I had the opportunity to speak via phone with the BBB's vice president of training and education, Steven Salter, about this program. He told me that it was launched in 1996-97, when lots of start-ups were beginning to do business on the Web. At the time, he said, there were attempts to establish quality-assurance entities, which all too often ended up being "two guys in a garage."
Today the Bureau's Online Reliability Program has around 70,000 merchants as participants, companies that have agreed to meet the principles for ethical business-to-customer contact and follow the BBBOnLine Code of Online Business Practices. These companies can be found at BBB.org or local Better Business Bureaus, of which there are 108 in the U.S. and 14 in Canada.
The five principles call for:
- Truthful and accurate communications: meaning, in part, no deceptive or misleading advertising.
- Disclosure: Each merchant agrees to share information about the company, products, services, and operations. No shipping cost surprises, no bait and switch, here.
- Customer satisfaction: Members honor customer representations, respond to their questions, and, if necessary, follow the Bureau's dispute resolution process.
- Protect children: Companies take care when marketing to children to "recognize their developing cognitive abilities."
Last year the U.S. BBB received 948,305 complaints, of which 700,194, or 73.8%, were settled. It has an orderly process using mediation to attempt to find a way that the customer's complaint can be satisfied fairly. On its Web site you can search by company for customer reports and in-depth information about how well or poorly it carries out its business.
While a BBB shield is not a absolute guarantee of a good experience (it is, after all, based on past history and avowed business intentions) in the wild west of the Internet, it is one good way to find a little safer pasture in which to shop.