The Better Business Bureau has changed the rating system that it uses to evaluate small businesses. While in previous years, businesses received a "satisfactory" or "unsatisfactory" rating, now the ratings range from A + to F.

According to Steve Cox, national bureau spokesman, the more specific rankings are designed to be more helpful to consumers. "The letter grade represents the BBB's degree of confidence that that business is operating in trustworthy manner, and that it is making a good-faith effort to serve consumers," he says.

And in penny-pinching times, Cox posits, consumers will be grateful for the help. "We feel that given today's economy, consumers want more than just consumer reviews. They are looking for objective information because they can't afford to make a bad decision," he says.

The Better Business Bureau takes into consideration a variety of factors when rating businesses, including consumer complaint volume, nature of complaints, and company responsiveness to customer concerns. The letter-grade assessments of both BBB accredited and non-accredited businesses are available free of charge on their website,

Businesses that score top-notch marks can use the grade to their advantage, in marketing materials or simply to back up their own promises of integrity. Scott Jacob, president of Jacob Sun Room & Exteriors in Fairview Heights, Illinois, says that customer service has been a top priority since he joined the family business in 1977. He was pleased but not surprised that the BBB awarded them an A +.

"We've worked very, very hard to make sure that our customers know we are always there for them. We always push that as No. 1," he says. He appreciates the BBB grade because customers who are unfamiliar with his practices will have another reason to seek them out. "This is another 3rd party to back us up," he says.

For business owners who are dissatisfied with their grade, there is some recourse, says Cox. "The first thing they should do is contact the BBB to determine why they got that grade," he says, noting that a less-than-perfect grade can help business owners identify and rectify areas of weakness.