Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Here's a tricky question

It seems I wasn't alone.

The Better Business Bureau is a "non-profit" organization that issues letter ratings to businesses reflecting how they treat consumer, customers and vendors. These ratings apply to all types of businesses, including public relations agencies such as mine. (I happen to have an A- rating).

Yet, where is the oversight for an organization that hires telemarketers to hound businesses with high-pressure tactics to sign up for memberships? Following an investigative piece on ABC's "20/20" program, the Los Angeles Times reported on this and the high salaries earned by some BBB executives.

Ever since I formed The Wolcott Company more than two years ago, I've been hounded by the BBB Southern California chapter. They found me through my membership at a local chamber of commerce. And, boy, were these telemarketers good at their job. They offered all sorts of reasons why I should pay a membership ($400), starting with this - a membership - is the primary way they produce income. So, they started with the "poor is me" approach.

As a solo PR consultant, I calmly informed the BBB telemarketer that my reputation was based on my own personal reputation that I had carefully crafted and managed over nearly 20 years of being in the business. But that launched an entire different tactic for the telemarketer about other reasons I should join. Most of this reasoning was flawed. However, I recall my dad, a PR leader and owner of his own firm, mentioning he supported the BBB. Back then (1970s), I can only guess the BBB was a different organization. So, based on my dad's memories of "supporting" the BBB, I thought I would "test" a membership for one year. With some reluctance.

After a year, I let the membership expire. And, thus, began the hounding. Over the past 12-14 months I have been called about a dozen times and my responses have become increasingly R-rated. Despite my pleas to have my name removed from their call list, I still get called. The last one began with "Well, we see you've been checked out by 22 people and we would love to tell them more, but your membership is.." If I did this to my potential customers, I'm sure they would complain to the BBB and my rating would suffer.

As the ABC report highlights, the BBB of Southern California essentially ran a "pay to play" operation. This is pretty evident given my last phone call from them. I can only assume I have an A- because I'm not currently paying a membership.

Now comes the damage control. I searched, but could not find an AOR for the Southern California bureau. However, they do issue a lot of news items on their website, suggesting they have an AOR and a great in-house staff.

The BBB of Southern California has two major crises to deal with - the salary of their top executive and their membership tactics. It will be interesting to see how this one is handled - especially given the BBB's reputation is based on "rating" others on their business practices. This is an incredibility HUGE credibility/trust/reputation matter to handle.

Any takers?

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