Can't get no satisfaction?


Published: Sunday, January 14, 2007 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, January 14, 2007 at 12:35 a.m.
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When a business doesn't make good on its promises, sells defective merchandise or breaks the law, a consumer can go directly to the business for a solution. But when that fails, what is a jilted customer to do?
Consumers can turn to a couple organizations that will serve as intermediaries, notify licensing agencies or even contact state or local law enforcement, depending on the nature of the complaint.
The Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services and the Better Business Bureau both field complaints and ask businesses to respond. They both keep records on the number and outcome of complaints about businesses that consumers can access. One difference is that the state has enforcement powers when a business breaks the law or violates a provision of its license.
Before you spend your money Consumer advocates' first recommendation is to do your homework before doing business with a company.
By calling state consumer services at 1-800-HELP-FLA (435-7352), consumers can find out the complaint history of a business, whether it has faced any regulatory action and if it should be licensed.
"It's better to make an informed decision before doing business with a company," said Terence McElroy of Consumer Services. "It's easier than doing business with a company that has a shady background and trying to get your money back."
The Better Business Bureau of Northeast Florida has reports on 29,000 companies - either members or nonmembers with complaints - in 20 counties available at its Web site, www.bbbnefla.org. Reports include whether the BBB received any complaints about the company in the past three years, the categories of complaints such as billing disputes or selling practices and the outcome, such as resolved, unresolved or company made every reasonable effort to resolve.
The report also makes a determination about whether the company has a satisfactory record. An unsatisfactory record means the company did not respond to a complaint or had two unresolved complaints in three years.
Tom Stephens, president of the Northeast Florida BBB, said about 5 percent of companies with reports in the region have unsatisfactory records.
Although a good tool to check on a business, Stephens said the reports are often misunderstood. "Many people will look at a report and say, 'Oh, this company has a complaint. I can't do business with them.' What they need to look at is not that they had a complaint, but how they resolved that complaint. I'd rather do business with a company that had a complaint they handled properly than one that's never had a complaint, because you don't know what they're going to do."
"If there's a large number of complaints relative to the size of the company, or there's a pattern of the same complaint happening over and over again, we'll look at that."
Who's complaining?
The BBB in Northeast Florida, based in Jacksonville, received 9,515 complaints in 2006. Stephens said there are a wide variety of complaints depending on the industry.
"With credit card companies, they have to do with misapplication of funds or offers consumers didn't get, or they paid their payment on time and didn't apply it on time. With collection agencies, they have to do with violations of the Fair Debt Collection Act."
He said there is one commonality.
"In 75 percent of the circumstances, there's been a breakdown of communication between the customer and the company. Either the company didn't pay attention to what the customer was saying, or the customer wasn't listening to what the company said."
What a ripoff A consumer with a complaint a business does not resolve to their satisfaction can contact consumer services or the BBB.
Consumer Services will look into problems involving industries it regulates - such as auto repair, telemarketing, charities, health clubs, hair salons, pawn shops, moving companies - or refer the complaint to the appropriate agency.
"We are the clearinghouse where people can call us," McElroy said. "If it's an insurance matter, we get it to the Department of Financial Services. If it's about a contractor, we get it to Business and Professional Regulation."
Consumer Services secured $26 million-$27 million in consumer refunds in the last five years, and more than $200,000 for 450 complaints in the first week of this year.
For industries that are not regulated, Consumer Services will mediate by contacting the company about the complaint.
"Where we don't have regulatory authority, those companies can tell us to jump in the lake," McElroy said, but more often than not will give the consumer what they want.
When the BBB receives a complaint, it writes the business and gives it two opportunities to respond. It then sends the response to the customer. If the customer does not further respond, the matter is considered resolved. If the customer is still unhappy, the BBB gives the company another chance to resolve the situation.
Members of the BBB must submit to mediation or arbitration rather than leave complaints unresolved, or they lose their membership. Nonmembers that have received complaints are listed as satisfactory or unsatisfactory. Alachua County has 400-500 member businesses, Stephens said.
Tough customers A customer who can't be pleased does not mean a company will have an unresolved mark on its record.
"Just because someone complains doesn't mean they've done a darn thing wrong and we will note that," McElroy said.
"There are a lot of customers, you can give them their money back, burn the store down and shoot the manager, they're still going to be unhappy," Stephens said. "Has the company done everything a normal, reasonable prudent business does in that circumstance?"
Still, J.D. Tomlinson of Tomlinson Motor Co. new and used cars in Gainesville, wasn't taking any chances when a customer complained to the BBB.
Tomlinson said a customer had received a promise from an auto dealer that it would extend the warranty on a floor model. Tomlinson later purchased the car from the dealer and the same man bought it from him, expecting the same warranty offer, which Tomlinson said he doesn't have the same authority to extend.
To resolve the situation, Tomlinson and the customer split the cost of extending the warranty.
"If there is a problem we have with the whole system, it's that our record was perfect after 12 years and I almost felt like I was being extorted because, in order to keep my perfect record, which I was proud of and felt was important, I kind of had to give in to something I didn't think was reasonable," Tomlinson said. "In my mind, it was worth it just to keep my unblemished record."
"You try to make every reasonable person happy, but you get some silly calls," Tomlinson said. "People do expect unreasonable things. On the other had, dealers should step up and do the right thing when they don't want to, either."
Anthony Clark can be reached at anthony.clark@gvillesun .com or (352) 374-5094.

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