The Better Business Bureau in the Toledo area is looking for a few good workers.
During a year when several key employees left the local BBB, inquiries about companies nearly tripled and the volume of complaints handled by its staff rose 53 percent, said President Richard Eppstein yesterday.
Blame it on the Internet. Blame it on www.toledobbb.com.
The BBB serving 18 counties in northwest Ohio and southeast Michigan spent $120,000 early last year to upgrade its electronic system, added a server, and put 15,000 “reliability reports” on area companies on the Web, said Mr. Eppstein.
But the agency's staff fell to 17 from a high of 21.
“We were swamped,” Mr. Eppstein remarked, adding that volume will continue to increase because of the ease of Internet access. “We need good people, motivated people.” But, he noted, “nobody ever got rich working for the BBB,” and the agency has trouble competing with higher-paying large corporations for workers.
Mr. Eppstein said inquiries increased 189 percent last year, from 105,578 in 1999 to 305,094 in 2000, and nearly all of the extra 200,000 inquiries were made via the Internet. The BBB's inquiries over a 24-hour phone line and staff-handled requests were steady at about 105,000, he said.
Complaints processed by the staff grew from 2,027 in 1999 to 3,107 last year, Mr. Eppstein reported. “I wouldn't say we have more problems,” he said. He noted that the Internet brought a flurry of nonserious complaints, on “cold pizza and rude clerks. A lot of those complaints were not valid.”
With the new server at work, business jumped, said Mr. Eppstein. “If you're in Hong Kong, you can check on a company in Findlay. We've had a huge increase in inquiries from all over the world.” He estimated that, even factoring out curiosity seekers, the 300,000-plus inquiries represented $1 billion worth of buying decisions, based on past surveys of spending habits.
Staffing, rather than budget, is the agency's biggest problem, Mr. Eppstein said., adding that income of $1.2 million from 4,300 members is adequate. “Handling complaints consumes so much time,” he explained. “Every complaint is different, and some are serious, very complicated, very labor-intensive.”
Mr. Eppstein said he has no regrets about the expanded Internet service. “We've got to be where the public is,” he said.
Despite the staff shortage, the area BBB also plans to add four regional advisory boards and a number of industry advisory panels, according to Mr. Eppstein.
For starters, he wants to supplement the main 36-person board with as many as 20 regional board members in each of four areas - west to the Indiana line, south to Findlay, east to the Sandusky and Vermilion areas, and in the three Michigan counties just north of the state line.
The industry panels will be set up in groups representing such constituencies as dry cleaners, auto-repair shops, home remodelers, and retailers, said Mr. Eppstein. His plan is to ask 35 to 40 business people in each category, hoping to get 15-20 to participate in at least four or five meetings a year to discuss problems such as false advertising.
The groups could tackle a wide variety of issues, he said. “Right now in this marketplace, who sits down with Meijer, J.C. Penney, and Sears, and says, `Look, let's talk about what's going on in your industry?' Nobody is doing that. They used to, when they [had more] local control.”