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BBB can be a useful marketing tool

Jane Pribek is a former family law attorney and Wisconsin Law Journal’s editor-at-large. She can be reached at [email protected]

The Better Business Bureau has come under fire recently for a pay-to-play business model.

But those criticisms are not exactly true, a handful of local lawyers said. In fact, some lawyers claim the BBB deserves consideration — or perhaps reconsideration — as an effective marketing tool.

Reconsideration is for those who caught a 2010 episode of “20/20” where businesses transformed less-than-stellar ratings into high marks by paying for BBB accreditation. The story tarnished the BBB’s reputation undeservedly, Ran Hoth, CEO of the Wisconsin BBB, said.

“The facts were incorrect in that story,” he said. “There were items included in that report that were ‘spun’ or picked out of cases, regarding one Better Business Bureau in California. And that BBB has been expelled.”

Moreover, the reporter for the original story later penned an online follow-up that was much more positive. Unfortunately for the BBB, people only tend to remember the bad press.

To be clear, the BBB is not a consumer watchdog group. Rather, it’s a private, nonprofit, standards-based business ethics organization that serves as a neutral third-party, Hoth explained.

Accreditation involves passing eight “standards of trust.” There’s a lengthy underwriting process, including background investigations and licensing checks. The organization also evaluates a business’ website and its privacy policy on advertisements.

The BBB then lists on its website those that earn accreditation and allows accredited businesses to use the BBB logo on their websites.

That’s valuable for attracting clients, but also for search engine optimization. The BBB is among the 400 most-searched websites in the U.S., Hoth said, and both Google and Yahoo seem to favor the BBB accreditation logo on law-firm websites.

For a solo, accreditation starts at $400 annually. As the firm expands in number of employees within the state, the price goes up. It’s a sliding scale, and the big law firms are dubbed “corporate partners.”

Any law firm can create a free profile on the BBB website, whether they are accredited or not. Firms are given letter grades, A+ to F, which are dynamic and can change daily, Hoth said. In addition, the website allows clients to post reviews.

It’s possible for a firm to be on the BBB website with an A+ rating, and not have paid a penny for it. Milwaukee lawyer Jason Baltz falls into that category, and said he believes a presence on the BBB website gives him additional credibility, as compared to other, general directory websites.

There also are firms on the BBB’s website that aren’t’t accredited and that have poor ratings. That’s typically because someone has complained about the firm, Hoth said, and the firm refused to respond to the complaint.

Milwaukee lawyer John Dries said the BBB’s dispute resolution system has been very useful over the years. Surprisingly to him, sometimes clients don’t voice concerns to him, but go straight to the BBB. The organization has helped him, he said, pacify the infrequent, unhappy client more than once.

Dries’ firm has been a longtime accredited member. Many clients have written positive reviews of his work on the BBB website. Their veracity can’t be challenged because he had nothing to do with their writing, unlike a testimonial on a firm website, which could have been manipulated.

Madison lawyer Zeshan Usman invested in accreditation a few weeks ago. He said, from examining website analytics, that at least one visitor to his website originated from the BBB website.

“Other attorneys I know have gotten referrals from it, and it seems that clients believe in it,” he said. And while Usman disapproved of what that California BBB office did, he said he got past it.

Maybe you should, too.

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