ADR - Organizations Another Great Resource For Dispute Resolution: The Better Business Bureau

Monday, August 1, 2005 - 00:00

The Editor interviews Brian Rauer, General Counsel of the Metro NY Better Business Bureau and Executive Director of the BBB serving the Mid-Hudson/New York State region. Mr. Rauer is also an Administrative Law Judge/Hearing Officer (on the Westchester County Human Rights Commission roster).

Editor: Mr. Rauer, please tell our readers something about your background and work with the BBB.

Rauer: I received my law degree from Tulane Law School. In addition to my present positions, I still maintain a hands-on approach with the BBB's pro bono attorney mediation and arbitration programs, as I view this work to be of such tremendous value to the community that we serve. I also find myself speaking to the community, dispute resolution professionals, corporate entities and the news media quite frequently on business, consumer, dispute resolution and legal education topics. Just a few of my past and present positions have included chairing the Cyberspace Law Committee of the NY County Lawyers' Association, serving on the Board of Directors for the Association for Conflict Resolution-Greater NY Chapter, the Advisory Board for Berkeley College's paralegal program and the Advisory Board for the Foundation For Entrepreneurship. I have also had the pleasure of hosting and educating, through the BBB, visiting foreign dignitaries from such diverse nations as China, Japan, India, Brazil, Nigeria, El Salvador, Guinea, Romania, Lebanon, South Africa, and the U.K. In fact, in recent years I have accepted invitations to travel overseas and help to educate the government and various business and consumer organizations in the U.K. This exchange of ideas regarding BBB philosophy, self-regulation and effective dispute resolution techniques has proven quite valuable and I expect this exchange to continue and grow in the coming years.

Editor: How does your volunteer attorney program work?

Rauer: We are fortunate to have an outstanding pro bono mediation program at the BBB. We train attorneys in-house and utilize their expertise in the resolution of consumer to business complaints as well as certain business to business disputes. Through this program, we have resolved thousands of cases where parties may otherwise have litigated or, more likely, dropped the matter altogether without any satisfactory resolution. We fill a niche where a consumer may feel that he or she has no place else to turn for assistance. Our Bureau processes tens of thousands of cases on an annual basis. Moreover, as our mediation is provided free to the community, this expertise is coupled with true accessibility - that aspect is invaluable to those who may not be able to afford alternative remedies. A key factor in our pro bono success remains our longstanding working relationship with the Public Service Network at the Bar Association of the City of NY.

With regard to BBB arbitration, our roster continues to raise the bar. Although offered a modest honorarium, our arbitrators are essentially performing this valuable service on a voluntary basis. The training process is more formal than for mediation, conducted with the Council of Better Business Bureaus , the umbrella organization for the national BBB system. To qualify as arbitrators, accepted trainees must successfully complete and pass an intensive training and observe sufficient BBB arbitration before handling a case on their own. We must necessarily maintain high standards; should either party lose faith in the arbitrator or the forum, they will invariably lose faith in the integrity of the arbitration process itself.

Editor: What exactly does one do when mediating a case through The Better Business Bureau?

Rauer: One of our central functions is to assist businesses and their customers in resolving their disputes in an expedited, resolution fostering setting. Of course, if we have successfully resolved a dispute that may otherwise have resulted in litigation, the savings of time, expense, effort, and the often emotional toll of litigation is even more quantifiable. It's with that in mind that we have streamlined the process to render it user-friendly, accessible, and generally quite swift. Once received, the assigned mediator will present a pursuable dispute to the business and hopefully initiate a dialogue for resolution. Most BBB mediation is performed over the telephone, utilizing the conference-call style mediation hearing and individual party caucusing, where necessary. Through our recently redesigned complaint handling system, we have also taken advantage of certain online DR benefits. As we have a truly global economy and a significant number of consumer purchases occur online, we may receive complaints from around the country and transnationally. This has been an invaluable tool in aiding such parties in quick and effective dispute resolution, where geography may otherwise have posed an insurmountable hurdle.

During a full mediation, the trained mediator may employ such techniques as emotive management, reflective listening, the reality check, identification of common ground, and venting (evoking the catharsis of having been heard); they may then effectively refocus the parties on the true, core issues in dispute and work toward mutually acceptable resolution. In many cases, an otherwise easily resolvable problem has devolved into an intractable dispute based upon an initially simple misunderstanding. Of course, the Better Business Bureau has the advantage of trust, recognized neutrality and name recognition. For that reason, consumers often turn to the BBB to answer inquiries and resolve disputes. I believe that we had over 1.3 million such consumer contacts last year. This certainly helps us to make a real difference.

Editor: Why would a corporate counsel be interested in the BBB's DR programs?

Rauer: Naturally, as corporate counsel, you would wish to eliminate or quickly address issues that could lead to litigation or extended disputes. Such consumer disputes can be quite taxing on a corporate law department. Moreover, it's always better for the corporation to learn about and successfully address a dispute prior to unnecessary escalation. The much quoted philosophy that it is far more difficult to attract a new customer than to retain an old one remains a guiding force. Akin to that, it has also been shown that a business may find itself with a more loyal customer who has been effectively helped with his/her dispute than one who actually had no dispute at all. The BBB has certainly been able to assist in this area.

Editor: Does BBB membership have anything to do with DR?

Rauer: Let me first point out that all of our dispute resolution is neutral and impartial - and open for consumers of member and non-member businesses. That said, every BBB member company makes an important dispute resolution promise to its customers. At a minimum, BBB member firms agree to make good faith efforts to address all customer disputes in a timely fashion. Customers appreciate such treatment and opinion research studies show that most prefer doing business with BBB member firms. Many member firms participate in a full dispute resolution program. Through our Customer Commitment program, for example, member firms have agreed to arbitrate, at the customer's sole option, disputes that cannot be resolved through conciliation or mediation. This multi-tiered approach avoids unnecessary escalation and provides a nearly guaranteed option of closure. In addition, all member companies agree to abide by BBB codes of conduct.

Editor: So the Better Business Bureau issues business guidelines of some kind?

Rauer: Yes. Our mission promotes voluntary self-regulation within the responsible business community. Of course, to make that work, businesses have to agree on standards and abide by them. For this reason, the BBB maintains formal best practices guidelines. BBB members agree to uphold these standards and we recommend them to all companies. There are two main sets of guidelines, one dealing with advertising and marketing practices and another dealing with online business conduct, emphasizing privacy issues. The Online Business Code was created as a response to the rise of the Internet - along with the BBBOnLine trustmark seal program - and has been cited widely as an effective international standard of business self-governance. At this time, there are over 20,000 large and small companies in the BBBOnLine Reliability Seal program, which symbolizes the firm's commitment to meet our standards. The BBBOnLine Privacy Seal is of value in meeting stringent European Safe Harbor privacy requirements (check out www.bbbonline.org for further information).

Editor: Why would a big company with a famous brand be interested in meeting BBB guidelines?

Rauer: Consumers tell us that they want to do business with corporations that abide by good business practices. BBB guidelines can be truly helpful to any business, large or small, because they emphasize the need for self-regulation, transparency, accountability, and responsiveness in business conduct. These principles can help a company's employees make good judgments in potentially unclear business situations. Moreover, if you are advertising your brand, marketing staff and vendors could certainly benefit from familiarizing themselves with the BBB's Advertising Code.

Editor: Sounds great, but does that have anything to do with your DR programs?

Rauer: Certainly. Consumer complaints are often generated by flawed and problematic advertising and promotion programs. A well-meaning business can unwittingly offend and confuse its customers simply by failing to communicate clearly regarding the terms of a sale for products or services offered in advertisements or on a website. The Better Business Bureau guidelines can be effective tools for improving business communications and avoiding or mitigating such customer problems.

Editor: These days, when every major corporation has its own ethics and corporate governance program, what makes the BBB relevant?

Rauer: Take a look at the business section of any newspaper on a given day and you can see for yourself that the Better Business Bureau's emphasis on meeting shared standards for self-governance may be more relevant than ever. Having your own internal program is an essential first step. However, corporations don't exist in a vacuum. Even companies that have a global focus are still deeply rooted in their communities and they are affected by their local economies. In an economic climate that has been tainted by scandal, businesses have even more to gain by joining together to promote reputable practices. The modern BBB was founded by business leaders for that common purpose and it is uniquely suited for it.

Editor: Who would I contact if I wanted to volunteer?

Rauer: Interested volunteer attorneys may email brauer@newyork.bbb.org and one of my staff will quickly apprise them of our next orientation. They may also contact Rita Plate at rplate@newyork.bbb.org. For information about being part of the BBB, you may contact Luana Lewis at llewis@newyork.bbb.org.

Editor: And what if I want to complain?

Rauer: For free service, you may contact us through our website, 24 hours a day, at www.newyork.bbb.org; you may also fax your complaint to 212-477-4912 or send it by mail. There's a modest fee of about $5 plus tax for telephone service. BBB member company employees can call us for free at a special member hotline. You may call 212-533-7500 for general information.

Thanks very much for taking such interest in the work of the Better Business Bureau. I hope that I have provided some helpful information.

Please email the interviewee at brauer@newyork.bbb.org with questions about this interview.