Ever had a plumber, auto mechanic or electrician that created more problems than were fixed, but you didn't know anyone who could refer you to someone more reliable? You can check out all kinds of product and service providers, from lawn-maintenance companies to financial planners, through the Better Business Bureau's website.

The Better Business Bureau in the United States and Canada keeps track of important information about online and local-area companies. Through the BBB, you can find complaint records, information about how long a company has been in business, licensing information, whether government actions have been filed, contact information and most importantly, how customer complaints have been resolved.

While businesses are evaluated regardless of whether they belong to the Better Business Bureau, companies can become members to show their solidarity with BBB standards. By finding a reliable business, you may be able to save cash by not having to shell out money for the same repair twice.

10 Steps To Finding Top-Notch Companies
You can use the Better Business Bureau's websites to find top-notch companies by following these steps:

1. Find your local or online Better Business Bureau website
Go to BBB.org and enter your United States zip code or Canadian postal code. This will bring you to the website for the Better Business Bureau in your local community. If you are looking up the record of a specific company and do not know its location, click on either the U.S. or Canadian national site. If you are looking for an online-only company, go to BBBOnline.org.

2. Find the business you need
After you find your local or online Better Business Bureau, click on the tab for consumers. From there, either type the name or other information about the company into the search line for business details.

If you are on your local BBB site, you can also look at businesses by service type. After you choose the category, you'll be able to limit your search based on proximity to your zip code and choose to limit your search to Better Business Bureau-accredited businesses only.

3. Learn from the experience of other customers
Once you have found the company or category you're looking for, you can start gathering data. The most important information you can find concerns the experience of past customers. (Some types of businesses are modeled to encourage customer interaction – customer-to-customer businesses, for example. Read Getting To Know Business Models for more information on how businesses are structured.)

The BBB provides the number of complaints that have been processed over the past 36 months and whether the business resolved the issue with the customer. For instance, if your credit card was overcharged and you filed a complaint with the BBB, the BBB website will show that a complaint was filed against your credit card company and will provide information on whether it was resolved.

The BBB Online website provides even greater detail about how complaints are resolved. Each complaint can be assigned a status, including:

  • refund issued
  • partial refund issued
  • refusing to make an adjustment
  • relying on terms of agreement
  • unanswered
  • unassigned

(Read Choosing The Winners In The Click-And-Mortar Game to learn more about finding a great online business.)

4. Check the online ratings
While your local BBB site for physical businesses within in your area will only give you a rating of "satisfactory" or "unsatisfactory", the ratings for online businesses range from an 'AAA' rating, which means the online version of the Better Business Bureau ranks it as an exemplary company based on BBB standards, to a self-explanatory 'F' based on BBB standards.

5. Find out how long the company has been in business
This helps you make sure the business didn't just open yesterday, so you can find a company with the experience level you desire.

6. Find out whether government actions have been filed
This section notes if there have been any law-enforcement actions taken against the companies you are reviewing. (Read Common Clues Of Financial Statement Manipulation to find out if a company you are dealing with may be cooking the books.)

7.Check for licensing information
If you are looking for a service for your home, such as an electrical repair, this is the section where you will find licensing information in the company report.

8.Search for Better Business Bureau membership
If you want to work with a company that has agreed to comply with the standards of the Better Business Bureau – including trying to resolve potential disputes you might have – both the online and local Better Business Bureau websites show whether the company is a member of the BBB and for how long.

9.Gather contact information
After you have researched one or several companies thoroughly and found several companies you might want to use for the service you need performed, you can use the contact information found within the reports to contact all of the companies and compare prices.

10. Filing complaints and conflict resolution.
If you are not pleased with the services rendered by the company your choose, contact the company and report your issue. If it is not resolved, then report it online to the Better Business Bureau. The BBB will try to mediate the process.

Companies who are members of the Better Business Bureau may be motivated to resolve your claim quickly so as to avoid a black mark on their complaint records. In addition, the information you report will help others decide which companies to use in the future, which makes you part of this valuable resource for service referrals. (Mistakes happen in the financial world too. Read Broker Gone Bad? What To Do If You Have A Complaint and Tips For Resolving Disputes With Your Financial Advisor to learn more.)

While it would be great if there were no need to check up on a potential product or service providers, given that the need does exist, the Better Business Bureau is a great source of reliable information. By setting up standards for companies to operate by and encouraging customers to share their experiences, the BBB has made it possible for consumers to get informed and save money by choosing the right company the first time.

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