Opinion: The Better Business Bureau and my battle with weeds

Have you checked the web site of the Better Business Bureau lately? If you do, it’s almost certain to make you a better consumer.

I thought I was a smart consumer until a recent unpleasant experience with a lawn maintenance company. Now that I’ve learned my lesson the hard way, I’ll check with the Better Business Bureau before giving my business to any company I know little or nothing about.

The BBB tracks the performance of 20,000 firms doing business in the Ottawa area. That’s not a misprint. Twenty thousand is the figure.

Negative information on any of these businesses shows up in a rating system devised by the BBB to help consumers avoid firms with unusually-high numbers of dissatisfied customers.

The BBB has so far rated about 10,000 of these businesses. It lacks sufficient data on the other 10,000 to give a rating. The bureau uses a formula that goes from "A+" for impeccable records in dealing with consumer complaints to a failing grade of "F" for those with numerous and serious unanswered complaints.

"The grade represents BBB’s degree of confidence that the business is operating in a trustworthy manner and will make a good faith effort to resolve any customer concerns filed with BBB," the bureau says on its web site.

The BBB cautions: "The rating is not a guarantee of a business’s reliability or performance, and readers should consider a business’s rating in addition to all other available information about the business."

Of approximately 10,000 businesses currently rated in the Ottawa area, about 16 per cent are ranked in the top category of A+. At the other end of the scale, about eight per cent received an F rating. These ratings are frequently revised.

The BBB is a group of almost 1,900 businesses in the Ottawa area that encourages its members to treat customers honestly and fairly. In looking into consumer complaints about businesses, the BBB investigates complaints against members and non-members alike.

Does the BBB take sides in such disputes? Not if it can help it.

Diane Iadeluca, Ottawa BBB president and CEO, told OBJ: "The BBB does not resolve the complaint for the company or the consumer, nor does it make a judgment as to its validity, but rather facilitates the conciliation process and encourages businesses to make good faith efforts to resolve all such complaints in accordance with generally accepted good business practices."

Most consumers who make a formal complaint to the BBB about a business get some satisfaction, according to the bureau’s statistics.

According to BBB statistics, about two-thirds of complaints are eventually recorded as "settled.” Most of the other one-third are marked down as "complaint not settled.” In the case of these complaints, the two sides can’t, or won’t, reach a compromise. 

My recent case went down in the "complaint not settled" category. 

I had complained to the BBB about Weed Man, a lawn-care company that had treated my lawn in Kanata for the past six summers.

This year, I decided to do the job myself (partly because of tougher laws against poisonous weed killers). 

While I did not renew my annual contract, Weed Man went ahead anyway and provided a first treatment for which it billed me just over $50. I refused to pay, pointing out I had not ordered the service. The Weed Man insisted I must pay because I had been a customer for years. 

After I complained to the BBB, Weed Man verbally offered to accept half its original price. I again refused, and the BBB wrote to me saying there was nothing more it could do. Then I received another demand from Weed Man for payment in full, plus interest – which I paid, rather than risk damaging my credit record. 

Only then did it occur to me to look on the BBB’s Ottawa web site. 

There, I found that I was among 237 people that had complained to the BBB about Weed Man in the past three years. Of those 237 cases, 75 complaints (including mine, evidently) were recorded as “not resolved.”

Not only did Weed Man receive an F rating, the BBB issued this advice about the company: "The BBB would like to advise that many consumers have complained about the sales and billing practices of this company . . . Consumers have informed the BBB that regardless of many phone calls to the company requesting that the service be discontinued, the company has serviced the lawn when consumers are not present, or without a signed contract, and has continued to invoice the customer or has forwarded their account to a collection agency."