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Sales and service

Give your customer the best service

Happy customers are key to the success of your company. The repeat business they provide, and the positive word of mouth to family and friends, are invaluable. Nevertheless, good customer service is often neglected. Here are a few key steps to make sure your customers stay loyal to your service and product.

Be Polite and Friendly

Manners are an extremely effective tool in maintaining good customer relations. Your customers need to feel valued. Should they contact you with a grievance, allow them to provide feedback in full, and let them know their complaint or issue will be considered. Never lose your temper. Summarise what they have said and break down into points what needs to happen now. Clarify any actions they should take, and what your next steps will be.

Tell the Truth

Only offer what you can provide. Should a customer make a complaint about your product or service, they will not be pleased with additional over-promises: for instance, only offer to issue a replacement if you know for certain one is available.

Deal with Customer Complaints at the First Opportunity

Do not pass the customer from colleague to colleague. Wherever possible, the problem should be dealt with by one person. If the problem is not immediately solvable, say so, apologise, and provide a reasonable timeframe for contacting them again.

Stay Up to Date

Keep your knowledge of the business, products, prices, terms and conditions up to date. If the employee answering a customer’s queries is ill informed, the customer is both inconvenienced and unimpressed. Conversely, beware of using jargon even if your product knowledge allows it; you will frustrate the customer.

Improve Your Products and Services

Customer feedback provides the best indicator of how to develop your service or product. If, for instance, there are frequent customer calls regarding your website functionality, this is a clear sign that this area needs improvement.

Be accessible

Research how your customers prefer to contact you, and make contact as easy as possible. In the case of email, make sure that there are clear links on your website and that messages are responded to efficiently. If phone is the most appropriate means of contact, include the telephone number in all direct correspondence with the customer.

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Addressing customer complaints

When a customer expresses a grievance, you can still strengthen your relationship with them – provided you handle the problem to their satisfaction.

To err is human, and it is likely that customers will sometimes raise grievances regarding your products or services. While you should take every measure to minimise problems before they occur, your response to complaints that do arise is vitally important to customer perceptions of your company.

The benefits of good customer service

Repeat business

Customers will stay loyal, and spread the word among friends and colleagues.

Feedback

If you have an accessible, approachable customer service facility, customers will readily tell you what your current strengths are and where you can make improvements.

When is customer service important?

When the product is expensive. Often, customers will expect a higher level of customer service for a luxury product than a cheap one.

When there is little differentiation between competitors. Customer service can be a key influence on purchasing decisions if your products are similar to the competition in price and positioning.

When customer expectations are high. Where possible, aim to exceed their expectations. These are however context dependent. For instance, a delivery service might delight and please their customer by delivering a product on time when their competitors are usually late.

Addressing customer complaints

When a customer expresses a grievance, you still have an excellent chance of strengthening your relationship with them – provided you handle the problem to their satisfaction.

  1. Acknowledge and record their feedback. Make sure the customer is aware this has been done.
  2. If the problem cannot be resolved straight away, explain that you need to investigate further and you will be in touch on a specified date. Give the customer a named contact.
  3. Investigate how the error occurred and correct as appropriate. Respond to the circumstances fairly without rashly allocating blame. Be reasonable with your staff, as well as the customer.
  4. Alert the customer that the problem has been resolved.
  5. If possible, offer a refund or vouchers as compensation.
  6. After a fixed period, contact the customer again to confirm they were satisfied with the complaints procedure.

Efficiency, responsiveness and co-operation are essential to good customer care. By incorporating these qualities within your customer complaints procedure, you can repair and even enhance customer relations.

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What your customers think of you

Do you know what your customers think of you? Have you lost customers without knowing why? Often, you may not even be aware that a customer is unhappy. Although direct feedback can be very useful, it is also sporadic and hard to draw conclusions from. For these reasons, a customer satisfaction survey can be highly valuable.

Surveys

Ideally, a survey should be independently conducted. This allows customers to answer candidly; moreover, it protects your company from accusations of bias. But despite the benefits of independent surveys, they are often too expensive for many small businesses.

Fortunately, in-house research can still provide many useful insights. If you decide to design your own survey, have clear objectives. What do you need to know about your customers? Are you assessing their response to an advertising campaign, a new product or improvements in your service? Or do you want to identify customer preferences with a view to developing new products and services in the future? Make sure every question is relevant and helps you to meet your objective.

If you plan a telephone survey, make sure your script is tightly constructed – you do not want respondents to digress.

Keep within the law

A survey is a good opportunity to confirm customer records and also to build customer profiles with demographic information such as age, gender and social class.

However, in the case of handling personal information, you must comply with data protection legislation. Make sure you are familiar with the law when carrying out your survey, and include an appropriate data collection notice.

If you conduct your survey by telephone, you must first verify that the numbers you dial are not registered with the Telephone Preference Service.

How many responses will I need?

This depends to some degree on the size of your customer base, and whether you want to extrapolate your results to make generalisations about the larger group. If you have only a few clients, it would be quite feasible to include all of them. However, if you have several thousand, a sample of 100 – 200 would be appropriate.

Maximise your response

If you conduct your survey by post, expect a 10% response rate. To obtain a sample of 100 –200, mail out 1,000 – 2,000 questionnaires.

A simple survey design and an incentive for responding are key ways to increase your response levels. Make submission of responses as easy as possible – for instance, by using a freepost address.

Your incentive should be appropriate to your target market. Make sure any prizes and promotional items are issued to respondents as soon after the closing date as possible.

Interpret your findings

Analysis of your data need not be complicated. Before inputting any responses, scan answers to get an idea of general trends. If you have a fairly small sample, and your data is quantitative, a simple spreadsheet or database may be sufficient to collate replies. There is also a range of software packages catering to researchers; this is better suited to your needs if you have a large number of responses to analyse, and if you need to include data such as responses to multiple choice or open-ended questions

Once your results are processed, you should be able to identify key trends. Are there any responses or issues that come up repeatedly? What might the implications be for your business? Draw your conclusions, and shape your future strategy accordingly.

After your first survey, conduct a follow-up study in six months to a year. This will allow you to measure the impact of any changes and update your customer knowledge.

When you’re equipped with hard data, you have the best possible base for business growth – instead of leaving it to chance.

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Selling online

If you’re considering selling online, remember that a user-friendly site helps you get repeat visits.

You may be interested in some basic dos and don’ts for online sales…

Do your background reading

Research your target, ensure there is a niche in the market for your business and formulate a business plan before you take the final step of selling online. Check that shipping and handling costs are feasible within your budget.

Do make special offers

Encourage visitors to return with promotional offers. Display them clearly on your site. Keep track of competitor offers for the purpose of comparison, and to get ideas.

Do make your site attractive

The quality of your photography, description of your products and the relevance of your content should all be priorities. But…strike the right balance between appearance and functionality. Few users have the patience to wait while large images download.

Don't keep your visitors waiting

Hi-resolution pictures and Flash usage can leave your customer waiting for the page they want. They will get bored of this, and are unlikely to come back.

Do keep clear communication channels

Customers should be able to email you with enquiries and problems, and expect a quick, professional response. A “Contact Us” function is particularly useful for meeting this need.

Don't expose your customers’ data

Your customers will be paying by credit card. To secure your site, you will need to get a secure sockets layer (to scramble and encrypt sensitive credit card information). You will also need a privacy policy to reassure your customers that their data is safe. Alternatively, pick a hosting company that will handle your technical security.

Don't get complacent

Keep track of your competitors, their services and their site development. You can learn from their mistakes and successes, and perhaps pick up some tips.

Do advertise

You will need a marketing strategy to drive traffic to your website.

Do maintain your site

Regular updates – of products, offers and information – keeps regular traffic to the site flowing.

Don't forget your number

You may miss out on customers who dislike online payments. Display a number on each page so orders can be placed by telephone.

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What should I consider before selling online?

Plan carefully before taking your company online – there are a number of practical concerns to consider. To assess whether your business is really ready to go online, think about the following issues:

Will the Internet enhance your Unique Selling Points?

Emphasise your unique selling points with attractive pictures, copy and testimonials on your site. If you have the facility to offer different delivery options, out of hours delivery and 24 hour availability, the Internet is the place to promote it.

A word of warning: if your offer compares poorly on price, Internet trading might not be for you. The ease of comparing products across websites means online shoppers are particularly price-savvy.

Have you the time to manage an online platform?

Making your site attractive and easy to use gives you a real edge over competitors. At the very least, customers will only return if you regularly update your site, provide simple navigation, clear costing information, and up to the minute info on your product or service – all of which takes time.

Often, companies are slow to respond to customer emails. This can be particularly difficult for small businesses if they have limited manpower and financial resources. Nevertheless it is essential for the success of your business, if you are to maximise sales opportunities. Remember, too, that customers can get online at any hour in full expectation of a fast service. An automated email response may help, alerting customers that their query is being processed. A list of frequently asked questions is also a sensible measure.

Can you calm customers’ fears?

Online trade depends on the use of credit cards. You need to convey strongly the security of your site and payment policies, as data theft is a concern for many consumers.

You will also need to draw up a refunds policy for display on your website. Online shoppers are reluctant to buy without reassurance they can return damaged or faulty items.

What will taking your business online cost?

In addition to website design and maintenance, you need to consider connectivity charges, transaction fees, and advertising costs.

Can your business cope worldwide?

Consider whether you can deliver on a national scale, and beyond that an international scale. If you face a surge in demand, can you keep up? You may need to outsource some of your business and will certainly need to keep on top of inventory and stock levels.

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Loyalty schemes can increase your sales

A loyalty scheme is one of the most straightforward and productive ways of marketing your brand.

What is a loyalty scheme?

Your existing customers are rewarded for purchasing and using your products or services, in preference to those of a competitor. From smart cards to vouchers, this is an excellent means of encouraging customer loyalty.

To get started, you need to consider:

  • What are your objectives – what do you want to achieve?
  • What incentive will your customers respond to? You will need to conduct some research.
  • Your budget – can you deliver an incentive that your customers will find worthwhile?
  • What type of purchasing behaviour do you want to encourage? What segment of customers do you want to reward?
  • Can your business respond effectively to an increase in demand?

How will a loyalty scheme help my business?

  • Loyalty schemes encourage repeat business and strengthen brand associations for your customers.
  • Loyalty schemes lead to effective viral marketing. Loyal customers are keen to pass on their recommendations.

Are there any drawbacks?

  • You may attract bargain hunters, not genuinely loyal customers.
  • The right incentive is essential. A poor offer devalues customers rather than making them feel special.

What costs are involved?

You need to calculate the cost per customer compared to profits. The discount offered to customers must be less than the profit generated from their purchases. This will vary according to the circumstances of your company – the costs of loyalty schemes is very varied.

Can you measure its success?

A high take up rate indicates that the scheme is valuable to customers. You may want to try different approaches and track replies to see which is the most popular. Ultimately, you should use your original objectives to judge the success of the scheme’s results.

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Using proposals to win new business

A written proposal can be very influential in landing a contract. How can you ensure yours makes the right impression?

What is a good proposal?

It should be clear that you’ve written it to the client’s specific needs, with due attention to cost-effectiveness. It should be to the point, focused and needs to really engage your client. They’ll see you understand their requirements, and it will consolidate any groundwork you’ve done beforehand.

Structure it simply

A title page, table of contents, main body, conclusion and a separate appendix are all that’s required. Limit your use of jargon and keep all words, sentences and paragraphs short.

Keep it short!

Busy readers will want to take it in at a glance. The client is keen to know you can do the job, but does not need every technical detail. Create a separate appendix for additional information – so you needn’t sacrifice precision or brevity.

Use your powers of persuasion

Show empathy for the client’s viewpoint. Keep the focus on what the client will receive, avoiding the use of “I” and emphasising the benefits for “you.” Continually highlight how the client’s needs will be met.

You should try to view the situation through the client’s eyes throughout.

Be compelling

Your proposal should be a concise but powerful description of what it will be like to use your product or service. You want your client to have a vivid image of how this contract could work for them.

The client should feel that you have made an effort to address them in their language. If the proposal is based on standard copy, it should be extensively revised to reflect the circumstances and tendencies of the client.

Be professional

Present the proposal attractively. It should be bound with a high quality cover. Create a clear, uncluttered template, ideally enlisting a designer to make sure it’s distinctive.

Treat your proposal as a chance to impress! If your proposal meets these criteria, it will give you the edge over your competitors.

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Creative Work on a Budget

To improve sales, you need to build customer awareness with the right marketing campaigns. Unfortunately, for a small business this can cost a lot of money, and with finances a precious resource, creative work is often neglected.

Learn from advertising

What advertising do you see that succeeds in capturing the attention of your target market? Can you think of any campaigns that don’t work? Are there parallels you could learn from in your own campaigns and literature?

Quality matters

Professional graphic design and photography send a message of quality to potential customers and clients. The impact on your target market is much more forceful when the right people are employed for the job.

Although you may be tempted to do the work yourself, this will be time-consuming and the creativity will almost certainly be of inferior quality.

How do you get good creative work on a budget?

There are agencies that specialise in small campaigns when it’s imperative you stick to a budget. Freelancers are also available on an individual basis. The Yellow Pages, trade directories and the Internet all list suitable agencies and individual designers.

Photographers who are just starting up in business can also offer an economically viable option. They may offer their services for less than the going rate in exchange for adding you to their portfolio, a credit in your literature or networking opportunities.

Alternatively, you could search photo libraries for inspiration, but here costs vary and can be high. It may be more helpful to contact a company in the relevant line of business. Their photos are sometimes available for free, assuming the picture is appropriately credited. To do this, however, you must confirm that the copyright for the picture is actually theirs.

Investigate other small firms in your area – provided you are not competitors, there may be benefits in sharing the cost of creative. Should you pursue this option, maintain the uniqueness of your brand identities. The actual designs should be distinct.

Manufacturers are sometimes open to co-funding publicity and providing promotional items for personalisation, in exchange for crediting them in your publicity. The product managers of your suppliers, and local manufacturers, are a good place to look for this sort of arrangement.

Cutting costs can be high-risk, but there are plenty of opportunities out there for cost-effective, impressive creative work.

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Segment your market

The most effective marketing is highly targeted. Make sure your marketing activity is reaching the right niche for your product or service.

The right “niche” is a segment of the wider customer base. Marketing segmentation allows you to prioritise groups for your message. In an efficient, profitable approach to your promotional work, you can centre your attention on the people most likely to show interest in what you have to offer.

There are three aspects to segmentation.

  • Break down the customer base into smaller, defined groups.
  • Identify the advertising and communication needed to reach your niche
  • Position your product or service in a way that appeals to your niche.

To see results for your hard work, you must differentiate your target group from the rest of the customer base. A customer database, and accurate analysis of the information you store there, are particularly helpful in this regard. When cross-referenced with transactional data – i.e. people’s purchasing habits – your customer records become a very powerful targeting tool.

Different customers require different marketing messages. Segmentation allows you to discover whether your customer prefers high street brands, whether they like to shop online, or whether they respond to high status advertising. With this insider knowledge, your returns are likely to be impressive.

What is your segment?

Mass marketing is no longer seen as effective for many companies – particularly small firms. Customers are no longer regarded as a uniform group, and indeed want to be regarded as individuals with specific consumer tastes.

Investment in a customer database, and the accumulation of customer information, will eventually give you a sophisticated resource. With the stored data, you can distinguish between your current and potential customers. You can also distinguish customers with low potentiality from those with high potentiality. Prioritise groups and target your message accordingly.

When you contact customers, you may want to personalise the correspondence with reference to their previous purchases. This is highly tailored communication, and it can elicit a very strong response from your customers. However, if your data has any limitations, treat it with caution.

For instance, be wary of making rash assumptions based on one facet of a person’s lifestyle. Income, for instance, need not be a good indicator of purchasing power – disposable income is much more significant. The influences on consumer preferences are very diverse. Over time you may find interesting connections between customers you would not ordinarily link. 

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Direct mail, telemarketing and email marketing

How can direct mail, telemarketing and email marketing reach the customers you want?

All three methods require careful planning and a knowledge of their respective audiences; all three can be used for the development of your business. Optimum effects may be achieved by combining the different methods – for instance, direct mail followed by an outbound call.

Direct mail

To use direct mail (a marketing communication directly to a named person at a private or business address) effectively, you must first define your objectives and who you want to target.

The next step is to obtain a mailing list. Renting a list can save a great deal of time and energy on your part - but you must make sure it’s compliant with data protection to protect yourself from legal action. You will also want to know some basic information about the list before taking it – for instance, when it was last updated, and whether you can prioritise people on the list by demographic group.

Design your mail shot to appeal to the people you’re targeting. Include an incentive if appropriate, and make the response method as straightforward as possible.

People are more likely to respond to mailings that arrive midweek (Tuesdays and Wednesdays.) However, be aware that a response rate of more than 1% is unusual.

Costs vary with how much you manage inhouse. However purchases including mailing lists, stationery, print and postage will be required at the least. Keep an eye on postage costs, and check whether the post office has any bulk discounts. After your campaign, assess the final expenditure in terms of cost per pack, cost per response and cost per sale. You can then use this information for future reference.

Pros and cons

Direct mail can target very specific groups, at relative inexpense. By conducting one mail shot at a time, you can measure response rates easily.

Less positively, direct mail is increasingly seen as junk mail. Moreover, to really get the best from this approach, professional copywriters and designers should be on board (which boosts costs.)

Telemarketing

Sales, customer services and research are all subsumed within telemarketing, as are inbound customer calls.

When receiving customer calls, maintain a record of all inbound contact. Be courteous and implement good customer service.

Outbound calls are best used as one part of a broader marketing campaign. A detailed script, ideally one that will not sound forced, should be prepared. The focus should be on qualities such as availability and price, as these are key points of interest for customers. When closing, agree the next steps (consistent with the customer’s reaction to the offer.)

Costs are reasonable. Outsourcing the calls incurs a fee, and there will also be phone charges to pay. You can rent a list of contacts – make sure it is a manageable quantity, and confirm that the numbers are not registered with the Telephone Protection Service.

Pros and cons

Again, this is a fairly low-cost option. It is very easy to monitor. It is particularly suited to following up business to business leads, establishing initial meetings and closing deals.

Unfortunately, cold calling is perceived poorly by consumers. Morale among cold callers can be low.

Email marketing

When planning your campaign, consider the format of your email. What style of text and images would appeal to your intended audience? Keep your message brief and informal. Use an eye-catching subject heading to draw recipients in.

Offer the recipient the opportunity to unsubscribe, and to protect personal data, use mail merge facilities which personalise each email without including other recipients’ names in the “To” box.

Process responses quickly, and make sure unsubscribed addresses are not targeted again.

Of all the options, this is the least expensive, particularly if you carry out the whole campaign. If you lack confidence in your copywriting or HTML skills, consider employing a professional. There are agencies with the expertise to design and implement the project. As with direct mail and telemarketing, a rented mailing list may also be worthwhile.

Pros and cons

Email is very cheap. As an innovative and relatively new medium, it is particularly attractive to a young audience. Viral marketing can be very effective.

On the down side, “spam” is poorly regarded. It can be very difficult to initiate a dialogue.

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Get your marketing mix right

Product, Price, Place and Promotion are the main elements of the marketing mix.

What is the relevance of these elements to your business? Why is getting your marketing mix important for the success of your business?

Which element matters most to you?

Product

A strong product meets customer needs, is distinct from or better than existing competition, and satisfies expectations.

Price

What will you charge for your product?

Your customer is primarily concerned with what they think it is worth. Remember that low pricing is not always the best strategy – many people believe that a low price indicates low quality, and might prefer to pay more for a specific brand.

Place

Is your product distributed to the right places? Is it visible where and when people need it?

Convenience is a decisive factor in the success of many products. Increasingly, customers no longer want to be restricted by opening hours or distance

Retailers, wholesalers, direct mail and websites are all possible outlets for your product. The important thing is to place your product in a way that reflects your customers’ lifestyle and purchasing choices.

Promotion

How do you get your message across? How do you select the best media to reach your target market? What range of channels do you utilise – direct mail, PR or advertising?

Bear in mind that promotion and communication might be helpful to your success – but the Product, Price and Place have to be right first.

Remember that the four elements are not isolated from each other. A strong product doesn’t always sell itself, and nor does a cheap one. Conversely, a poor quality product in a premium place may not attract much attention. Getting the right marketing mix can be a subtle balancing act.

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What is Your Unique Selling Point?

On what does a customer base their choice of products? There are six factors in their purchasing decision, and these factors can help you identify your unique selling point.

Price

Customers may make a rational decision based on price, after comparing several similar products before they buy. But sometimes brand associations are enough to encourage a purchase. Consumers frequently assume that a particular brand offers lower prices (or greater value for money) but do not necessarily check. An example could be the supermarket chain Kwik Save.

Product/service quality

Consumers regularly associate expense with the high quality of a product. Trusted brands are perceived as offering better quality, and consumers are content to pay a higher price accordingly. An example could be the department store John Lewis.

Innovation

Consumers may purchase a product for its novelty or originality. Electrical goods e.g. games consoles, MP3 players can fall into this category.

Marketing

Familiarity with a brand, irrespective of cost, quality or novelty, can influence purchasing decisions.

Convenience

A customer may pay more for a product if it is available at especial convenience. An example could be supermarkets such as Sainsbury and Tesco, whose customers pay more for produce in “local” outlets than in larger, out of town branches.

Extensions

A customer may select a product because it comes with additional extras or services, for instance, when choosing what mobile phone to buy.

Where are your strengths?

Which of the above categories are relevant to your product? What will give your product an advantage over competitors? Do you lead in price, in quality, in innovation, in market awareness, in convenience or in “added extras”? This is the key to your unique selling point.

You might want to consider:

  • How is your USP significantly different from that of your competitors?
  • Is your USP valuable to customers?
  • Will your USP motivate customers to make a purchase?

Address these questions to convey and exploit your USP to potential customers. Your USP can be an excellent way of differentiating your business from competitors’.

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A sales force to be reckoned with

Your sales force is an incredibly valuable asset. After all, they bring in the business and pay for themselves, hopefully many times over. If you don’t set clear objectives and targets, and motivate your sales staff, your business will suffer as a result.

Create your team and state your objectives

Even the smallest sales team will benefit from good leadership and motivation, so begin with the basics and develop a sales strategy that everyone is aware of. Set out your objectives, for example retaining existing customers, acquiring new business or renewing lapsed accounts.

Your customers will prefer to have one contact, so divide your products or area into territories and allocate an account manager to each customer. Your sales force will benefit from having a stable portfolio which they can build on.

Gather feedback

Have regular sales meetings and reviews, and chart individual progress against targets so everyone can see how the team is performing. This will also enable you to identify any problems or potential missed targets in advance and minimise the knock-on effect to your business.

Your sales team will have the everyday contact with your customers, so ensure you listen to their feedback regularly; it’s a great source of market intelligence from the people who are out there selling your products or services. They are in the best position to know, so take their input seriously.

Equip your team

Create good product information for your sales team to use on client visits or to send in the post. You might want to consider outsourcing this to marketing professionals to ensure your brochure or sales presentations are professional and optimised to maximise sales. Give them the equipment they need, from samples to folders or even laptops. You will also need to arrange for company cars and mobile phones for field-based staff.

Training

Brief your team well, and test their product knowledge. Identify any knowledge gaps and train, retrain and train again if necessary. If you launch a new product or service, make sure sales are well equipped to answer any customer questions about it before they start to sell.

Targets

Set achievable, realistic targets and re-forecast as the year progresses. Take market conditions into account and be up to speed on seasonal trends in your sector – this could have a serious impact on sales potential.

Incentives

Finally, incentivise your sales force through a generous bonus scheme and additional prizes for high achievers. Sales people usually enjoy competition and accept that what they get out is what they put in, so don’t be tempted to make things too easy.

For information of users: This material is published for the information of clients. It provides only an overview of the regulations in force at the date of publication, and no action should be taken without consulting the detailed legislation or seeking professional advice. Therefore no responsibility for loss occasioned by any person acting or refraining from action as a result of the material can be accepted by the authors or the firm.

© Copyright JE Consulting 2012. All rights reserved.

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© 2012