With the record breaking performance of online stores this past holiday season, there’s something inevitable that all merchants will be dealing with – returns. Although some may hate dealing with the crap that is returns management, it’s an opportunity to learn and correct a potential problem with future fulfillment. Plus, they’re also a chance to transform a customer’s dissatisfaction into magical revenue! So, let’s get into preventing, correcting, and capitalizing off returns.

Stopping It Before It Starts

The convenience of online shopping has a curse: customers are unable to get their hands and eyes on the actual product. If customers are able to fiddle with the product, they can be pretty confident about what to expect upon purchase. Obviously, that isn’t the case online, so it’s critical that your products are as transparent as they can be.

Two-dimensional images are the first things your site’s visitors will see when they begin browsing your products, and first impressions are important. Be sure that your images are clear and detailed, and compliment them with product descriptions that call out features and details. That said, this isn’t like the first day of school where you’re supposed to look your best. Instead, make the product look the most realistic. The way you present it is all about setting expectations, so avoid having overdone product images that don’t accurately mirror the actual good.

Another one of the best ways to give customers an impression of your product is through YouTube videos, especially if the good has some sort of function. Record the product in action and demonstrate whatever qualities you want to stress about it. If you’re in the apparel industry – a market with an incredibly high return rate – have a model or basically anyone model the product. When customers get a 3D glimpse of it, they’re more comfortable with offering up their credit card digits, and their expectations on delivery should be more accurate.

When It Happens

Once a customer wants to return an order, it’s best to have a process set in stone that lays out what to do next. There’s a word for that, and it’s called a returns policy that lets merchant and customer know what needs to be done next. Causing as little hassle as possible for both you is priority #1.

The following are crucial parts to your returns (or refunds and exchanges) policy:

  • Packaging – should you offer the packaging to your customer or should they do it on their own
  • Return address – if you’re fulfilling in-house, this is just your address, but it’s important that you determine who gets the return package if you’re using a warehouse or dropshipping
  • Materials to be included with return – determine everything that needs to be sent to you; the product (obviously), proof of damage, feedback, proof of purchase, etc.
  • Date to be returned by – avoid dragging your feet forever with the return and set a deadline that the customer needs to send it back by to end the dispute
  • Shipping and storage costs – use your own judgement to determine who must pay for shipping, as well as any additional costs, like a restocking fee (for warehouses and suppliers)
  • Reimbursement – decide if you’re going to reimburse the customer for shipping (if applicable), packaging, or if you want to give them credit to your store

Plaster your policy on your website somewhere so customers know what exactly to do. Also – it’s possible to throw in a sort of greeting and thank you note into your packaging (if it works with your fulfillment strategy) that also includes a call out to your returns policy in case the customer is let down.

As for the actual return shipping label itself, shipping software (such as ourselves!) can do the work for you. It’s pretty much like any regular shipping label. Simply fill out all the same information, swapping the seller and customer’s addresses to “To” and “From” respectively, and emailing the label to your customer.

Turning the Tables on Returns

Once a return occurs, it’s all about maintaining a solid relationship with that customer to keep them coming back for more. You’re likely going to spend some time handling their order, and you don’t want it to be wasted!

It shouldn’t be a surprise to learn that ecommerce returns contain valuable information regarding something that went wrong during the purchase process. Listen to your customer, and figure out what exactly happened. Was the product damaged? Perhaps your packaging needs to be safer. Was the product not what the customer expected? Your product marketing needs to be clearer. Each return is an opportunity to improve upon your business, but it can only happen if you listen to your customer. Plus, you want to ensure that they’re as calm and cool with you as possible – a negative experience can turn into a negative review.

It’s the Thought That Counts

After it’s all said and done, and the returns process is finishing up, it’s time to try and capitalize.

In the event that a customer wants to exchange or receive an undamaged product, go all out. Give the order some extra attention, some TLC that assures the customer you care about their experience. A little earlier, we spoke about including a greeting or thanks inside an order. While it’s useful for making them aware of your policy (and branding in general), it’s also great at making a customer feel like they aren’t just-another-customer. Send them a note expressing apologies, thanks, and potentially offer them some online store credit. It’s all about getting them to notice that this is more than just business.

And speaking of credit, it’s worth a shot to get them buying more than their initial order. If the customer decides they don’t want the product, and they turn down a replacement, consider throwing them some store credit. They may completely ignore it at first, but there’s a chance they’ll return to your site in the future, and that credit will definitely help persuade them to purchase.

Image: Larry Tomlinson, Flickr