Monday, April 18, 2005


Bonnie Horibata, right, examined a case file last week at the Better Business Bureau of Hawaii offices in Downtown Honolulu as Liz Ramos, seated, handled a phone call in her role as the bureau's coordinator of membership services.

Making business better

Bonnie Horibata helps
businesses and consumers
resolve misunderstandings

Bonnie Horibata has a hairdresser's gift for communicating, which shouldn't be surprising since she started out as a hair dresser after attending Honolulu Community College. Rather than cut hair, however, Horibata was soon using her skills to help people resolve problems, including five years in customer relations and claims for Aloha Airlines, and now as director of operations for the Better Business Bureau of Hawaii. At the nonprofit bureau, which is funded by more than 2,000 dues-paying businesses, Horibata directs nine employees and about 10 volunteers as they field complaints from consumers and try to resolve them to everyone's satisfaction. A member of the second graduating class of Kaiser High School, Horibata, 47, is married to Aloha Airlines pilot Wallace Horibata and lives in Aiea with their 8-year-old son. She also has three adult children by a previous marriage.

Who: Bonnie Horibata

Title: Director of operations

Job: Directs Better Business Bureau of Hawaii staff and volunteers involved in handling complaints, dispute resolution, and the bureau's database.

Question: You're director of operations for the Better Business Bureau of Hawaii. What operations do you direct?

Answer: That's a good question. We have advertising review, we have complaints/alternate dispute resolution. We also maintain our data base of information that comes in, we do investigations, charity reviews and complaint handling. If I keep going on, I'll get a raise. (Laughter)

Q: How long have you been there?

A: I've been with the bureau for three years, but before that I was in the airline industry. I managed the customer relations and claims department for Aloha Airlines, and when I was there, I had the opportunity to sit on the board for the Better Business Bureau. So that's where I learned about what the bureau does, and it piqued my interest. Then when the opportunity arose, I made the move.

Q: Did you replace someone?

A: I knew that Ann (Deschene, bureau president) was looking for somebody in operations. So I guess in casual conversation I asked, "What are you really looking for?" So when the position became available, she asked if I was available, and I was.

Q: How many complaints do you get a year, and how many do you investigate?

A: Well, in our handy dandy bureau activity report for 2004, which is available online, it says we handled about 5,498 complaints. Half of those don't actually get processed as you would a complaint. Instead, a lot of those we just educate the people about how to handle the complaint themselves. So a lot of it is counseling.

Then the other half is conciliation, actually just communication. We communicate to the business about a customer that has a problem, and we just try to resolve it, because we're just trying to maintain the relationship between them and the customer. So we're completely neutral. There's no good guys or bad guys.

Q: There aren't?

A: No. A lot of times it's miscommunication. A lot of times the customer doesn't know what is expected. We like to help the customer learn what's expected.

You know, we're told that the customer is always right, but that isn't always so. A lot of times they need to know what the actual situation is. Like if they bought a car "as is," they think they can go back to the dealer and complain about something, but they can't. So we educate them and help them learn how they can do better the next time they go to buy a car. The businesses appreciate that.

Bonnie Horibata likes to "talk story" as a way to help resolve differences between businesses and their customers. She works at the Better Business Bureau of Hawaii, on the 15th floor of 1132 Bishop St. in Downtown Honolulu.

Q: How many investigators work for the bureau?

A: We have about nine people on staff and about 10 volunteers who come in.

Q: What kind of background do they have to have?

A: They don't have to have a specific background, but they have to be interested and have a curious mind. One volunteer is a retired ad exec, and he's helping me with our ad-review program, and he's really enjoying it. Another volunteer is a senior citizen who does clerical work, but she goes out and speaks to groups about scams and frauds. She was counselor at Leeward Community College.

Q: Do you ever work with state and federal investigators on cases?

A: Yes, we do. I also work closely with CrimeStoppers, another nonprofit organization.

Q: What's the most typical complaint you get?

A: New cars -- customers not understanding the package they purchased, the parameters of the contract. Also cellular phones. Again, those are contractual issues. A lot of them are customer-service issues.

Q: What company in town has the most complaints against it?

A: We would rate it by industries, so this past year it was auto dealers, and that would include repair facilities within the industry, because a lot of that is repairs. The second would be telephones -- cellular and mobile-type phones.

Q: Is it difficult getting people who have been complained about to cooperate in your investigations?

A: If you start to see a pattern of complaints, or there's potential for victims, or potential for moneys lost, that's when you have to put on your investigative hat. Now it's not neutral anymore. You put on a different hat, and you start to see these triggers. You start to take a look at them, and I guess that's where my role comes in within the office. One person might be handling a complaint on this side of the office and another on that side, and then we get together and talk story and start to see a pattern. It's like a puzzle, and when you put the pieces together, you start to see a picture. So complaints can lead to an investigation.

Q: What happens if you find a company guilty of a complaint and they don't try to make good?

A: If a company chooses not to answer the complaint, and we followed our due process, then the company would have an unsatisfactory report. Those reports are available online, so people who are doing business and they want to check on a business, they can check our Web site (www.hawaii.bbb.org).

If a company can't resolve a complaint, but if we document that this company's made a good effort to solve the complaint and the customer is still not satisfied, then the complaint will be closed out as administratively resolved, and the company maintains their satisfactory report.

The thing is, we're not an enforcement agency, so we can't crack down on a questionable business or scam. That's why it's important for us to piece together the puzzle, which we do by documentation and communication. And when we have the pieces together, then we share that information, so we can minimize the effect on the community, because dollars that are lost here in Hawaii affect everyone.

Q: How did you hone your investigative and mediative skills?

A: I think naturally I wear that hat. You have to be curious, and you have to be persistent, and you have to document, and you have to be a good communicator -- and a good listener.

Q: Do you do most of your research from the office, or do you go out into the field?

A: I do my research in the office, on the Internet, and talk story.

"Hawaii at Work" features people telling us what they do for a living. Send suggestions to mcoleman@starbulletin.com.

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