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It Is More Than Just an Advertising Board, Consumer Bureau Looks to Help Residents

Matthew Hersh

Open the yellow pages and you can find a veritable potpourri of business names, services, and contacts for just about anything you need, the problem is, you don't find out that the service is sub-par until after you've paid the bill. Princeton residents, who seemingly refuse to take anything at face value, have often turned to the for-profit, Princeton-based Consumer Bureau to ensure credibility.

But in such a tight-knit community, with many residents already knowing the scope and quality of various firms, stores, and businesses around town, is there still such a need to establish good community standing? Apparently
yes, according to the thousands of businesses that advertise on the Bureau's register.

"We are a service here to be used," said Alyssa Sutphin, director of the Consumer Bureau. "Some good businesses never get on our register because they have simply not been recommended to us or have made themselves known."

"We need those businesses to come to our attention," she added.

The Consumer Bureau was founded in February 1967 by current President Joseph M. Boyd, and then owner of the Princeton Community Phone Book. As a resident, one of the problems Mr. Boyd had with the phone book was that anyone was able to advertise regardless of the quality of the product. Customers had no way of knowing if they were getting their money's worth until it was too late, Ms. Sutphin said.

"In running a phone book, Joseph knew he had many advertisers, but no way to tell who was good and who wasn't," she said.

After spending time with an Oxford consumer group in England, in the mid 1960s, Mr. Boyd decided to return and establish a firm that would function as a sort of Consumer Reports of the greater-Princeton community.

But it wasn't easy at first.

"It took a while to gain credibility," Ms. Sutphin said, explaining that the main objective when the Bureau was first established was to solicit residents to recommend businesses in the area. If a recommendation was given, and a business was added to the register of "good standing," the Bureau would subsequently ask the business if it wanted a place in its ads in the Town Topics and US 1.

To be in good standing requires having no unresolved customer complaints. A business must also have the satisfaction of the Bureau panel, which consists of area residents and is chaired by Princeton Township Mayor Phyllis Marchand.

When a complaint is submitted by a customer, the panel reviews the nature of the complaint and decides if the customer's claims are unfounded, or if the company should resolve the conflict. The panel is kept unaware of the names of the business and the complainant throughout arbitration.

The panel meets several times a year to review complaints, Ms. Sutphin said.

"If we suggest that a firm make adjustments [in response] to complaints, and they don't do it, then they are removed from our register," Ms. Sutphin said. She added that businesses paying for advertising are also removed and lose their place on the Bureau's page.

However, Ms. Sutphin emphasized that the Bureau's main objective is not to handle complaints, but to encourage customers to come forward and recommend "the good ones." She added that she does not see as many recommendations as she would like.

She estimates that about 500 businesses a year are admitted to the Bureau's register of good standing companies. She said there would be more, but people are naturally more inclined to file a complaint when things are unsatisfactory, which is why the Bureau actively solicits recommendations.

Can a company with unresolved complaints get back on good standing? Sometimes, but it is not the norm.

"We had a firm come to us after 15 years, they had an outstanding complaint, had since changed ownership, and asked us 'what can we do?'," Ms. Sutphin said. She said that the company subsequently supplied the Bureau with three references with positive endorsements and the company was able to get back into the "good-standing" column.

"We're not a legal body, these issues can be worked out," she said.

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