Financial Performance Of Price Comparison Sites

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Price comparisons sites are shopping sites specially designed to compare prices of many different types of goods and services predominantly financial services products. The aim is to provide choice for users and consumers. They are a composition of individual firms and companies goods and services with direct link some times to a particular company site.

In the UK price comparison websites have seen a huge growth in revenue and popularity comparing many different types of consumer products from car insurance and electrical goods to utility providers and mortgage deals. The competition between rival comparison websites has reached fever pitch in recent times, with most now offering a whole range of different products comparisons. They have transformed the way of shopping for many consumers saving them the trouble of ringing round lots of different companies for quotes.

Many had questions the future of these sites and have wondered how long they might stay. Research shows that price comparisons sites are here to stay, underpinned by a number of key consumer drivers such as:

Pressures on time and money especially in the current economic climate where consumers are time bound and looking for easy way of shopping will facilitate their use. Sophisticated and reckless financial service sector, with ambiguous products and services will force consumers to learn and seek understanding from, these sites.

Internet usage and experience at a time where, users are becoming more comfortable with the internet, using it for a wider variety of applications from networking to plain old shopping. Other research shows that they could be on a time bomb. Anecdotal evidence suggest that, many financial service consumers, the price comparison sites are used solely for research; these consumers are using comparison sites to scale down their choices but then contact the suppliers directly and independently to make their purchase. A potential missed opportunity and threat to potential revenues. The other big issue weak brand awareness. A significant proportion of users say they don't recall exactly which price comparison brand they use.

According to Professor Catherine Waddams, from the University of East Anglia's Centre for Competition Policy, price comparison sites have opened up the market, and given consumers more information than ever before but also acknowledge using the sites is not always straightforward. Some argue that these sites make buying financial products on the web transparent and hassle-free, hassle free and transparent? How transparent are they, are there some underlining vital information hidden from consumers?

Gocompare.com one of the most comprehensive insurance comparison sites in the UK, says they are committed to finding a customer the right product at the best price, and dedicated to saving you time and money, do they really save consumers money, do they display all the products or the site are for the highest bidder products?

Some say we provide best price and respect privacy, best price is always relative not at a time evidence shows that some of the very best prices are not listed because they are not among the highest bidders. Respecting privacy with cold calling and pushy salesmen? Are these sites taking consumers for a ride? For example, some mortgage comparison sites allegedly sell the enquiry to brokers or financial institutions that bid for consumers enquiries are in breach of privacy.

These sites have been fiercely criticized by Financial Mail for miss-selling expensive policies, often to people who would not be eligible to claim by holding vital information from the users.

Price comparison websites are now under constant criticism from mortgage experts for providing inadequate information and selling personal details when marketing complex mortgage. According to them, price comparison websites are potentially misleading consumers with simplistic comparison tools focusing solely on the mortgage deal rate rather than the true cost of the mortgage over time, without taking into account fees or reversionary interest rates and little regard to the personal circumstances of the borrower. Chris Gardner a mortgage expert confirms that, these sites never factor in the soft facts, such as if the borrower will actually meet the lenders criteria or whether or if there are any circumstances that should be taken into account that may affect the borrower's ability to pay in the future. Car insurance prices shown on moneysupermarket.com are based on a number of assumptions that the site makes about an applicants. If these assumptions are not true in a customer's case, there is a risk that price shown would be false.

Direct Line attacking insurance comparison websites; assert that, consumers were paying for a 'middle man'. They argued that these price aggregators gave the impression of giving a comprehensive search of all available policies when, in fact, some insurers do not appear. They contend that, the comparison tables produced by the websites were unrepresentative with the eventual cost often turning out to be more than the amount quoted by the comparison site. For example discounts for multiple drivers or policies that are available if a customer went direct with an insurer were not taken into account.

Energy watch has threatened to remove Uswitch from its list of accredited switching sites for allegedly excluding British Gas, a company very often with the cheapest prices, because doesn't pay commission from its default comparison tables.

With all these criticisms one wonder how ethical and responsible these price comparison sites are and the kind of strategic social responsibilities they have adopted and the impact or contribution they make to society. These are some of the questions this piece of work seeks to find answers and report on them.

This piece of work shall attempt to propose strategic social responsibilities these comparison site uses, compare the performance of three comparisons site and critically analyzed the approach adopted by money minders, discuss the general argument of corporate social responsibility in the subsequent text and draw a conclusion.

Over the decades, the concept of corporate social responsibility (CSR) has continued to grow in importance and significance Carroll and Shabana (2010). It has been the subject of considerable debate, commentary, theory building and research. In spite of the ongoing deliberations as to what it means and what it embraces, it has developed and evolved in both academic as well as practitioner communities worldwide. The idea that business enterprises have some responsibilities to society beyond that of making profits for the shareholders has been around for centuries . Today, one cannot pick up a newspaper, magazine or journal without encountering some discussion of the issue, some recent or innovative example of what business is thinking or doing about CSR, or some new conference that is being held. Specific journals, news magazines, books, dictionaries, encyclopedias, websites, discussion lists and blogs treat the concept on a regular basis, the debate stem from many directions.

Some suggest that it is just about glossy reports and public relations. Some see it as a source of business opportunity and improved competitiveness. Some see it as no more than sound business practice. Others see it as a distraction from the fundamental economic role of businesses. Others argue that it is nothing more than superficial window dressing; others yet argue that it is an attempt to pre-empt the role of governments as a watchdog over powerful multinational corporations. Some argue that it's a framework for across the board regulation of all of the relationships between business and the rest of society (nationally and globally) some say it's all about the activities of North American and European multinationals in developing countries, others contend that, is it relevant and useful to companies of all sizes no matter where they are based and operate. These debates will continue on these and many more lines years to come.

Corporate Social Responsibility has undergone transformation and gaining more publicity nowadays, it has been redefined throughout the years.

Corporate social responsibility (CSR) also known as corporate responsibility (CR), corporate citizenship (CC), responsible business (RB), sustainable responsible business (SRB), or corporate social performance (CSP) Wood (1991)

In 2001 the EU defined Corporate Responsibility (CR) as: "A concept whereby companies integrate social and environmental concerns in their business operations and in their interaction with their stakeholders on a voluntary basis". A view that Aristotle held " a responsible act is a voluntary act" David Grayson defines a responsible business as one that has built-in to its purpose and strategy a commitment to deliver sustainable value to society at large, as well as to shareholders, and has open and transparent business practices that are based on ethical values and respect for employees, communities and the environment that is, a business that seeking to minimize its negative environmental and social impacts and maximizes its positive impacts which also seeks to balance stakeholder interests so that the business is run for the benefit of Profit, People and the Planet. His view echo's what Freeman proposed in the stakeholders' theory that the manager's task is to protect and promote the rights of the various corporate stakeholders, members of groups whose existence is necessary for the survival of the firm, stockholders, employees, customers, suppliers, the local community, and managers themselves. (Freeman, 1984) He also contended that, irrespective of the size of a business, CR must not be a bolt-on to business operations but must be built-in to its business purpose and strategy. In other words CR should not be only operational but strategic to the business. It was also argued that, businesses should not just think of how its commitment to CR can reduce risks (externality), but also how a genuine commitment to Responsible Business can be a source of creativity and innovation i.e. Corporate Social Opportunity from Corporate Social Responsibility Grayson and Hodges (2004). Corporate social opportunities are the commercially attractive activities that advance environmental and or social sustainability. This should be both a corporate mindset and be specific to products and services. CSR must be a way of thinking about and doing business, and that way of thinking needs to be mainstreamed across business operations and into company strategy. It is not just a task for the public relations department but needs to permeate across the company, in business development, marketing, human resources, finance and so on. According to Davis 1973, the concept of social responsibility refers to firms' consideration of and response to issues beyond the narrow economic, technical and legal requirements of the firm. It is the firm's obligation to evaluate in its decision making process the effects of its decisions on the external social system in a manner that will accomplish social benefit along with traditional economic gains which the firm seeks; it means social responsibility begins where the law ends. A firm is not being socially responsible if it merely complies with the minimum requirement of the law because this is what any good citizen would do. A profit maximizing firm under classical economic would do as much but social responsibility goes a step further, it is the firm's acceptance of social obligation beyond the requirement of the law. This view is shared and strongly supported by McWilliams and Siegel (2001) that, the general conception of corporate social responsibility is extra-legal. Bowman and Haire(1975) in their definition of social responsibility as the action producing benefit or reducing cost not captured in the company "books of account" this definition was broad and its includes actions beyond the strictly construed minimum legal requirement they contend that, socially responsible firms are those which have taken action beyond their view of strict legal requirement. Thus to be socially responsible is to go beyond the minimum legal requirement. The debate about the extent to which business should go beyond the legal requirement has spark a controversy, pressure groups, and NGO's has step up their activities and this has increase demand for more social responsibilities.

Businesses nowadays have come under increasingly pressure to be responsible to stakeholders, environment and be ethically inclined in their operations. To be responsible is to be answerable and Accountable Swift (2001:17). Not only to shareholders but society and the environment as well because business cannot succeed in societies that fail. The rise of Social accounting heightened the importance of CSR.

Many managers have responded to heightened stakeholder interest in CSR in a very positive way, by devoting additional resources to promote CSR. A primary reason for positive responses is the recognition of the relevance of multiple stakeholders (Donaldson & Preston, 1995; Mitchell, Agle, & Wood, 1997). Other managers have a less progressive view of stakeholder relevance. They eschew attempts to satisfy demand for CSR, especially those that have been indoctrinated by classical school of thought, because they believe that such efforts are inconsistent with profit maximization and the interests of shareholders, whom they perceive to be the most important stakeholder. But Bowman and Haire (1975) disproved the assumption that corporate social responsibility reduces profit and is in conflicts with interest of investors. Their result suggested that, there was a correlation between social responsibility and profitability. Friedman asserts that, engaging in CSR is symptomatic of an agency problem. He argues that managers use CSR as a means to further their own social, political, or career agendas, at the expense of shareholders, Friedman a classical economist who believe in free market argue against social responsibility contend that this assertion undermine the very foundation of our free society as the acceptance by corporate official of a responsibility other than to make profit as much as possible for stockholders this view is strongly objected by another distinguished economist Paul A Samuelsson that " a larger corporations these days not only may engage in social responsibility it had damn well better try to do so". According to Friedman, only people can have social responsibilities, corporations are only responsible to their shareholders and not to society as a whole. Although he accepts that corporations should obey the laws of the countries within which they operate but have no other obligation to society. Some people perceive CSR as incongruent with the very nature and purpose of business, and indeed a hindrance to free trade, those who assert that CSR is contrasting with capitalism and are in favor of neoliberalism. Critics of this argument perceive neoliberalism as opposed to the well-being of society and a hindrance to human freedom. But Friedman a believer of capitalism and free market failed to released that Capitalism is a system of social coop­eration, a system of working together to create value for each other, value which none of us could create on our own, though he recognizes that a corporation is an artificial person and in this sense may have artificial responsibilities, but "business" as a whole cannot be said to have responsibilities this is questionable because if business can sue and be sued , then they have responsibility. He also failed to prove that, the exercise of social responsibility in business is by nature an unfair and socialist practice. Much of Friedman's case is based on a questionable paradigm; a key premise is false; and logical cogency is sometimes missing Mulligan (1986).

There has been much other argument for and against the topic. Most of the arguments against originate from Friedman who argued that social issues are not the concern of business people and that these problems should be resolved by the unfettered workings of the free market system. Further, this view holds that, if the free market cannot solve the social problems, it falls not upon business, but upon government and legislation to do so

Considering the above argument there is little to suggest otherwise that price comparison site are different from these strategies as evidence shows in their response towards society. In spite of the numerous benefit CSR offers such as good reputation, public image, distinguish branding, better recruitment and retention of employees' customers gains, good relationships with local authorities and improved service delivery, Comparison site seems to be holding unto this classical view about business.

Proposal

The most prevalent strategic business assumption price comparisons sites appear to be using are the classical economic doctrine of profits maximinsation. According to this view business function is an economic one and economic values are the sole criteria used to measure success. The manager is an agent of the stockholders and all decisions are controlled by his desire to maximize profit for them as explained by Friedman the chief proponent of this view. This strategy works mostly in low profit margins industries like the price comparison sites. But John Kay's obliquity suggests that profit maximization should not be set as the sole aim into business he suggests that, business should do what they ought to do and profit shall follow." The individuals and businesses that are most successful at making profit are not those who are most interested in profit maximization". "The principal route to great wealth is the creation of a successful business, and building a successful business demands exceptional talents and hard work. Businesses that are obsessively interested in profit maximization are drawn to get-rich-quick schemes rather than business opportunities"

Considering the above statement, one cannot say they don't reflect the strategies these sites uses.

There is no universal criterion set as what constitute social responsible business; however some theorist and organization has attempted to put forth some metrics as a barometer for social responsible business. Carroll suggested economical, legal, ethical and discretional/philanthropic. Geoff more et al 2008 also suggested Governance of RBP, Employees in the organization, Stakeholder relationships, external reporting and monitoring. Institute for Supply Management Published these guidelines in 2008

Community, Diversity and Inclusiveness -Workforce, Environment, Ethics and Business Conduct, Financial Responsibility, Human Rights, Health and Safety, Sustainability. Other criteria includes: Employees, customers, suppliers and contractors, community, environment, shareholders (or equivalent for non-profit organizations) and Management Commitment.

Using the above as a yardstick to propose strategic social responsibility for price comparison sites, six criteria were chosen as a barometer

Criteria Description

Employee and diversity

Refers to efforts to attract and retain a workforce, safe working conditions, health and safety, medical care, training and skill development, remuneration, respecting human right laws

Environment

Identification, monitoring and reducing environmental impacts, Energy consumption (power, gas, electric) Energysources (natural gas, coal, oil, wind, geothermal, etc Water conservation and consumption, pollution and emissions,green and sustainable practices

Ethical Business conduct

Ethical behavior and business conduct, compliance, code of conduct

communication

Providing more information to the public domain (shareholder, investors ,customers etc)

Community

Community initiatives provide resources to support the community in which the company operates,

Corporate funding of community-based initiatives

Philanthropy, donation of products and discounts.

Customers

Honesty in relationships; fair prices, providing vital information for informed decisions, agreed product and service standards; product safety standards.

This is not a generic proposal

Comparing the performance of money supermarket.com, confused.com and Gocompare with proposal.

Moneysupermarket.com

Employee and diversity

The Group actively encourages employee involvement and consultation and places considerable emphasis on keeping its employees informed of the Group's activities via formal half yearly business performance updates, regular update briefings, regular team meetings, the Group's intranet site which enables easy access to the latest Group information as well as Group policies, and the circulation to employees of relevant information including corporate announcements. This also helps to achieve a common awareness amongst employees of the financial and economic factors affecting the performance of the Group. There an employee discussion forum.

The Group is committed to an equal opportunities policy. It aims to ensure that no employee is discriminated against, directly or indirectly, on the grounds of colour, race, ethnic and national origins, sexual orientation or gender, marital status, disability, religion or belief, being part time or on the grounds of age.

The Group recognizes the importance of health and safety and there's policy handbook for all employees (annual report 2009)

Environment

The Group strives to reduce energy and raw material usage to support environmental and financial performance.

The Group has chosen not to set environmental key performance indicators due to its relative size and the limited impact it has on the environment. They however participate in the Carbon Disclosure Project.

Ethical and Business conduct

Money supermarket publishes how they do their business as part of their annual report but failed to spell out what their code of ethics were, one may assume as a public company they might have satisfy ethical concerns

Communication

Money supermarket by virtue of being a public company has more information to the public domain, its audited annual report is great source of information and its communicates to the shareholders and the society. They also provide education and explanations for example about life insurance, general guideline to UK life insurance companies, and another source is news and community on its website.

Community

The Group's .Community initiative was launched in 2008 and has continued to develop throughout 2009. The initiative is focused on providing support to charities located within a few miles of the Group's offices .A volunteer group of employees meet each month to review requests for donations from charities and to allocate funds according to agreed donation guidelines.

Employees are also active in researching and seeking out local good causes that the Group can help support. The initiative has been effective at harnessing the energy and enthusiasm of the Group's employees to benefit the communities in which it operates.

In 2009 the Group made £2,000 per month available for the community initiative.

Customers

The Group is committed to providing a high quality price comparison service to its customers, enabling them to compare a wide range of products in the money, insurance, travel and home services markets, and to find the product most suited to their needs.

To maintain high levels of customer satisfaction, the Group is constantly assessing the views of its customers and undertaking customer testing of its websites and any new developments it makes. The Group provides customers with information from a wide variety of sources such as editorial content, customer and expert reviews, forums and community features to enrich their experience and to help them find the product most suited to their needs.

Confuse.com

Employee and diversity

We are only as good as our people and firmly believe in nurturing happy staff. We provide a working environment that stimulates creativity, allows staff to participate in various sport activities which helps motivate staff and develop relationships outside their normal teams. We offer our staff a flexible approach to working hours, helping keep a healthy work / life balance. It is important for employees to understand the Company's goals and objectives. We work to communicate this in many ways. Staffs are encouraged to attend monthly C.E.O update presentations, where they are informed of news from around the company, as well as information on bonuses and shares. A company newsletter is published keeping staff up to date with all events, highlighting focus on various teams, projects and individuals.

It is also important to us that our employees have a forum to communicate their experiences. Each quarter our staffs complete a survey, looking at issues such as motivation, communication, management and training. Confused.com is committed to an equal opportunities policy. We aim to ensure that no employee is discriminated against, directly or indirectly, on the grounds of colour, race, ethnic and national origins, nationality (citizenship), sexual orientation, gender marital status, disability, religion or belief, being part time or on the ground of age.

Environment

Confused.com does not own the property that is occupies and is, therefore, reliant upon the cooperation of the managing agents in order to make changes that could reduce the consumption of energy and water.

We provide the necessary facilities for staff to recycling paper, cans, plastic bottles and cups, use energy efficient light bulbs, and use water purifying machines instead of plastic bottles. In addition we encourage employees to car share and provide bike racks for those who wish to cycle to work, as well as offering loans and discounts to incentivise the use of public transport.

We operate a clean desk policy and encourage staff not to keep hard copies of documents, therefore using less paper, and printing in black and white whenever necessary. Empty ink cartridges are recycled via the SCOPE charity.

Ethical and Business conduct

Confused.com state how they make their money by not charging customers, they also assert that the price you see on their web site is the same the provider quotes if a customer went direct.. They don't say what their ethical standards/ ethical code.

Communication

They seem to communicate more with their employees than with customers. The information in the public domain is less, the kind of education they give to customers fall short of others. The report of a quote are standardizes for everyone with no special circumstance featured or considered.

Community

Confused.com has adopted a charitable policy, which supports the local communities in which its employees live and work. In 2009 they raised over £11k for charity, Ty Hafan. They also support the community by operating a 'community chest' fund and other donations. Staffs are encouraged to participate in voluntary schemes.

Customers

In 2009 we had over 30million visits to our site from customers, whom we regard as pivotal to the successful functioning of our business. We constantly strive to ensure that our customers are treated fairly. Confused.com regularly send out communication e-mails, offering information ranging from renewal advice, to home insurance, to switching energy supplier. We aim to respond to incoming e-mails within 24 hour of receipt. We have a dedicated team of professionals handling incoming telephone queries.

We have designed our website to adhere to W3C Level 2 which is disability friendly.

All personal information is held in the strictest confidence and used only for the purposes of generating and retrieving quotes, marketing and internal management information. We use industry-standard technology to ensure that all personal and transactional information is encrypted before transmission. After signing into Confused.com, the closed padlock icon demonstrates that you are in a secure area of our site. Our robust security policies safeguard a customer's privacy from unauthorised access/improper use and we will continue to implement ever-more secure technology as it becomes available. Source: confused.com

Go compare

Employee and diversity

Information about the environment is not available

Environment

Information about the environment is not available

Ethical and Business conduct

We don't charge our customers for using our service and we do not add fees or commissions to the prices you compare; instead we make money by charging our partners a small fee once a sale has been made.

We will never sell on your personal information to anyone else or use it to make unwanted sales calls or send unwanted emails. You can opt out of receiving calls and emails at any time.

We have an anti-SPAM policy and do not send unsolicited (junk) email. We also do not buy customer data from third party companies.

We take your privacy seriously and follow strict security procedures in the storage and disclosure of your information as required by law (source: Gocompare)

Communication

They provide education in form of articles and product guideline to help customers understand what they are getting.

Community

They do not information about their community involvement

Customers

They have a customer promise aim at finding the right product at best price, including special offers and discount in their prices, setting prices the same as going direct to the company. Not making assumptions about customers.

Helping customers make an informed choice by their products guides

Respecting privacy, not selling nor buying customers details and given the option to opt out call and emails.

Comparing them against the proposal, money supermaker.com appears to be doing well, matching closing the propose criteria, they seems to have an advantage by virtue of being a public company by scoring high on their employee and diversity, environment, community and communication. With regards to ethical standard, they were not specific details. They gave provide enough education information for customers, enlist more products but quotation report are not so different from the rest. The issue of fair prices was questionable.

Confused.com

Being a small limited liability company, they have matched employee and diversity, environment and community close to the criteria. They appeared to have communicated more with employees than customers and the society. Though their website is disability friendly, quotation report was the same for all without special circumstances considerations. On ethics, they stated how they make their money without their ethical code.

Gocompare.com

They did have information on employee and diversity, environment and community

They provided information on how they make their money and their anti spam policy on under ethical conduct but failed to give details about their ethical code.

On communication, they provide little information a form of articles and product guideline with a very long customer promises.

To grade them according the barometer set, money supermarket comes on top then confuded.com and Gocompare in that order.

Critically analyze the approach adopted by money-minder

Insurance comparison websites have been criticized by money minder's Ray Black for not providing quick online quotes for life insurance and other protection as they claim but rather seek to gather some personal details from an enquirer then contact them when they least expect, denying customers of transparent comparisons. He argue that, the pretext us "free advice" is use to lure customers only for a fee to be included in their premiums. He also contends that, some personal details are sold sometimes to brokers for a fee which could lead to higher premiums for a customer because the broker must recover the lead fees paid. They have also been accused of focusing solely on rate of deals rather than the deal itself without considering personal circumstances of the customer.

Money minders approach to business has taken into account some of these shortfalls and addresses some of these criticisms leveled against price comparisons sites

On the issue of data protection and privacy policy, money minders don't only pledge not to sell personal details but go a step further to explains how they will protect and how long they may keep a customer's details and give information about cookies on their website.

The finance navigator report generator provides personalised report in a form of a letter addressing the customer, taken into account personal circumstances like how a broker would. Customers get the opportunity to compare a range of options available each option with its alternatives to choose from. For example customers are given the option to either buy online or talk to an advice either face to face or on phone with varied discount. According to them, many of the cheapest premiums offered by online life insurance brokers are based on the customer paying the broker a one-off administration fee of around £35.00. In return for this, the online discount brokers sacrifice all of the commission they would usually receive from the insurer. The benefit to the purchaser is highly competitive premiums. In comparison, a broker who has already paid out £40.00 or more to buy just one set of contact details can't afford to offer a commission free service - because they would be losing money. This is to address how transparent their prices are.

Money minder is a small new company when compare against the criteria set above, there was not information on environment, employee and diversity and community yet the kind of education and information in a form of communication they give to customers and their sensitivity to moral ethical code is promissory, that given time they would rise to lead the way a price comparison site should be run.

Conclusion

Price comparison website has growth in both revenue and popularity and has changed and simplified way of shopping for many consumers. In spite of the numerous advantages, it appears to suggest that they are not straight forward, holding back vital information from customers and just interested in a purchase to warrant a commission. Their adoption of Friedman's profit maximization is not allowing them to become more responsible towards society; Gocompare for example does not give back to its environment and the community, though being a service industry their environmental impact is less. A stricter regulation is needed to curb the invasion of privacy and selling of detail to other third parties. Money minders approach of transparency is laudable. Money supper market has taken more steps for the society as a public company its dealing with the customer as questionable sometimes.

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