We have all seen the smiling faces in the adverts. A man and woman gaze into each other's eyes, arms entwined, thrilled to have at last found love - with the help of a dating agency. And, given the proliferation of these organisations in recent years, there are, in reality, many such smiling faces about. But not everyone has a happy tale to tell.

Take the story of Mark (not his real name) and Together Introduction Ltd. He ended up demanding his money back, only to be told that he first must sign a 'release form' promising that he would not divulge to anyone, particularly the press, his experience with the company. He never did sign the form. Here is his story.

On several occasions Mark, a successful London barrister, received a leaflet through his door from Together. This upmarket agency, which has been spreading throughout North America since it was launched, in 1974, arrived in Britain four years ago. It bills itself as 'the world's largest introduction service for singles' and boasts a membership here in the thousands.

Separated from his wife for more than a year, Mark decided to give the leaflet a closer look. Holding down a demanding senior position at work and with two children to whom he devotes his weekends, there is little spare time or opportunity to find a new partner. The idea of an agency seemed eminently sensible, and the questions on the Together leaflet sounded intelligent enough. He ticked a few boxes, provided his telephone number as requested, and sent it off.

Soon after, he got a phone call from Together. The woman's manner was pleasant. She gently urged that an appointment be made. By now, however, he was preoccupied with other things. Undeterred, she said she would contact him again in a few weeks. True to her word, she did. This went on for four months. Eventually, Mark agreed to a meeting. Inquiring about fees, he was told that the company never discussed money over the telephone. Rather, he was asked at some length questions about his own situation and what he was looking for in a partner. The woman emphasised that Together was a personalised service, not computer-based - 'they went on about that,' remarks Mark, 'both on the phone and at the interview' - and that the company used detailed tests to help analyse the client's character, attitudes and values. Mark was told that, because of this approach, his appointment would require at least a couple of hours.

At the interview Mark emphasized to the Together representative that he did not want to be introduced to anyone who wished to have children, since he already had a family. This point was carefully noted and written down. He was assured that Together would have no difficulty finding him a partner. Overall, Mark was pleased with the way the meeting went and opted for the middlerange, in terms of cost, plan: 12 hand-selected introductions, one per month, for a year, at a fee of pounds 1,050. (The top price is pounds 3,110 for 36 introductions, while the cheapest is pounds 550 for four.) Upon signing the contract at the end of the interview, he was required to pay the sum in full.

It took about a month before Mark received his first referral - only to learn that, among other incompatibilities, the woman who was recommended to him was keen to have a baby. They did not meet. Not quite believing the company could have made such a fundamental error, he contacted Together and reiterated his wish to meet someone who did not want children. He waited for a replacement referral. Silence. A month went by. Finally, Mark again rang Together. A woman said that someone would call him back. He waited another week. No phone call. Once more he rang the company.

At last, some two weeks after this, Mark received the name and phone number of another introduction. It was at this stage that he started to have serious doubts about the company. Mark is a racial mix of Caucasian and Indian. The two referrals he was given were West Indian and Indian, respectively, which was fine with him, as long as they were westernised; he phoned Together, prior to contacting the second woman, to learn whether she fitted into this category. He is still reeling from the inane response. A man answered and said he did not have much information about her, except what was 'on the card' - what happened to all the information supposedly gathered and analysed from the interview? wondered Mark - so, as for whether she was westernised, he would simply have to 'listen to her accent to find out'.

On top of this, it became apparent when he contacted her that this woman was also looking to start a family. Mark had not even bothered to query Together about this; he was certain the company would not make the same mistake twice. She further told him, with profound dismay, that she had met a number of other men through the agency, all wholly unsuitable. It seemed to Mark that Together appeared to be, in their cases at any rate, matching them solely on the grounds of race and stature - both being of less than average height. From this point, his relationship with the company went rapidly downhill.

The next day he rang the customer services manager to discuss his concern. The man displayed a 'defensive manner', as Mark describes it, but finally conceded to credit him for the two ill-matched referrals. Mark then waited for Together to make the next move. More than two months passed. Nothing. 'At this point I just wanted to see what would happen,' he says. 'If the people there were doing their job properly, then I would have heard from someone.'

He never did. Mark by now wanted his money back. He consulted his Together contract. He was stunned. There appeared to be, on the face of it, little chance of a refund. Despite having studied contract law as part of his legal training, Mark had made the elementary mistake of not reading the document carefully enough before signing. There were statements such as 'the company undertakes to use its best endeavours so that the client shall receive a minimum of one referral a month'. So, then, as lonq as it could demonstrate that it had used its 'best endeavours', Together could successfully argue that it was not in breach of contract if it didn't come up with the agreed one-per-month referral.

The document also stated that, upon signing, the client 'acknowledges that he or she is being sold a membership on an 'as available basis'.' Therefore, the company was not obliged to arrange referrals if there was no one available. 'I just wasn't in lawyer mode when I read the contract the first time,' says Mark. 'The woman I dealt with was very friendly. So I wasn't in a suspicious frame of mind and didn't draw any inferences from the terminology. I know now that my mistake was to sign the contract on the spot. No one should ever do that. I should have taken it home and studied it carefully and asked for any ambiguities to be clarified to me, in writing, before signing.'

Still, Mark was convinced that the company had failed to give him the service he had paid for. He decided, even if it looked like an uphill struggle, that it was time to take action.

Next week: What happened next - and how Together responds to Mark's criticisms.