Staying Relevant


As consumer-advocacy groups multiply, the head of Maryland's Better Business Bureau polishes its reputation and looks for ways to attract younger consumers

Q&a -- Angie Barnett

April 08, 2007|By Dan Thanh Dang | Dan Thanh Dang,Sun Staff

Need a trustworthy auto repair shop? Stuck with unfinished roof work after shelling out thousands? Can't decide which nonprofit should receive your donation?

In the past, many consumers followed the age-old advice: Check with the Better Business Bureau.

Nowadays, with an explosion of consumer advocacy groups around the country and on the World Wide Web, many buyers are turning elsewhere for consumer news, advice, complaint mediation and plain old rants. Ranging from free, Internet-based to the fee-based service, consumers have their pick of groups that are designed to help them steer clear of bad businesses.

What's a stodgy, 94-year-old organization to do about all the competition?

Fight back, of course. In recent years, many BBBs have taken on a more advanced and aggressive attitude to prove that the organization is more important than ever in this age of consumption. Whether it's fighting the persistent perception that the group is too pro-business or making complaint-filing, dispute resolution and company research available online, the BBB has taken a number of steps to polish its reputation and reach out to younger consumers.

Considering that in 2005 the BBB responded to nearly 90 million queries and helped consumers and businesses in 1.1 million marketplace disputes, marketing expert Dennis Garrett says the BBB is not quite as irrelevant as some would believe.

"I think people have to recognize what the BBB was originally designed to do," says Garrett, an associate professor of marketing at Marquette University who has studied the organization and now serves on the board of the Wisconsin BBB. "It's not a consumer advocacy group. It's not pro-business. It has no enforcement power. What it can do, however, is help consumers weed out bad businesses.

"The Achilles' heel of the system is that a company can respond to the many complaints filed against it and not resolve anything, but still keep a satisfactory rating," Garrett says. "That's a hole in the system that I think the BBB will have to address. Many local bureaus have adopted a stronger, more progressive attitude by issuing more detailed reports on companies and issuing more media alerts on bad companies. They recognize that they are facing a real challenge to remain relevant."

Here, that challenge goes to Angie Barnett,

president and chief executive of the Better Business Bureau of Greater Maryland. Since taking over the organization a year ago, Barnett says, she's been on a mission to remind consumers and businesses that after years of business scandals ranging from Enron to Martha, there's never been more of a need for the BBB.

Barnett, a former vice president of membership for the Maryland Chamber of Commerce, sat down recently to answer questions about the relevance of the BBB today.

Do you have a new agenda for the BBB or issues you're interested in pursuing publicly?

A growing percentage of consumers and businesses now turn to our Web site for pre-purchase information and dispute resolution. It is our most economical and efficient means for communication - so we are investing in our IT future.

With regards to the BBB's involvement with the legislative session, I must be clear that we are not a political or lobbying organization and we deliberately do not place ourselves in situations or activities that can be construed as such.

Some people question the relevance of the BBB, especially when there are so many thriving Web sites out there focused on consumer issues and complaints. Is that a perception you're constantly battling?

Some people are surprised that the BBB is still around. But the fact is, we are more vibrant and in-touch than ever.

A 2004 Princeton study indicated that the BBB experiences an 85 percent name recognition, and 51 percent of the respondents recognized the BBB logo unaided. People know who we are. In addition, 77 percent of businesses stated marketplace ethics was more important than ever before. Businesses need and value the work of the BBB. Our job now is to refresh our image and to clearly demonstrate our relevance to today's consumer and ever-changing entrepreneur.

What do you think is the biggest misrepresentation of the BBB?

The biggest misrepresentation of the BBB is that we are the "complaint people." While we are very proud that in 2006, we handled slightly more than 10,000 dispute resolutions between consumers and businesses, we are most proud that over a half of a million inquiries were made through the BBB about Maryland companies. Consumers are choosing the BBB to make informed decisions and to avoid costly mistakes.

Another big misconception about the BBB is that we are government-funded. We are a private nonprofit, 501(c)6. We do not receive any financial support from local, state or federal governments.

How big is your staff and what do they spend a majority of their time doing every day?

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.