Heart Searching: How Mark got his money back: Concluding the story of a dissatisfied customer who decided to take legal action against an introduction agency. Linda Joffee reports
Saturday 30 April 1994
Together's only reply to that letter was to ask for confirmation that Mark's colleague was actually a solicitor. When confirmation was supplied, Together came back with: 'Thank you for your letter . . . As you will appreciate, Together is covered by the Data Protection Act, and so all details of our members are kept strictly confidential.'
His solicitor was not asking for any information. She simply requested that Mark's money be refunded to him. Mark by now had lost patience with Together. He decided to issue a county court summons. He was surprised at just how easy it turned out to be. All he had to do was go to his local county court - here he was acting in the capacity of an ordinary citizen, not as a member of the legal profession - and explain that he wanted to get his money, pounds 1,000, reimbursed from a company he believed was in breach of contract. He was then handed several forms, plus eight pamphlets written with plenty of diagrams and arrows.
'The language is very simple,' says Mark. 'Anyone could do it. It's a summons by numbers, literally.' He paid a fee, which he specified in his claim would be included in the amount he was seeking to recover. The summons was automatically issued the next morning. Together had 14 days to respond.
Less than a week later, the company agreed to give Mark his money back.
More recently, I contacted Together's London headquarters and explained that I was writing about Mark's case for the Independent. Soon after, Together's director of marketing, Marjorie Kaufman, rang from the company's head office in America. Mark's file, plus all relevant information, had been sent to her. Her first comment was to ask if Mark really was a barrister. I assured her that he was.
Continuing with the utmost politeness, she indicated that she didn't quite know what the problem was since Together had authorised a full refund upon learning of Mark's dissatisfaction. Not so, I countered. The company had not agreed to refund anything until it received a summons. Moreover, pounds 50 of the pounds 1,050 fee he had originally paid Together was not covered by the summons and was still outstanding; although an insubstantial amount in itself, Mark had expressed to Together his wish to have that reimbursed as well, on point of principle. The company had refused. Mark did not feel this was the behaviour of an organisation wishing to make amends. Ms Kaufman continued: 'My understanding was that the final pounds 50 was still pending, but that he was okay with it.'
He most certainly was not.
'Let me look into that,' she responded, with the same unwavering politeness. She later told me that Together would refund the pounds 50.
I also put to Ms Kaufman that Mark received regular phone calls from Together prior to joining, but once he did sign on, the assiduous attention dried up. He felt that he had to continually prod the company to remind it of his existence. 'I'm going to look into it for you,' Ms Kaufman repeated. Something she could state categorically, though, was that the two women who had been referred to Mark were currently, according to the files she had in front of her, 'on hold' - the company was not sending men to them at the moment - because 'they have both found successful matches and are in happy relationships right now through us'.
I subsequently managed to contact one of those women. She was shocked. 'I am not in any relationship]' she wailed. 'In fact, just two weeks ago they introduced me to someone, so how could they do that if I was 'on hold'?'
She has been referred to nine men through Together. 'With the matches they sent me there really was no compatibility at all,' she states emphatically. 'I am very unhappy with the company. And every one of the men I have talked with has also expressed the same disappointment. When I signed up the people (at Together) seemed so professional, and they made you feel they were going to really look after you and make sure you got the right person with everything matching appropriately. But I don't think they've done anything of the sort.'
Westminster trading standards department has received more than 100 complaints regarding Together - the only introduction agency it has received complaints about. High on the list of grievances are what people have reported to be Together's 'hard sell' tactics to procure clients, and failure to provide the service that was originally agreed. The company is also the subject of an investigation by the Office of Fair Trading. An OFT spokeswoman said: 'Such an investigation is a serious matter. We don't go into something like this lightly. Obviously we have been concerned enough to look at this firm in particular.'
''Basically the message is that we have had some management problems in London,' said Ms Kaufman in my last conversation with her, this being the first time she had acknowledged any difficulties. 'And this has been happening over the past year. With this in mind, we sent over a different management team to resolve all the issues. So we are working on it very aggressively right now.' When I asked for more details of the problems and methods of rectifying them, she became impatient. 'No, I can't really get specifically into the logistics of the whole thing.'
No, she also knew nothing of money being paid back in London to disappointed clients. And when I reminded her again about the woman I had contacted who had refuted Ms Kaufman's claims that she was currently in a good relationship with a man whom she had found through the company (another matter Ms Kaufman was 'going to look into' for me), she retorted: 'No, I can't respond to that, because I don't have those details.'
'You know, if you want to sit here and go through every little instance . . .' Ms Kaufman said. When pressed further that this was by no means a small matter since it was the basis on which she had earlier defended the company, she cut off any more discussion with: 'I'm not free to comment.'
I contacted Westminster trading standards again. The spokesman there found what I had to say disquieting. 'A short while ago they were giving us the brush-off. A few weeks on, and they've made an effort. A few weeks from now, I don't know where we'll be.'
Brian Pappas, president of Together Introduction Ltd, said in a letter to the Independent this week:
'As a first point, there was a factual mistake in your article (23 April). The price for our 36-membership referral programme is pounds 2,110, not pounds 3,110 as you stated.
'Together has been in business for 20 years, and we have 130 offices worldwide. We have helped hundreds of thousands of people develop meaningful relationships, with several thousand marriages as a result. In fact, we are truly a company that cares about people, and we have been involved with charity events in the US and Canada for years. These efforts have raised hundreds of thousands of dollars. We're currently seeking a charitable cause in the UK.
'Ours is an extremely personal business. It's important to us that our members are happy with our service. The vast majority of our clients are quite pleased with our highly personalised approach. Unfortunately, from time to time, some of our members are unhappy with our service. In these cases, we first try to work with them to resolve the problem, and where appropriate we will refund their membership fees. This is exactly what happened with the gentleman you featured in your article.
'Any service business will experience a certain per cent of dissatisfied customers, and the figure for Together is quite low. With over 5,000 members in the UK, we've had approximately 100 complaints - 2 per cent. This means that over 97 per cent of our membership appreciates our services.'
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