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How to deal with post-holiday returns & exchanges

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The holidays are here. The good news? Expect a significant uptick in sales and plenty of new leads that could convert to long-term customers. The bad news?  Expect post-holiday return and exchange requests – lots of them.

Holiday returns & exchanges: The hard reality

In 2017, 28% of gifts purchased for the holidays were returned. The same survey found that 40% of consumers returned one gift; 21% of consumers returned two; and 14% of consumers returned six or more gifts.

And unfortunately, your business is unlikely to escape this statistic. Expect an influx of returns and exchanges post-holiday season…and an influx of customer support requests.

Especially for e-commerce companies, support interactions involving returns and exchanges can have a significant impact on customer satisfaction, brand reputation, and the likelihood of converting one-time customers into long-term buyers.

A smooth return or exchange process can often result in a return buyer, and reduces time (and money) spent on your end on fixing the problem. But a contentious interaction between customer and support staff can quickly become complex, taxing, and even damaging to your reputation.

Here are a few keys to dealing well with post-holiday returns and exchanges.

Create a clear return & exchange policy

Prevention is always the best strategy. Creating a clear return and exchange policy helps significantly reduce the number of support tickets flowing into your inbox.

Your return/exchange policy should include the following details, communicated clearly and succinctly for your customer to understand:

  • What items can or cannot be returned or exchanged (such as gift cards, used products, or downloadable software)
  • The conditions that an item must be in to be eligible for a return or exchange (for example, unused, unwashed, barely used, or with tags)
  • The process for returning or exchanging an item
  • How to track a return
  • When a customer can expect to see a refund in her bank account

Make it easy

Make it easy for customers to return or exchange an item. Ultimately, this reduces the burden on both your business and the customer.

Post your policy clearly on your website, display it during the online checkout process, and include it on your package slip. The vast majority of customers look for this information before emailing you with a support request for help. Include detailed documentation of your policy, as well as answers concerning all potential variations of a return or exchange, in your help or support forum.

Creating a printable packing slip also makes the process significantly easier for customers, reducing potential delays and frustration.

Finally, consider including free shipping on returns. One study found that customers who were able to return items for free increased their purchases from 58% all the way to as much as 357% over a span of two years.

Look at others in your industry

If you’re not sure how to craft a great returns and exchanges policy, take a look at what other companies offer in your industry. Doing so not only generates ideas for your policy, but helps you to remain competitive.

An extremely flexible return policy will come with an initial cost…but can also encourage long-term buyers and a great brand reputation. Companies that include exceptional return policies–and have generated loyal customers as a result–include L.L. Bean, Amazon, and REI.

Consider a holiday return policy

Consider crafting a special return policy for the holiday season. For example, many companies offer returns for any items purchased in December through the end of January–even if the typical window for returns ends at 30 days from purchase.

From a support perspective this policy will greatly improve the tone and speed support staff can work out when processing holiday returns.

Use a help desk software for organizing return/exchange support requests

In the case that a customer’s questions can’t be answered in your return and exchange policy (or they don’t take the time to look), they’ll contact your support team. Customer support requests for post-holiday returns and exchanges might involve any number of questions and concerns involving shipping, refund amount, condition of item, and more.

Help desk software will help you respond to and track requests, reducing burden on your support staff and encouraging faster responses and a higher rate of success.

Quality help desk software will check your email inbox for you turning disjointed emails into organized tickets that can be automatically assign it to support staff avoiding duplication. It also helps you filter and track requests so that tickets don’t get lost in the shuffle…and customers receive the help they need (and you stay organized).

Most tools also allow you to batch reply to many customers at once with a single reply though each customized per customer. This is great for when you receive a large batch of emails about the same topic, perhaps in regard to a post-holiday email send or regarding a particular item that’s seeing very high return volume.

How to deal with angry or irrational customers

In an ideal world, every return or exchange would go smoothly. Your customers want to return their gifts within the allotted time frame, in great condition, with receipts and tags included.

If only.

Unfortunately, you’re most likely going to have to deal with some angry or irrational customers who don’t want to accept your return policy. Or, maybe they are simply experiencing the post-holiday blues, and taking it out on you. In any case, be prepared to handle them. Here are a few tips.

Write a script

Creating scripted responses for angry or irrational customers can help your customer support staff handle the situation well via email or phone call. Scripted responses will include phrases like, “I’m so sorry to hear that,” “This must be very frustrating for you,” “We’ll do our best to help you out,” and so forth.

You may even want to include specific scenarios involving a frustrated customer: For example, a customer who wants to return an item after the allotted time frame, a customer who wants to return a used item, or a customer who hasn’t received their exchange in the mail. In any case, providing a script will help your staff default to an empathetic answer…even when the customer is being extremely irrational.

Of course, scripts must also include firm answers that don’t compromise your policy. If a customer is trying to manipulate support staff into bending the rules, you may not want that person as a long-term customer anyway.

Train and hire for “soft skills”

Being able to interact well with customers who are all manners of irrational, frustrated, upset, or unreasonable is challenging. But for support staff, it’s an essential skill. Usually, this kind of flexibility and finesse come as a product of practice, training, and exercising patience, empathy, stress management, and problem-solving.

Emphasizing these “soft skills” will help ensure that your customer support staff is equipped to deal with all kinds of customers. Look for these skills during the hiring process. For example, a candidate for customer support may have great technical knowledge, but is she a clear communicator? Does she appear to have a healthy tolerance for stress? And does she have the ability to empathize?

Some people are innately patient and compassionate, but those skills can also be taught. Consider training your current customer support staff by providing resources on soft skills, giving a short presentation, or offering a needs assessment. If your support staff works remotely, send out a short survey that asks about how they’re feeling during customer interactions, and how they’re handling difficult situations. Even bringing up the topic of soft skills can help build encourage healthy customer interaction.

Preparing for success

When your support system already feels inundated by requests, the impending influx of support and exchange requests in late December and January may feel beyond overwhelming. Again, the best strategy for effectively dealing with these requests is to have a clear policy in place, help desk software for managing support tickets, and strategies for preparing your support staff.

Good luck!

About Ian Landsman

Ian Landsman is an entrepreneur and customer experience expert. He founded UserScape in 2005 where he’s created multiple customer focused applications including HelpSpot.com and Thermostat.io.

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