Melanie Duquesnel, president and CEO of the Better Business Bureau serving eastern Michigan and the Upper Peninsula, gets the obvious question every now and then in this 24/7 online world.
How do you keep the Better Business Bureau relevant? Especially when so many complaint message boards, social media posts and online reviews are easily accessed on mobile phones and desktops.
During the holiday season, for example, we've seen plenty of examples where consumers with complaints turn to social media. Snapbook, the online-based photo service, saw its Facebook page get hit with customer complaints when people faced late deliveries of customized calendars filled with family photos, one-of-a-kind Christmas cards and other items.
How does the BBB compete? One answer: The Better Business Bureau has launched its own version of a one-stop spot for customer reviews on the BBB website. But this one has a twist of sorts. Customer reviews undergo more of a verification process.
"We want to make sure the reviews we post are truly reviews," Duquesnel said.
The idea is to enable customers to give a good review, as well, as making a complaint public. The idea was tried a few years ago by the BBB, but that was too close to the hangover from the Great Recession when everyone was on such economic edge that few people had anything good to say about anyone.
Duquesnel said it is important that businesses be able to respond to negative reviews and have an opportunity to verify whether someone who has complained really was a customer.
She recalls a story from one contractor who felt he had been treated unfairly because a consumer complained about a quote for a job. His argument was that the consumer was comparing prices on two totally different levels of projects. His bid was higher, he said, because the scope of the work he proposed to do was much greater. No work was done; just a quote for a potential job. But the homeowner took his anger to the web.
The contractor complained: "He's telling everybody under the sky that I'm a fraud."
Duquesnel said a business is notified by email each time a customer review is posted to their BBB Business Review and the company is given the opportunity to respond publicly and alert the BBB if the reviewer did not have an interaction with the company. If there's a disagreement, the customer can be asked to produce a receipt to show that they actually did buy something from a business.
"If a business does want to respond to a customer review, they can," she said.
Duquesnel said the BBB can work personally with businesses in particular cases if it's suspected that a review isn't legitimate, maybe something from a disgruntled employee or a competitor.
The BBB already receives up to 30,000 or so complaints in a given year.
A customer cannot leave a review if he or she has already filed a formal BBB complaint; customer reviews do not impact any letter grade that the BBB gives a business. The customer reviews can be found at www.bbb.org/detroit/reviews.
Duquesnel said she's been working with businesses to explain the idea behind the online reviews and how such reviews can help spot problems early on or work to help build a business. Such a strategy, she said, can be good for business.
Many consumers, particularly millennials, are heavily influenced by what they read online about a product or a service. The BBB's research indicates that 80 percent of consumers trust online reviews as much as personal recommendations.
The new online review spot isn't just about leaving complaints, she said. If someone is really pleased with a service, they can also say so.
"They can say 'Great Job' publicly," Duquesnel said.
Susan Tompor, the personal finance columnist for the Detroit Free Press, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.