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If you... sell services to consumers

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Consumers have various rights when they buy a service, though there are no hard and fast rules, and every case is different.

Under the Sale of Goods and Supply of Services Act, consumers are entitled to expect that:

  • You have the necessary skill to supply the service
  • You provide the service with the proper skill and care
  • Any materials you use in the service or goods supplied as part of it are of "merchantable" (in other words acceptable) quality

Sometimes businesses try to exclude one or more of these terms from the contract. But you can only do so when it is fair and reasonable, and you have to bring the specific exclusion to the consumer's attention.

But what exactly is "fair and reasonable"?

'Unfair terms'

In reality, many services use standard contracts, which are pre-prepared and non-negotiable. The Unfair Terms in Consumer Contracts Regulations apply to any term that has not been individually negotiated in a contract between a business and a consumer.

In essence an unfair contract term is one that is significantly weighted against the consumer and is not used in good faith by the business. For example, it might be hidden away in small print to which the consumer has no access.

Where terms of the contract are in writing, always ensure that they are in plain, intelligible language. If there is doubt about the meaning of a term, the interpretation most favourable to the consumer will prevail.

A court would be unlikely to consider as reasonable a clause that absolves a supplier from any liability for his or her own carelessness.

Service contracts

Whenever you take an order for a service, a contract is formed between you and your customer. This agreement can be oral or written. Many businesses nowadays also conclude contracts with customers over the telephone or internet, where a traditional signature is not necessary.

The contract should spell out the price for the service, and this should be the complete price. Under law the price must include any taxes such as Value Added Tax (VAT) and not hide any extra charges.

When drawing up or signing a contract, make sure that it covers likely problems and possible misunderstandings. Include details such as:

  • What the job involves
  • When it should be completed
  • How payments should be made - a payments schedule
  • Whether there is a deposit. If so, how much is it, and what are the circumstances in which you are entitled to hold onto it?
  • Whether there is a guarantee for the work

Guarantees

A guarantee is basically a written promise that the contractor will fix any problems that happen for a certain time after finishing the job. Or a service you are giving on an ongoing basis may include guarantees such as a specific refund for a loss of service.

Often goods or materials are provided as part of the service. They may also come with a manufacturer's guarantee - a promise by the manufacturer to repair or replace the specific product if it is faulty during a certain time after purchase. Where relevant, provide the customer with this guarantee documentation at the appropriate handover stage.

If the customer wants to cancel a service

When a service turns out to be unsatisfactory, it's up to you as the service provider to sort out the problem. Each situation will be different - it may be a case of undertaking appropriate repairs or replacing faulty parts, for example, or refunding you for loss of service.

If the customer simply wants to cancel the service, the way this is done should be spelt out in the terms and conditions of their contract with you. It should specify, for example, whether they are obliged to pay a cancellation charge.

Cooling off periods

For some services, consumers may have a right to cancel during a "cooling off" period after placing your order.

Many businesses now take orders remotely for their services - over the phone, online, by fax, or from a mail order catalogue. This is defined as "distance selling", and involves a "distance contract".

In distance selling you are obliged to provide consumers with a cooling off period of at least seven days after they sign up for the service. During that time they can cancel their order without having to give a reason.

Not all services sold remotely are covered by these distance selling regulations - exceptions include gaming services, financial services, and transport and hotel bookings.

Doorstep sales

There is also a minimum seven-day cooling off period for consumers buying services on their own doorstep - in their home or at their workplace. They are entitled to a change of mind within this cooling off period and can cancel the contract without any penalty.

This particular consumer entitlement covers unsolicited calls, rather than appointments a salesperson makes with them to call round. Services valued at under €50.79 are also exempt.

Price displays

By law, the premises of certain service providers must have prominent price displays, including:

  • Pubs and other licensed premises
  • Restaurants and other eating establishments
  • Petrol stations
  • Hairdressers and barbers

It is an offence to charge customers more than the price listed on the price display in these types of premises

There are detailed rules on what these price displays must include. For instance, eating establishments must indicate any service charges and whether these are included in the price.

Learn more

Read our guide for businesses selling goods to the public

Learn more about your obligations and rights when selling remotley

Check the full Sale of Goods and Supply of Services Act

Read about price display requirements if you run a licensed premises, restaurant, hairdressers or filling station