This article was originally published on Sept. 20, 2018, and was updated on March 25, 2020.
In an ideal situation, every customer who buys a product through your online store would be happy with their purchase, and you wouldn’t have to worry about arranging for returns. Unfortunately, it sometimes doesn’t matter how good your products or customer service are.
It’s important to have solid return policies, should the need for returns arise … no matter the reason.
In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, return policies have presented a dilemma for many modern businesses. Returns may significantly impact your profitability, pose a health hazard, or be difficult to manage in these complex and confusing times. But abandoning returns isn’t good for your brand reputation — or consumer trust.
In this article, we’ll discuss the features of return policies that matter most to consumers, and how to update those policies in the wake of COVID-19.
Creating return policies for trust and customer satisfaction
Everything starts with the core tenets of your return policy. This is your chance to prove to your customers how much you value them, and put the fundamentals in place to ensure your policy runs smoothly. Here are a few key considerations you’ll need to bear in mind:
Understand the different types of returns
You can choose to treat all returns equally, but you should know that there are very different motivations for initiating a return. For example, someone might return an item because it’s malfunctioning or defective; these items should always be accepted as a return.
Someone else might return an item because they changed their mind about buying it; this is often deemed less acceptable. Set your own standards, but make sure you’re consistent with them.
Set a time limit
Even the most generous return policies have some kind of time limit; this is to prevent returns for items that have been misused or mishandled and to set a kind of statute of limitations on your products. Common time limits include 30 days, 60 days and 90 days.
Consider multiple forms of compensation
You can also compensate your customers in different ways, depending on your goals. Exchanging one product for another is a common offer, but you can also give your customers cash or store credit. If you find yourself divided on what to offer, take a look at major retailers and your competitors’ return policies for inspiration.
Advertising return policies
If you want to establish more customer trust, make sure your policy is advertised and easy to understand. Otherwise, your customers might not even know it exists.
Use simple, concise language to explain your return policy
When writing your return policy for customers, use simple, straightforward language. There’s no need to make this technically complex or include legalese; just cover the basic tenets of your policy.
Make your return policy prominent, in multiple areas
Ensure there’s a prominent page for advertising your return policies on your website, and include links and references to it on your individual product pages. Seeing the existence of a return policy may be all the extra confidence your customers need to finalize a purchase.
Have representatives available to discuss the policy
Even simple policies can be confusing to new customers. Make sure you have representatives available via chat, phone call or email to explain the details of purchasing and returns to anyone who ends up having a question.
The best return policy is one you only have to use occasionally. You can help to prevent returns with these strategies:
Describe your products accurately and thoroughly
On all your pages, make sure you describe your products well. Offering photos and videos can help clear up confusion. Also, include the measurements and dimensions of items that might require them.
Acknowledge and work to avoid common issues
If you notice there’s a pattern in your customer returns and complaints, take action. Try to address common customer concerns proactively by acknowledging instances of misuse or confusion on respective product pages, and offering suggestions on how to prevent them.
Have a convenient customer help line
Before initiating a return, try to help people with their issues. You never know when correcting a simple user error may be enough to make a customer satisfied. Make sure you’re tracking whatever communication medium you settle on. Analyzing and visualizing the data will help you learn from your mistakes and repeat the techniques you’ve used to successfully resolve problematic situations.
Fulfilling returns promptly
One of the best ways to improve your brand reputation over time is to make good on that return policy, consistently, whenever someone is dissatisfied. Previously annoyed customers may come to appreciate your brand more, and already-satisfied customers will think even more highly of you, spreading the word about how easy it is to work with you.
But to see these benefits, consider doing the following:
Consider a no-questions-asked approach
Pressuring customers to give you a reason for the return, or justify the exchange, can be a sore spot — especially if the customer is already annoyed or upset at the situation. Consider following through with a no-questions-asked approach, handling returns without much dialogue unless there’s a suspicious pattern of behavior.
Arrange for shipping as conveniently as possible
Nobody wants the hassle of arranging shipping from scratch, so it’s ideal if you arrange return shipping on your customer’s behalf. One common method is to send customers a paid return shipping label, which they can print and use to send back the product in its original packaging.
If exchanging, send out the new product right away
If a customer is exchanging one product for another, such as a different size of the same piece of clothing, consider sending out the new item immediately upon getting notification that the original item has been shipped. This will reduce customer annoyance, and make the return process faster and more straightforward.
Updating your return policy
Due to the spread of the coronavirus, there are several reasons you might wish to make a change to your return policy, including, but not limited to:
Extenuating circumstances and customer coverage. COVID-19 has disrupted everyone’s lives. Allowing cancellations or returns beyond what you offer during “normal” time periods may be warranted.
Company revenue. At the same time, a heavy influx of customer returns could lead to cash flow issues in your company. You may need to keep this in mind as well.
Health concerns. Even more importantly, returns could pose a potential health hazard. If customers buy products, take them home, use them, then reintroduce them to a retail environment, it could accelerate transmission of the virus.
Concerns about stock and/or customer behavior. Companies may also be concerned about customer hoarding, or other problematic behavior; limiting or imposing new restrictions on returns could help deter these behaviors.
Whether you decide to suspend, augment, or alter your return policy, there are a few steps you’ll want to take to ensure success.
Make the announcement publicly and across multiple channels
Your customers need to stay up-to-date with your latest offerings. And in this busy time across social media, it may be harder for them to stay apprised of everything that’s happening. Go out of your way to keep customers informed, utilizing many channels simultaneously and dedicating a page of your website to the new information.
Be transparent about your reasoning
Let customers know why you’re taking these actions, how long you expect them to last, and how you feel about them. The more transparent you are, the more your customers will come to trust your brand.
Answer questions proactively (and be available)
Your customers will likely have questions or concerns about your new policy. Use a detailed FAQ section to answer questions proactively, saving customers time and providing them with reassurance. Additionally, make sure someone remains available to field customer inquiries.
Deploying your new return policy internally may pose some challenges. Appoint someone to be in charge of finalizing and deploying these new standards. Then, ensure everyone on your team, at all levels of the organization, is up-to-date on the newest policy changes.
If you must make additional changes to your policy in the future, notify all relevant employees with a memo — and make sure all employees have access to an up-to-date version of the formal policy.
Companies with new return policies
If you’re concerned about introducing a new return policy, take comfort knowing you won’t be alone in these changes. Many retail companies are scrambling to put new return policies in place, while simultaneously maintaining trust.
For example, take Kroger, the second-largest general retailer in the U.S. behind Walmart. Kroger recently announced a complete suspension of their product return policy. Kroger provides a brief FAQ section to educate its customers on the motivations behind these changes, and what customers should expect next.
American Airlines, as with many airlines, is introducing a new waiver policy to accommodate customers whose plans have changed due to the pandemic. Tickets purchased between March 1 and March 31, 2020, will be allowed a one-time change without incurring the usual $200 change fee (with some restrictions).
Airbnb, which has seen millions of travelers cancel future plans in the wake of the pandemic, continues to make adjustments to its return policy on the fly. In general, the pandemic is considered to be “extenuating circumstances,” allowing guests to cancel for a free refund and allowing hosts to cancel with no penalty. Airbnb is also refunding all service fees for these covered transactions. Again, Airbnb has done well with a robust explanation of the new policy, answering FAQs from customers.
With the right return policy in place, you can improve customer trust almost immediately, securing more conversions and boosting your brand reputation.
Changing your policy may be beneficial or even necessary during the COVID-19 pandemic, but as long as you’re transparent, straightforward and fair, you can easily maintain (or even increase) customer trust.
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