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Does Bureau's ratings system make the grade?
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Top 10 Inquiries, Complaints

Top 10 Inquiries

October 1-December 31, 2007

1. Roofing Contractors, 6,492

2. Heating & Air Conditioning, 5,583

3. Construction & Remodeling Services, 5,481

4. Auto Repair & Service, 4,182

5. Plumbing Contractors, 3,484

6. Auto Dealers-New Cars, 3,114

7. Home Improvements. 2,936

8. Movers, 2,063

9. Auto Dealers-Used Cars, 2,044

10. Mail Order/Catalog Shopping, 1,996

Top 10 Complaints

October 1-December 31, 2007

1. Telephone & Television Cable Contractors, 150

2. Department Stores, 103

3. Auto Dealers-New Cars, 96

4. Fullfillment Services, 96

5. Mail Order & Catalog Shopping, 83

6. Appliances-Major-Dealers, 64

7. Furniture-Retail, 63

8. Auto Repair & Service, 49

9. Roofing Contractors, 48

10. Auto Dealers-Used Cars, 41

MONROE - For businesses, making the grade involves more than playing nice these days; it takes quite a bit of math.

For 70 years, the Better Business Bureau used only two grades - Satisfactory and Unsatisfactory - to rate businesses.

Last week, the Wisconsin Better Business Bureau joined the national bureau to begin rating businesses with letter grades, from A+ to F.

"Customers like that, because they know what F means," Susan Bach, director of communications at Wisconsin BBB, said.

Business owners also like the differentiation it draws between them and other businesses, she said.

But the rating system is complicated, and challenging.

A quick look at the Web site could give consumers the impression that Green County's businesses are not too good. And the ratings of some entities make no sense.

Some businesses earning a grade of B- were the New Glarus Bakery, the Bank of Juda, the New Glarus Library, and the Monroe Public Schools Superintendent, none of which had any complaints lodged against them with the BBB in the past 36 months.

Their only fault seems to be that the BBB had "insufficient information" on the background and length of operation of their business.

The BBB rating uses 16 elements, each with a varying degree of points added or deducted, to determine the grade of a business. A perfect score is 90 points; below 60 is an F.

Complete background information earns up to 5 points. The length of time one has been in business could range from 8 to -10 points.

Complaints make up the majority of the points. Volume, unanswered, unresolved, seriousness, analysis and resolution can add or take away points.

So what have some businesses done to lose gold star stickers with the BBB?

"No one should be satisfied with a C grade," John Baumann, president of Swiss Colony said.

Swiss Colony fell to the C rating mostly because of the 393 complaints lodged in the past three years, even though the majority are listed as resolved.

"Well, if we can put this in perspective ... that's about 131 complaints a year. Swiss Colony has 5.2 million orders per year. So that's one complaint in about 40,000 orders," Baumann said.

Baumann said he raised the issue with the Wisconsin BBB President and CEO Randy Hoth.

"He readily admitted the rating system was disproportionately weighted toward the sheer number of complaints," Baumann said. "Without considering the number of orders and customers, it is an inadequate scoring system. He admitted that."

The Swiss Colony had been an accredited member of the BBB, and even among the 10 finalists for the 2004 BBB Torch Award for Business Ethics and Integrity, taking runner-up in the 1,000-or-more-employees category.

But Baumann said Swiss Colony overlooked renewing its membership this year. That may have hurt the company.

Being an accredited business member of the BBB chalks up only 4 points at most, but failing to honor the commitment to the BBB mediation or arbitration could cost up to 41 points, plunging even a perfect score into the failing range. (Green County has only 17 Wisconsin BBB accredited businesses.)

Baumann said Swiss Colony participates in industry studies every year and routinely finishes in the top 10 to 20 percent.

"That's a clearer indication of where we stack up," Baumann said.

Even with great grades, some business owners are not impressed with the BBB.

"Anybody can write the Better Business Bureau; that's the problem," Sherri Fiduccia, owner of Monroe Auto Sales, said. "An irate customer goes to the Better Business Bureau first, not the business, to resolve the problem."

Monroe Auto Sales received an A-, even though it had one complaint lodged which was satisfactorily resolved.

"I don't believe in it," Fiduccia said of the ratings.

"If you have someone against you, they can just call the Better Business Bureau, and it's a nick against you," she said. "I think the BBB should investigate first and then mark against you, if needed."

As a business owner, Fiduccia said she knows the importance of approaching the business first with a problem.

"Go to the source. Why bring in a second party?" she said.

Monroe Truck Equipment also has one complaint listed, which the BBB declared was addressed with reasonable efforts, but with a customer who remained unsatisfied. Monroe Truck Equipment got an A.

"We're pleased to have an A. We don't care how they rate it, as long as we get an A," Jim Smith, commercial marketing manager at Monroe Truck, said with a laugh.

Smith said the company has very few complaints at its place of business.

"Overall, to our employees, from manufacturing to sales, customer service is very important and they are dedicated," he said.

The Monroe Clinic, Inc., also had the score of an A, no complaints, and with no indications online of why it didn't receive an A+.

Other elements, such as type of business, and "inherent nature" of the product and services offered can pull a rating down.

Used cars and their salesmen would seem to fall into the "inherent nature" of a product people seem to love to hate.

Indeed, autos, new, used and services, rank in the top 10 list of inquiries and of complaints.

While Fiduccia's auto business received an A-, Alphorn Ford-Lincoln-Mercury received a B, also with one complaint addressed, but in this case the consumer never told the BBB about the settlement - a mark against Alphorn. But BBB does know Alphorn's length of operation - a mark for Alphorn.

Charles Dearth Motors had the same complaint situation as Alphorn, but with BBB knowing its length of operation, Chuck got a B-.

There are no BBB teacher's pets. Alderman Thurston Hanson owns Hanson Motor Company, which received a B- also. Hanson said the BBB is not an auto dealers' fear.

"I'm not saying the BBB isn't important; but most important for any dealer is the Department of Transportation," he said.

Hanson said Wisconsin has the toughest laws and regulations on auto dealers of all 50 states.

Used cars are even more tightly regulated, requiring prices to be posted on the lot or in advertising, and full disclosure of any problem.

"If you're looking for a used car, always go with Wisconsin, he said.

Hanson also recommended customers take a problem to their dealer "immediately."

"If they blow them off, call DOT, not BBB. DOT has 20 times the teeth as BBB. Most dealers are more afraid of DOT," he said.

"Better Business Bureau is a good resource, an important tool for consumers, sure," he said. "But in Wisconsin, I recommend, if you have a problem with a dealer, first call Department of Transportation."