Complaints Down, But Huge Jump in Inquiries Means Shoppers Are Doing Their Homework

March 21, 2012

Consumer savvy, smart shopping and common sense all had a great year, according to Better Business Bureau. Consumers asked BBB for help more than 103 million times in 2011, up from 87 million in 2010 and the highest rate in the organization’s 100-year history. Conversely, filings of formal complaints against businesses were down across the U.S. and Canada; 927,000 in 2011 compared to just over one million in 2010.

“That is terrific news, that’s what we want to see,” said Carrie A. Hurt, CEO of the Council of Better Business Bureaus (CBBB), the umbrella organization for the 116 BBBs across North America. “When consumers come to us first for information about businesses, they are much less likely to need our dispute resolution services later.”

BBB maintains Business Reviews on more than 4 million businesses and grades them based on complaint histories, responsiveness to customers, licensing, legal and government action, and other factors. 400,000 are Accredited Businesses that meet the BBB Code of Business Practices and are permitted to display the BBB logo in their advertising and place of business.

Industry  2011 Total Inquiries  Rank by number of Inquiries1 Percentage Change over 2010 
Roofing Contractors   3,343,214  1 38.8% 
Contractors – General   2,232,022  2 71.4% 
Auto Dealers – Used Cars   1,606,226  3 40.6% 
Auto Repair & Service   1,581,440  4 63.8% 
Plumbers   1,524,559  5 49.9% 
Auto Dealers – New Cars 1,517,950 6 26%
Mortgage Brokers 1,471,565 7 14.5%
Construction & Remodeling Services 1,293,423 8 36.4%
Heating & Air Conditioning 1,227,787 9 19.4%
Movers 1,205,158 10 3.3%

1 Inquiry rank is out of 4,790 industry categories 

These numbers were not surprising. “These are mostly big-ticket items,” noted Hurt. “People tend to do more research when they are spending a lot of money, such as on homes and cars. We get most of our inquiries on our website,, which gets more than six million visitors a month.”

Complaints are formal procedures that consumers file against a particular business when they have a problem they cannot resolve on their own. Every complaint is examined by an investigator at the local BBB where the business is located, and the company is given 30 days to respond. About 95% of complaints to BBBs are resolved at this level; the rest go to mediation or arbitration. BBB has trained mediators and arbitrators in every state and province in North America.

Industry  2011 Total Complaints Rank by number of Complaints1  Percentage Change over 2010 Percentage of Resolved Complaints 2
Cellular Telephone Service & Equipment  38,420  1  40.8%  96.1%
Auto Dealers – New Cars  25,983  2 5.2%  87.8% 
Television – Cable, CATV & Satellite  25,518  3 -17.6%  97.8% 
Collection Agencies  18,090  4 13.9%  83.1% 
Auto Dealers – Used Cars  16,264  5 12%  72.9% 
Banks 15,989 6 -29.4% 97.5%
Telephone Companies 15,691 7 65.2% 96.3%
Furniture – Retail 14,521 8 11.5% 75.3%
Auto Repair & Service 14,490 9 10% 66.7%
Internet Shopping 12,877 10 -.6% 71.9%
1 Complaint rank is out of 4,790 industry categories
2 Average resolution rate across all industries for 2011 was 76.3 percent

Again, not too surprising, as these are goods and services almost all of us use,” said Hurt. “So even though the volume of complaints is high, the actual rate of complaints is relatively low. And companies in these industries also tend to resolve complaints at a higher rate, as well.”

Some industries saw big improvements over the past year. Complaints about health and medical products fell 61%, vitamins and food supplements fell 49%, satellite equipment and supplies fell 46%, vacation certificates and vouchers fell 45%, complaints about small business loans were down 38%, extended warranty contract service companies down 38%, buying clubs down 35%, loans were down 35%, complaints about mortgage brokers fell 31%, and banks fell 30%.*

There were quite a few industries with big increases in complaints, but one industry stood out more than any other: payday loan companies had 159% more complaints than in 2010. Other industries with an increase in complaints: book publishers rose 72%; cellular telephone equipment/supplies up 64%, and telephone companies up 64%; electronic equipment repair and service rose 54%; florists complaints rose 52%; travel clubs were up 48%; general merchandise retail increased 46%; insurance services rose 43%; and skin care rose 41%.*
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* The most improved/declined industries were those with the highest percentage changes in complaints from 2010 to 2011 for those industries with at least 1,000 complaints in 2011. All of those noted are in the top 200 industry categories that BBB tracks.

For the complete complaint and inquiry statistics for US and Canada, please visit our 2011 complaint page.

ABOUT BBB: For 100 years, Better Business Bureau has been helping consumers find businesses, brands and charities they can trust. BBB has Business Reviews on more than 4 million companies and Charity Reviews on 11,000 charities, all available for free. The Council of Better Business Bureaus is the umbrella organization for 116 local, independent BBBs across the United States and Canada, as well as home to its national programs on dispute resolution and industry self-regulation.