing and able to shell out big bucks for a good grade. And multiple controversies surround the BBB's rating system, plus its complaint submission process doesn't always provide results. With so many glaring issues, the faith consumers once held in the BBB may have reached its breaking point.
How Does a Business Become BBB Accredited?
The BBB uses its own accreditation standards, which are built on the BBB Standards for Trust. These eight principles "summarize important elements of creating and maintaining trust in business."
The accreditation standards serve as a baseline code for all businesses that apply to become accredited. Some of the qualifiers include establishing and maintaining a positive track record in a business's local marketplace, advertising honestly, maintaining transparency, and — perhaps most importantly — addressing consumer complaints "quickly, professionally, and in good faith."
After a business submits an application to become accredited, the BBB investigates to ensure the company meets their standards and grades each one that applies. However, being an accredited business with the BBB comes at a cost... literally.
Businesses wanting to display that blue torch on their websites and marketing materials must pay an annual fee. Small businesses with up to 100 employees generally have to pay anywhere from $500 to $1,500 per year; larger companies could pay upwards of $10,000 annually.
How Do BBB Complaints Work?
If you feel you've been maligned by a particular business, you can submit a complaint to the BBB. The organization handles "disputes that relate to marketplace issues experienced with the services or products a business provides." These complaints do not include disputes or disagreements between employers and employees, discrimination issues, complaints against government agencies such as the U.S. Postal Service, or matters that have been brought to court.
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After you file your complaint with the BBB, "everything you submit will be forwarded to the business within two business days," according to the nonprofit. The business then has 14 days to respond to your complaint. If a response isn't received, the BBB will make a second request. According to the BBB online complaint system, complaints are usually mediated and closed within 30 business days.
On the surface, this process seems simple enough: the unhappy consumer files a formal complaint with the BBB, and they receive a response (and hopefully a solution to) the problem after about a month. However, the system isn't as straightforward as it seems.
Are BBB Ratings Reliable?
A 2015 investigative report from CNNMoney found more than 100 businesses that were not as credible as their BBB ratings of A- or higher made them seem. In fact, many of them were being investigated by the government for fraudulent or other illegal behavior at the time of the reporting.
The report suggests accredited members of the BBB are at a significant advantage, even if their businesses aren't trusted by their customer base. Additionally, the rating system seems to be "seriously flawed."
What does this mean, exactly? Essentially, accredited businesses have it easier when it comes to resolving complaints from consumers. A caveat of maintaining BBB accreditation (as well as a high grade) is that businesses resolve any complaints in a timely manner — but it doesn't mean the "resolution" is real.
The CNNMoney report found that members of the BBB were able to close complaints with "generic letters and responses that consumers say clearly don't address their problem." However, nonmembers — especially small businesses — with decent grades were sometimes left with drastic drops in their ratings after complaints went unnoticed. Even more telling, the report found that official complaints filed with the BBB had little to no effect on an accredited company's grade.
What Are the Best BBB Alternatives?
Fortunately for consumers, a number of alternative resources are available. Potential customers looking for ratings and reviews of a business can always turn to online rating sites like Yelp, Angie's List or Google Reviews.
While businesses can elect to pay for advertising on websites like Yelp, the reviews left on these sites are written by other consumers and aren't determined by an outside organization like the BBB.
However, if a concrete verification of trustworthiness is important to you, companies like Trust Guard — through its Business Verified service — offer an alternative seal of approval for businesses. Unlike the BBB, Trust Guard handles disputes in private, has set pricing for its services, and doesn't have time restrictions for businesses setting up their account. (The BBB requires that companies be in business for at least six months before they can become accredited.)
At the end of the day, your time may be better suited to checking a business's online reviews, even if they have a high grade from the BBB. While you should take every Yelp or Google review with a grain of salt, reading hopefully honest feedback from fellow consumers may help you more than trusting a BBB grade that could potentially be misleading.
Readers, do you trust the BBB? Why or why not? Share your thoughts in the comments below!