The debt management industry is full of competition. From the radio airwaves, to Google search results, to direct mail advertising and TV commercials, companies are always battling for top position. This might not seem much different than other industries; after all, we live in a world of advertising where we are constantly bombarded with messages to buy this or that. The problem with debt management, though, is that consumers on the other end of the advertisements are vulnerable and often don’t realize the differences between various types of debt relief and how they will be affected by each.
Perhaps one of the most misleading forms of advertising today, particularly for debt management services, is deceitful customer reviews. These can misrepresent a service and make a company appear much more appealing and trustworthy than it really is. In turn, this can lead consumers to options that aren’t in their best interest and it can position illegitimate companies higher than those that use proven methods and are properly accredited. Let’s take a deeper look at this problem and cover the steps you can take to make informed decisions when evaluating a credit counseling agency or debt management company.
A few problems:
There are several problems with the state of online review sites, which we will cover in more detail with specific examples.
One large review conglomerate that has come on the scene recently is thebestcompanys.com. Yes, the typo troubles us too (the proper spelling is “companies”), but that’s just the beginning of the site’s illegitimacy. The site is a network of domain names aimed at search engine optimization ploys (the websites are named after the keywords they are targeting with the hopes of getting more clicks from Google searches). For our purposes, the website www.bestdebtcompanys.com is in question here.
Insufficient Accreditation Standards
When dealing with credit counseling and debt management organizations, one of the most important factors to consider is accreditation. After all, you want to work with an organization that’s been vetted by a reliable third party. The federal government is clear that the best organizations in this case are the National Foundation for Credit Counseling and/or the Financial Counseling Association of America.
Make sure the credit counseling service you’re using is accredited with either of these organizations:
- National Foundation for Credit Counseling (NFCC)
- Financial Counseling Association of America (FCAA)
Unfortunately, bestdebtcompanys.com overlooks this prerequisite when deciding which companies to review positively. Instead of using these government approved accreditation agencies as a gauge of trustworthiness, it focuses on whether agencies are accredited by the CPFC, a largely unknown organization that provides certification and coursework related to debt settlement, a type of debt relief considered to be dangerous by most experts. In addition, they continue to promote confusion between credit counseling and debt consolidation, by bundling both under the same title when, in fact, they are quite different.
Flawed Ranking Methodology
When you view the site’s guidelines for how it ranks companies, you see that this factor alone accounts for six percent of the model and presents an unfair disadvantage to those companies who are accredited by one of the preferred organizations rather than the CPFC. What’s more troubling, though, is the amount of the ranking formula that is determined by the vague category of “Expert Review.” Very little detail is provided as to what qualifications the experts possess and why they are prepared to provide a review. Here’s a screenshot of the explanation they provide:
Lastly, there appears to be an odd relationship between the companies that are reviewed highly and those that have a significant amount of reviews. If the site truly presented a fair playing field, we would expect a much more consistent distribution of reviews across the companies listed. But, here it’s clear that a select group of companies are the only ones with many reviews and they are overwhelmingly positive. The reason for this, as we will discuss more in a moment, is that the top players are paying the website for this service. The end result is incredibly misleading, which is why consumers need to be armed with the information of how to spot a good company from a bad one. Take a look at the companies below. The first is of a company that isn’t accredited by the two agencies mentioned previously. It’s also got an enormously high number of reviews compared to other sites, implying a close relationship with the review service.
The next agency (below), an NFCC member, doesn’t have any real reviews but gets a low rating as a result of the site’s methodology. What’s most troubling is that “No” is listed in response to the question “are there certified counselors on staff?” As we’ve demonstrated, not only are there certified counselors on staff, but they are certified by the two agencies most trusted in the credit counseling industry. Unfortunately, the average consumer likely won’t realize this, and can fall prey to the misleading tactics employed by the website. In addition, its fees are lower and it has been in business much longer than the company above. It’s low ranking is a troubling sign of the site’s illegitimacy.
The Paid Model
The heart of the problem with these review sites is that they are using a paid model. One of the biggest sites that does this is ConsumerAffairs.com. By paying them, companies get a badge, which according to the ConsumerAffairs website provides the following benefits:
“A company that displays the ConsumerAffairs Accredited Seal has agreed to work with us to resolve consumer complaints. In exchange for a monthly fee, we provide ConsumerAffairs Accredited companies with certain information regarding consumer reviews and complaints and allow ConsumerAffairs Accredited companies to respond privately or publicly to the consumer. While ConsumerAffairs never changes star ratings at a company’s request, a consumer may choose to change a star rating after resolving a complaint with a company, and this could increase a company’s overall star rating. In addition, if a consumer does not respond to a request for more information, or the consumer’s complaint is resolved privately with the company, or the factual basis for a complaint is unresolved, the consumer’s star rating may not be displayed and will not be included in a company’s overall star rating.”
What ConsumerAffairs fails to mention is that they are creating a biased review environment in this arrangement. This is because sites that don’t pay are at a natural disadvantage. And is that fair? Should sites be bullied into paying for a review service when much more reliable ones exist for free? Of course, we think the answer is “no.” But the reality is that while payment is required to be “accredited,” other companies are listed on the site too, even if they don’t pay. While that might sound like a good thing, it’s actually the real crux of the problem. Here’s why: we know consumers are more likely to share bad experiences than good ones.
Overall, 95% of respondents who have had a bad experience said they told someone about it, compared to 87% who shared a good experience.
So if a company is listed on a review site, but isn’t paying for preferred status or accreditation and isn’t intentionally pushing people to that site to provide reviews, then there’s a strong chance that any reviews consumers add manually will be more negative than those that consumers add for a company that is paying to be listed. Companies that pay for the accreditation will have an incentive to encourage more positive reviews, and will (as the ConsumerAffairs description explains) use tactics to remove or hide negative reviews. The point here is that paying to be listed on certain review sites gives a company a misleading advantage over others, all things considered, because the paying company will have more resources at its disposal to artificially manipulate any negative feedback.
The combination of this problem, the lack of legitimacy, the poor accreditation standards, flawed ranking methodologies and the overall lack of transparency positions these review sites as bad for both consumers and companies. Luckily, there are better review sites and ways you can evaluate a company.
Better Review Services
There are four main sites (some of which you may use every day) that can help you get a better sense of a company, product, or organization.
The Better Business Bureau
You’ve heard of the Better Business Bureau, and for good reason. It’s been around since 1912 and is an invaluable nonprofit resource for consumers. It’s also recommended by the federal government as one of the entities with whom consumers should file complaints against companies or individual purchases, along with the FTC (that’s good company to be in!).
Before working with any kind of new company, it’s a great idea to check the BBB rating. If an organization follows the BBB Code of Business Practices and responds to disputes in an appropriate manner, that should be a good sign that the company is trustworthy and is correlated to a higher grade on the scale.
Google Plus and Yelp
You probably recognize both of these players from any research you’ve done on local restaurants, service providers and other businesses. These two large companies take their commitment to authentic reviews very seriously. By giving business owners the opportunity to reply and taking steps to ensure reviews are submitted by real customers, both sites typically paint a realistic picture of what consumers can expect when working with a business.
Our favorite review site for products is Consumer Reports, a company that invests in extensive, objective testing of a variety of consumer products on the market. As a magazine, it’s been in publication since 1936 and is known for it adherence to strict standards. Paying for a subscription to the service may not be wise for consumers who are in debt or facing other financial challenges, but quite a bit of information can be accessed on the company’s website for free.
At the end of the day, no review system is perfect. All of them have been vulnerable to some imperfection or criticism. But, a combination of the BBB, Google Plus and Yelp will provide a great way to get an overall sense of a company’s legitimacy. For products, start with Consumer Reports.
What you’ll want to avoid, particularly if you are looking for a debt management service or other financial company, is relying on new review websites outside of this list that don’t use proper criteria to evaluate these nuanced industries and/or rely on a paid model for securing reviews and limiting negativity. If you avoid these websites, you will have a much better chance of enjoying a positive customer experience and finding a trusted organization to help you achieve good financial health.