Here's how so many of my "Ask Elisabeth" emails go: "I'm writing because I want you to do a story about CCC Carpet Cleaners. I had a coupon and they told me it was only going to cost eighty dollars. Then they refused to leave my house until I paid them $350. They didn't even clean under the furniture and they soaked my carpets so badly that now they're all rippled. I just called the Better Business Bureau, and CCC Carpet Cleaners has an unsatisfactory record. So, I think you should do a story about this. I need your help."What's wrong with this picture? My tipster called the BBB after having a bad experience. Trust me. It's much easier to research a crooked company and not pay them any money in the first place.
Word of mouth is still one of the best ways to find a good business. Ask friends and family if they can recommend a good carpenter, contractor, car dealer, carpet cleaner. Approach neighbors, if you like their landscaping or admire their paint job, and ask who did it. Get referrals from other professionals. If you know a good plumber, chances are he knows a good electrician. But don't rely completely on your initial source. I once used a hardwood floor guy just because a neighbor recommended him. He turned out to be lousy, and my neighbor turned out to be an airhead.
Another source? Clip out admiring articles about businesses from local newspapers and magazines. Not advertisements, but articles! Just because a company advertises in a reputable newspaper or on a big TV or radio station does not mean it is reputable. Media companies have no legal obligation to check the reputations of their advertisers. Years ago when I worked for a different network, I prepared a devastating story about a local mortgage broker. In an attempt to block the story from airing, the broker bought advertising time on my station. Even though the news department knew this guy was a scumbag, the sales department sold him ad time. (Typically the news and sales departments operate independently from each other –which is actually a good thing.)
The easiest way to take your search to the next level is by contacting the Better Business Bureau. You can call or go online to www.bbb.org, where you'll be linked to your local BBB. The Better Business Bureau is a great place to check the reputation of a company, because it's the first place most consumers call when they want to complain. The BBB has incredible name recognition, even though a lot of people don't fully understand what it is or what it does. The Better Business Bureau is not a government entity. It's a private, non-profit organization that serves consumers and businesses.
The complaint records the Better Business Bureau keeps form a sort of trail of breadcrumbs for you to follow. The Better Business Bureau will tell you whether a business is a member or not. You'll be able to learn whether the business has a satisfactory or unsatisfactory record. That's based on the number of complaints and whether those complaints were resolved satisfactorily. You'll also get a broad idea of what consumers have complained about. When the BBB is aware of a government action against a company, you'll find that listed too.
It's crucial that you contact the BBB yourself rather than relying on plaques or signs in a company's lobby. I can't tell you how many shady companies I've investigated that had those BBB plaques on display. It's not the BBB's fault. Often a questionable company will join the Bureau for one year, then get kicked out, but keep displaying the shiny plaques. In some places, the Chamber of Commerce functions like a BBB so keep that in mind as another possible resource. There's also a lesser-known variation called a Better Business Council.
While you're online, type the company's name and location into a search engine and see what comes up. If the company made customers mad enough, it's likely they'll have vented online. The internet is a great, giant bulletin board and a real equalizer. Also try www.ripoffreport.com or www.consumeraffairs.com, two sites that take in consumer complaints.
If you're researching a substantial purchase, I suggest you dig even deeper. That means calling one of the government watchdogs that records consumer complaints. Large cities and counties have their own consumer protection offices. The trick is finding them because they all have different names. Your local agency may be under consumer affairs, consumer protection, consumer services, etc. Or it may be lumped in with fair housing, housing, licensing, regulation and on and on. Look in the blue pages of the phone book or call the county information line for guidance. If you live in a county that, A, has a consumer protection office and, B, has a well-staffed one, you're luckier than you know. In my experience, these local agencies do the most to directly help consumers.
You can also access complaint records at the state level. Again, the trick is finding the agency to help you. Many state consumer divisions are run by the state's attorney general. Others fall under the state department of agriculture (for reasons that boggle the mind.) I'm sure there are other variations that I haven't even heard of. If you're stuck, call the governor's office for help. Once you find the main state consumer protection office, ask about other, more specialized state agencies that may have additional information on the company you're researching. For example, if the company is required to be licensed, the department that handles licensing may track consumer complaints as well.
Whether you check out a company through your county or state, you should be able to get pretty decent details about it. I've been able to obtain the exact number of complaints and how those complaints break down by year. I've also gotten reasonably detailed descriptions of the nature of those complaints –especially at the county level. Be sure to check the company's name and also the owner's name. Often bad businesses change names every time they get into trouble with consumers. If you're vetting an incredibly expensive service, like home building, you could even try filing a Freedom of Information Act request to get a copy of the actual letters of complaint written by consumers. (The consumers' names will be whited out.) You can also go to the courthouse to see if the business has ever been sued.
I suggest you ramp up your research in direct proportion to the size of the purchase. For example, if you're buying something for less than $200, maybe you can afford to just go for it, without checking out the company. If you're prepared to spend $500, maybe you contact the BBB. If you're looking at a $1000 investment, check with your county or state consumer protection office. And for major investments, involving thousands of dollars, tap into every possible resource.