A Gulf Coast business owner fed up with unruly and delinquent customers finally fights back. He's made a lot of like-minded friends.
Rob Bodi, who runs an irrigation business in Sarasota, sought out a listener a few years ago so he could vent about a particular client who had become exceedingly difficult to please.
And vent Bodi did, over lunch with a friend who owns a competing irrigation business. Then, to Bodi's surprise: His friend had dealt with the same customer.
“She was just jumping from contractor to contractor,” says Bodi.
The conversation cemented a belief Bodi long held, one that goes against a time-tested business axiom: The customer, says Bodi, isn't always right.
“Thank God for good customers. Any business owner would be an idiot if he didn't say that,” Bodi says. “But there are also customers who see it as their job to rip off businesses.”
That thought led to a side venture, Business Beware. Bodi, along with his daughter Ashley Bodi, founded the organization in 2008 so like-minded business owners and entrepreneurs could have a forum to deal with difficult customers. The Bodis liken Business Beware to a reverse Better Business Bureau.
The organization, through www.businessbeware.biz, has since signed up more than 7,500 companies and entrepreneurs. The member list includes some on the Gulf Coast, but the majority is from outside the region, in places as far as California and Texas.
The Bodis experimented with pricing and the service is now free, though they may charge a fee later. “We aren't in this to make a lot of money,” Bodi says. “We are a support group. I'm a firm believer in misery loves company.”
But more than a forum for vents and support, the Bodis set up a system to help Business Beware members retrieve accounts receivables thought to be long gone. That process, the “Beware Letter,” could be Business Beware's most popular and potentially controversial feature.
It works like it sounds: A member can request that a letter go out to a client on Business Beware letterhead. The letter, essentially a precursor to being labeled as a delinquent, states the balance, the invoice number and a warning: If the customer doesn't pay, his or her name will go up on the Business Beware site for all other members to see.
Business Beware doesn't get a percentage of any money a business gets back, although it does charge a small fee for multiple letters. Says Bodi: “We want to get people to a point where they could avoid court and avoid collection agents.”
Of course, Bodi acknowledges a customer-business dispute could have several layers, and business owners, like the customer, aren't always right. He says he and his daughter researched the legalities of what they were doing before the site was launched. And they monitor the system and take down personal insults and foul language.
Moreover, the Bodis set up a system on the Web site where an accused customer could write a rebuttal letter. They also post a long disclaimer on the site to guard against lawsuits.
Business Beware has generated some national notoriety, in addition to its growing customer base. It was featured in a Business Week story last year and Entrepreneur magazine listed the site in its Stroke of Genius feature in May as a top-five brilliant idea. Plus, consumer advocate radio host Clark Howard has talked about Business Beware on the air.
For a time, Rob and Ashley Bodi hosted a Business Beware weekly radio show on WLSS 930 AM in Sarasota, where they talked about customer issues businesses have and interviewed entrepreneurs. The father-daughter team's next mission is to add a 'good' customer database, to counter the Beware Letters.
The success of Business Beware has also served another purpose for Bodi. It has helped him refocus his irrigation business, Venice-based Lang Irrigation, which is still where he earns his living. That company and two side businesses have has 10 employees and $1.5 million in annual revenues, down 50% from the peak.
Business Beware, however, remains Bodi's chance to see business justice brought to difficult customers.
“We're here to balance the scales,” says Bodi. “Isn't it time that businesses held customers to the same standard that customers have held businesses to for years?”