More people are buying online than ever before, and they’re also returning goods more than ever. With UPS reporting a 23% increase in returns during 2021, returns are something customers demand but also a potential place to make or break your relationship.
Get the returns process right, and you’ve got a great customer experience that leads to more sales. Get it wrong, and you lose out on that revenue and all the money you’ve spent to acquire those customers. Let’s protect that bottom line with six ways to improve the customer experience during the next return.
1. Keep everything clear
The most important start for a positive experience is to create a clear policy. You want a system that your shoppers understand and one they feel comfortable using. Aim for the word “easy” to define your returns process. It gives you an excellent guide to keep things clear and focuses you on creating a positive shopping experience, according to customers.
Nearly 60% want you to give them a “no questions asked” return process, which is about as easy as it gets. That way, the focus is on the process. Thankfully, you control the process completely. This gives you a clear way to control returns and move customers forward through this journey and back to the buyer’s journey.
We’ll touch on a few of these items in more detail below, but your goal in explaining the process is to be crystal clear about the time the customer has to make a return, how to create a label, and any other requirements. If you can afford to pay for the return label at creation, that’s even better.
Once your policy is clear, post it and link to this everywhere. You want a “returns policy” link in the footer of every page, in your FAQ, inside the knowledge base that support agents use, in purchase emails you send, and more. The easier it is to find and use, the better the customer experience. You also help reduce the number of frustrated emails and chats your team must field from upset customers.
If you need an extra hand, put yourself in the mind of someone shopping in the year-end holidays. They’re stressed, might be running late, and need both a gift someone will love and something that can be returned if it’s a dud. With more than 40% of U.S. holiday shoppers returning gifts, the returns process can either cause a lot of frustration or potentially land you a group of new customers.
2. Make the return process easy to update
The second way to improve the customer experience is to link your CRM and order management tools. This can feel like a basic step, but many return-order implementations and integrations between order tools like ERPs and the CRM are clunky and full of manual processes. To get them to an “easy” state for you and your customers, it’s time to investigate automation and faster data capture.
The customer-facing element of this is creating an online portal or a system that support agents can use to initiate a return. This way you and customers can quickly gather information and create labels. A self-service portal can speed up the process significantly without opening you up to much additional risk. The customer still must return the item and meet your criteria, such as being free of damage, so the process is mainly a headache reduction for them and labor savings for you.
When you can automate the backend work here, you also make returns processing faster. Employees armed with barcode scanners can scan return shipping labels and product barcodes, linking the SKU to the order. After doing a quality check and approving the return, team members can make a quick update and, if approved, the customer then gets their money refunded or a replacement order is automatically generated.
Automation makes multiple steps in the returns process faster, getting a refund or replacement to customers faster, too. It can be complex and require IT help to ensure integrations run smoothly, but time savings offers a better experience for everyone.
3. Communicate throughout the process
No matter how quick your automation is, the process can feel long and painful if customers don’t know what’s happening. So, avoid causing harm by communicating during every step. That starts with a “thank you” note when the process starts or the person creates a shipping label and continues through their refund or replacement.
Thankfully, most eCommerce and customer management tools make it easy to set up these communications ahead of time. Build out automated email campaigns to make it possible for every return to including communication at each step. Some of the most important times to communicate are:
- When a return label is generated in-house
- When a customer creates a return label, or you email a label to them
- When the carrier notifies you that a return has been picked up
- When the returned parcel arrives in your warehouse
- When the return is approved, or why you are not approving the return
Lean on your order management tools here, whether you use a separate system or one built into your eCommerce platform. Most of these platforms are designed to automatically request updates from carriers and populate that information as soon as it is available. From there, email workflows can send customers updates once a specific status is achieved.
Communication keeps the customer engaged and ensures them that you haven’t forgotten about the return. Consider telling people how long the return process usually takes in the emails you send. Add notes for when it might be a little longer, such as not processing returns on weekends or holidays. You’re setting expectations and then (hopefully) meeting or exceeding them, which keeps you looking reasonable in the eyes of your shoppers.
4. Ask what you can do better
Returns can be frustrating for shoppers. They happen for all kinds of reasons, whether that’s a mistake during shopping, sizes not fitting, getting the wrong item, or when a shipment just takes too long to get there in the first place — an issue many eCommerce companies faced during the height of the pandemic.
Give people a chance to vent so that they feel heard. It demonstrates that you acknowledge something went wrong and that you’re looking to improve going forward. Send an email or text a link to a survey to discuss what happened and ask for feedback. Keep it simple and directed to learning a few core things:
- Why are they returning it?
- Did they ask for a refund or replacement?
- What could your company have done better?
Retailers are responsible for nearly two-thirds of returns because of things like sending the wrong item or products not looking like the image shown in an online store. Damage during the fulfillment process also plays a role in about 20% of all returns. It is safest to create a language that assumes an issue like these to try and get ahead of customer complaints.
People can be mad when they return an item, but that doesn’t mean they should mistreat your staff. Using surveys, emails, and landing pages to collect feedback creates a buffer for someone to vent without taking it out on the staff. The customer’s anger can tell you a lot about how they feel and where you can improve their experience. That said, people never deserve to be mistreated. Separating out these elements can keep your customer success teams’ morale high, making them better able to deliver excellent service.
After you get these answers, it’s time to respond. If it’s your fault, apologize. If it isn’t your fault, transition the customer to a new sale, but do it softly. Now, let’s look at what both of those can mean for returns and customer satisfaction.
5. Not your fault: Try an upsell
Customers that make online returns often shop more and make faster purchase decisions, and when the experience is good, some 92% of customers will buy from you again. That’s great news when the return isn’t something you did wrong because you have a chance to shift the sale.
When someone is going to make a return, push them for a repeat purchase by sending an email with an upsell that addresses common pain points or the reason they returned a product. If they were in a hurry, promote something that you have in stock and can ship quickly. Did an item cost too much? Share lower-priced goods or wallet-friendly alternatives.
For apparel, fit and style are common issues. If someone is returning an item that doesn’t fit, prompt them to make an exchange. That first email should have an option to help them find the best fit. If you use a form to generate a return shipping label, create this as an offer page within the process so they can find a better fit fast and not go through the process of return -> refund -> visit again -> ordering a replacement.
As you gain more data around returns, look for additional ways to help people find what they want. Pages or sections of “shoppers like you also enjoyed” or “looking for a casual fit, try these” can prompt people to buy from you again.
The customer experience purpose here is to get the shopper what they want. You’re solving that pain or desire they had when they first shopped with you, and a positive, easy return experience is your best chance at having a second shot.
6. Totally your fault: Offer a ‘thank you’
Returns are an important place to thank customers when you get something wrong. This note of thanks is just a way to ease the blow of a painful process. It’s an important next step when a product arrives damaged, you send the wrong item, there’s a big delay, or other issues that are your fault. And remember that you want to tackle issues that feel like your fault from the customer perspective, which can include things like long shipping delays due to COVID supply chain issues.
The goal is to make the customer feel whole. So, consider giving them something for the return and the information they provide around what went wrong and how you could improve. You’re minimizing the impact of losses while encouraging long-term relationships. If a discount or freebie can get the customer to keep shopping, you’re protecting your revenue. As every business owner has heard repeatedly over the past decade, it can cost you as much as 6X more to get a new customer than retain an existing one.
You want to give the customer something useful. If the order was $25, then a coupon for $20 off a $100 purchase isn’t likely to have value. Consider offering something that they could use if they made the exact same purchase again. That might mean a flat percentage discount, free expedited shipping, a free accessory, and so on. One thing that’s starting to gain popularity for subscription and repeat-purchase services is offering a small discount on the next two or three orders, encouraging the customer to give you a chance and then pushing them to order again, because they want to chase that sunk cost and get their biggest return.
Return to returns regularly.
Improving the customer experience is an iterative process. Creating a simple plan right now works for your current business but may not as you change products or sales areas. Asking for feedback is useful if you’re using what people say. So, you’ll want to pay attention to what customers tell you.
In the short term, you need to know what they’re telling you and if this feedback loop is working. Get your marketing team involved to help if needed. Start by tracking the emails you send and see who opens them. What problems do these customers report? If you’re trying to address these, does what you’re doing lead to new sales? Are there issues you can’t resolve yet?
Answer these questions, gather your data, and act. It’ll help you improve your overall customer satisfaction not only in the returns experience but in other places where you interact. Returns are part of your overall service effort and you’ll be in good shape if your supply chain or products face any challenges.