How to Make a BBB Complaint or Bad Review Work for Your Reputation, Part III

Okay, in that last two articles, we’ve presented an imaginary example of a customer’s BBB complaint and laid down the main principles of preparing your response.  In this article, we will write that response.

This first example is pretty simple.  The response will be easy.  In The Letterista’s experience, most complaints aren’t quite so clear-cut and require a much more nuanced response.  We’ll provide more complex examples, some from real life, where possible, in future posts.  If you have your own challenging reputation hits to contend with, we’d love to hear from you.  See our Contact page to drop us a line.

The Reason For The Complaint

Here’s the complaint we are responding to at present:

Your company installed a new wood-slat fence around your customer’s back yard.  In your contract, you guaranteed the fence against defective workmanship for a period of three years.  The customer calls you one year after installation to say that a good many of the slats are coming loose and wants you to come replace them under the terms of the warranty.  You arrive at the property and discover that, indeed, a lot of the slats are coming loose.  You also discover that they are coming loose because the customer’s cockapoo has been pushing and jumping on the slats in a daily effort to escape the yard and hang fangs on the letter carrier.  And the kids walking to school, the garbage collectors, the neighbor’s dog, the squirrels, the cats, and every other moving creature within a hundred feet of the customer’s property.  You happen to witness this while you are there, since said dog is none too fond of your presence, either.

You politely explain that the problems with the fence are not from workmanship error, that your crew used long screws to anchor the slats and the wood was the industry standard for the type of fence they could afford to buy.  You explain that the warranty does not cover post-installation damage such as what the dog is causing.  You might have considered repairing at a reduced cost or adding more screws to the slats for free, but that silly pooch is just going to continue destroying the fence a little bit each day.  If you start doing free repairs now, the customer is probably going to see that as a warranty admission and expect free service every year from here on out.  You write up an estimate for the customer to replace or re-anchor the slats.  Your customer seems to get it.  He takes the estimate and says it will be considered.

The customer or, as is often the case, the customer’s spouse filed a BBB complaint to say that you are not honoring your warranty.

What The Customer Wrote To The BBB

Here is what this fictitious complaint would probably look like:

Dear BBB,

On July 25, 2013, the Fence Contractor [your company] installed a wood privacy fence around my back yard.  They gave me a three-year warranty.  In June, 2014, we noticed that quite a few of the boards were coming loose from the supports.  We called the Fence Contractor about it.  They came out and said that the loosening slats are not under warranty anymore.  They gave us an estimate of $500 to repair the fence instead.  We also noticed that one of our bushes near the fence died because they trampled it while installing the fence.  We thought they were an honest company and would stand by their work.  All we want is for them to replace the loose boards since the screw heads are being pulled all the way through the slats so just tightening the screws won’t fix the problem.  We also want them to replace the dead bush.

Obviously, they conveniently left out the part about their body-slamming dog.

Let’s first get our emotional response satisfied:

Dear BBB,

The customers are clearly crazy dog people who think their little precious mutt is their baby and can do no wrong.  They let the little monster hurl itself after innocent people all day by running into the fence full force while barking its shaggy head off.  It tried to bite me through the fence even while I was there checking out the damage and was lucky I didn’t punt it into the next zip code.  If they just trained their dog to chill out or kept it chained up or inside, their fence would not get damaged.  Had the customers told us about the dog before we installed the fence, we would have bid for an extra strong anchoring system or recommended a different type of fence, but they were already complaining about the cost of this fence as it was.  They wouldn’t have agreed to pay for a better fence.  As for the bush, the dog dug it up trying to get under the fence to kill people.  And even if it didn’t, it was already dried up when we installed the fence.  By the way, we love and own dogs, too.  We just don’t feed them crack.

There.  We feel better already.

Now, highlight the whole thing and hit the space bar.

What You Should Write Instead

So, keeping in mind that you are writing to a judge, really, in case these customers want to go down that road in the future, here’s a much better reply.

Dear BBB,

We are surprised by this complaint.  During the bidding process, we were never informed that the customers owned a very energetic and spirited dog.  Perhaps they had not yet adopted the pet at that time.  When the customers informed us that the fence was falling apart, we went out the next day to inspect it.  While there, we observed that a dog in the back yard was jumping up on the fence and throwing itself at it near the bottom and seemed quite agitated at our presence.  We could see that every time the dog jumped or threw itself at the fence, the slats were being pushed out against the screw heads a little each time.  This went on the entire time we were there.  We also observed that when a group of schoolchildren walked by the house, the dog turned its aggressive attention to them, as well.

Do you see what we’re doing here?  First, we are expressing our belief that we thought things with this customer were fine, that we are all reasonable people, not the type to mislead others in order to take advantage.  Second, we’re giving them the benefit of the doubt about their mean and nasty dog, as if the customers themselves may not have known what they were getting into with this whole dog/fence thing.  That’s a face-saving maneuver for the customers.  Third, we’re pretending that the dog isn’t necessarily mean and nasty since that is a judgment call.  We only describe what we saw and will let the readers of the complaint make the judgment in their own minds.  Continuing the letter . . .

We pointed out to the customers that while we are sympathetic to their situation, our warranty does not cover damage done to the fence after it is installed.  The warranty is for workmanship only and does not cover things like cars running into it or dogs pushing on it or winds over a certain speed blowing it down.  We showed the customers that the crew who built the fence followed or exceeded industry standards for installations of this type of fence.  We found nothing to indicate that the crew had made any mistakes on the fence construction.  Neither could the customers when asked if they thought there was any part of the fence that was improperly installed.  Mr. Customer seemed to understand the explanation after we showed him a copy of his contract which has the warranty explanation.  What we could offer, and did, was a one-time repair for cost only.  That means the $500 dollar bid to repair the damage their dog has done was only for materials and labor and no more.  Our company will not make a dime on the repair, should the customers choose to accept the bid.

See how we pointed out that we installed a perfect fence and even offered a sacrifice of overhead and profit in order to help out the customers?  Readers will know that we didn’t have to go that far, so now we’re looking pretty magnanimous, right?  Well, in this example, we are magnanimous.  This should make good business sense to you.  You may not ever get a good recommendation out of these customer ever again, but potential customers who read this complaint and reply will now be relieved to know that you aren’t a crook, after all.  Now, the coup de grace . . .

Considering the extent of the damage being done by the customers’ dog, we found that 50 or more of the slats need to be replaced with anchoring enhancements, so far, and enhancements should be installed on the remaining mostly undamaged slats.  The retail cost for such a repair would be over $1000 if done by a reputable, local fencing contractor.  As we informed the customers, should they hire a different contractor to fix the fence, our workmanship warranty will be voided since we will have no control over quality or the extent of repairs if the work is not done by us.  We also believe that if the slats are vigorously pushed against day after day, they will eventually break at the pressure points near the ground.

As for the bush in question, we noticed that the back yard appears to have received no watering for a considerable amount of time.  There is no lawn and the other landscaping plants appear to be dead or near dead.  The bush the customers pointed out to us did appear to be trampled on, however, it is very close to the fence and it’s entirely possible that their dog has been trampling the bush in its efforts to track pedestrians along the fence line.  When questioned, our crew did not remember the bush and could not say for sure whether they may have damaged it.  Given that the general landscaping in the customers’ backyard is in need of quite a bit of watering and rehabilitation, and considering the fact that their dog may well be running through or over  the bush, we believe it is unfair to be held accountable for it since it has been at least one year since we finished the fence.  The customers did not inform us of damage to the bush prior to this complaint.

At this point, you’ve said about everything there is to say about the complaint.  We wouldn’t bother with a summation paragraph unless you want to go another mile and offer some other consolation prize to the customer.  That’s up to you.  But you can see how we took the whole complaint seriously, gave the customer an opportunity to save face, showed the public that we were willing to give up something to help them out and demonstrated that their complaint was illegitimate.

It was never our intent to paint the customers as villains, but by this time, it pretty much looks like they are.  And all we did was give them the benefit of the doubt.  See how that might impress a judge and the BBB?

Coming next, we’ll dissect the purpose of always giving the complainer or bad reviewer the opportunity to save face.

The Letterista would love to hear from you with your own stories in dealing with unwarranted attacks on your business reputation.  How did you respond to complaints that you didn’t earn?  Were you successful?  Could things have gone better?  Please leave your comments below or visit the Contact page and write to us about your situation.

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The Letterista

Throughout The Letterista's adult life, she has been an employee for several employers in both retail and contract fulfillment (private contract companies); she's been a private contractor and a small business owner, as well. A great many years were spent managing the offices of a construction trade where the competition was thick and the stakes were high, so the proper, professional handling of complaints and bad reviews was more than just a little important. The skills of good documentation and letter-writing were finely honed in that environment. Now, she writes for fun and profit.

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