Returns can be the trickiest part of providing customer service. The difficulty of ensuring customer satisfaction while keeping overhead controlled is quite a task. However with a bit of tact and common sense, returns can provide a platform to create the bond between a company and its return customers.
Empathy goes along way. When taking a return, be sure to wear the metaphorical shoes of your customer, who has spent their time and money on a product which, for whatever reason, did not meet their expectations.
Always remember “focus on the situation, not the person.” This can be difficult when a customer becomes belligerent, however it is crucial for maintaining a positive environment. Customers can get downright mean when things aren’t going their way. But a calm demeanor which is both open and authoritative will help ease the burden of customer dissatisfaction.
Understand the difference between a customer and a professional “returner”
Although customers should be given the highest priority, there are those in the world who attempt to exploit good intentions. Examples include: those who frequently shoplift items from other locations with the intention of returning them for cash, those who “rent” clothes for the weekend and return them obviously worn (and in no condition to be resold) on Monday, or those who intentionally buy marked-down items and attempt to make a return on their full value.
A clear firm return-policy and database, along with a keen eye for loss prevention, can help decipher and dissuade these problem shoppers. A customer return database allows you to not only track the volume of returns, but also allows for easier inventory of defective merchandise and creates a profile for certain problem shoppers. By entering customer information, a store makes it clear that they take returns seriously for both quality of product as well as ensuring a positive and cost effective shopping experience by keeping overhead low through keeping problematic customers at bay.
When faced with a legitimate frequent-returner (honest but impulsive shoppers,) a database can provide the basis for limiting their returns and suggesting exchanges. Be sure to include whether the returns are accompanied by receipt as high levels of returns without receipts is a red flag which signals a professional-returner. The power of a database grants the cashier the ability to deny returns based on volume of returned merchandise and inform the customer that their habits are duly noted. Although trouble could arise from denying returns based on volume, problematic patrons typically cost more money than they provide, so losing their business could actually be a positive move.
Be firm but not rigid
Policies are instilled for good reasons and provide excellent backing when dealing with a problem customer who is clearly out to manipulate retail practices for their own profit. However, these types of customers are few in the grand scheme of retail.
For the majority of honest customers, the biggest problem with policies involves satisfying returns with extenuating circumstances or other situations that don’t fall into the typical routine. Although these situations are unique, they seem to pop up rather regularly. As this post notes, “empowered employees save sales,” and although having a return-policy provides a backbone for curbing volume, don’t treat that policy as the be-all end-all interaction with regard to customer returns.
For instance, I managed a mall retail chain store aimed at teenagers and youth subculture. Naturally, “back to school” was one of our major shopping seasons. A mom bought a a Nintendo book bag for her second grader. The kid proudly wore his new bag to the first week of school, but the mom brought it back with a broken strap the following Friday. According to our policy, worn or used items were not acceptable for returns or exchanges. However, I realized the legitimacy of the customer’s concern and of her displeasure with my company for selling a product intended to tote books for high-schoolers, but that didn’t hold up to a single week of early elementary school.
I went against the policy and honored her with an exchange. Her demeanor changed almost instantly. She was so pleased that she purchased a matching Nintendo hat and t-shirt to send her kid off to his second week of second grade in style. That same mom (and her three other children) became one of our best routine customers. My store became their premiere shopping destination for back-to-school, birthdays, and holidays.
If I had rigidly stuck to the policy, I would have not only missed out on that immediate $50 sale, but also the opportunity to create an essential customer service connection with someone who ended up being one of my biggest spenders.
Offer solutions and suggestions
No one enjoys feelings of powerlessness or hopelessness, but the reality is that not all returns can be honored. Help customers feel empowered by offering solutions rather than directly denying their return. With solutions come suggestions. Although the department store may not be able to take back the out-of-warranty dishwasher, suggestions of repair such as recommending ways of purchasing appliance parts or helping them locate a repair center could help ease an irate customer. “Try to steer the conversation away from the problem and focus on a solution instead,” as the post Tips on How to Handle Customer Conflict indicates. Finding a solution which goes “above and beyond” typical customer service can overshadow problems which exceed the power of a clerk or the store.
Returns are a way of retail life. Although never the ideal transaction, the value of a good customer can outweigh absorbing the cost of a defective or unwanted item. The best way to keep merchandise returns low and customer return high involves stocking quality products and ensuring the integrity of sales staff to create an environment which encourages and rewards shoppers””even when they make a return.
About the Author
Katei Cranford is a freelance writer who has spent most of her career providing excellent customer service, these days she shares insight to help make the consumer experience more rewarding for both retailers and shoppers alike.