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Tips for Handling Store Returns

Tie Your Return Policy to Customer Service, not Disservice

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How to handle returns.

Making returning merchandise as pleasant as possible is good business.

Image (c) Eileen Bach / Getty Images

To me, how a small business handles customers' complaints and store returns defines its customer service. It shows whether or not that company "gets" that customer service is not just about making a sale but about nurturing a relationship, a relationship that a small business keeps sweet by making a customer's every experience with the company a positive experience.

To make the store return a positive customer experience, you need to be sure both your return policy and your return process match your customer service goals. These tips for handling store returns will ensure you're providing customer service rather than disservice.

Before the Store Return

  • Choose the "right" return policy.

What is the right return policy? One that gives the customers what they want. Figuring out what they want when it comes to making store returns sure isn't rocket science; customers want the same thing that you and I want when we try to return something we've bought - to be able to return something and get our money back without a huge hassle.

So that's what our return policy has to do, whether we're selling merchandise online or offline.

I can hear you gnashing your teeth. Stop! I know that this return policy can cost you money, especially when customers have paid for their purchases with credit cards and you get stuck with the merchant account processing fee. But bear in mind three things when you're thinking about a return policy:

1) This is a worthwhile expense when you consider that it costs five times as much to bring a new customer into your store as it does to deal with one unhappy customer's problem... and consider your goal of providing the kind of customer service that keeps customers returning.

2) A convenient return policy is important to customers. A store's return policy is part of customers' buying decisions and customers may decide to shop elsewhere if yours doesn't measure up. Ninety percent of adult U.S. shoppers said that a convenient returns policy was important when deciding to make a purchase according to a Newgistics poll.

3) You don't have to have a full refund return policy across the board. Having exceptions is fine, as long as your exceptions are published and fairly applied. It's common, for instance, for sale merchandise to be sold under a 'no return' policy.

  • Publicize your return policy.

Your return policy needs to be visibly posted. In a bricks-and-mortar store, post it on your wall, your front counter and on your cash register, and have it printed out on customer'’ receipts if possible. On a website, spell it out on a page and make sure that links to that page are visible in your site navigation.

  • Point out your return policy to your customers.

Train your sales staff to get in the habit of referring to the return policy when finalizing a sale. It's easy for a sales person to say something such as, "And if you have any problems with __________ in the next 90 days, you can return it for a full refund as long as you bring in the receipt." Or for items on sale that are exceptions to your return policy: "And you know that these sale items can't be returned?" One proactive sentence can significantly cut down on the number of store returns you have to deal with.

During the Store Return Process

  • Enable all staff to handle returns.

There's nothing more frustrating to customers than to go to a store to return an item and be told by a staff member that only so-and-so can do that - especially when so-and-so is out on break or off on a buying trip and won't be back until next Tuesday! Empower all your staff to handle returns and solve customers' problems.

  • Train staff to handle returns.

Of course, if all your employees are going to be handling returns, they need to know how. Training them will be easy if you have a clear, written-out return policy. Then it's just a matter of going over it with staff and showing them how to do the return process.

  • Eliminate the inquisition.

Endless questions about when you bought a product, exactly what's wrong with a product, when you first noticed the problem with a product, etc., etc., are one reason that trying to return a product so often feels like torture. Of course you want to know why the customer wants to return an item. So ask. Once.

  • Keep a calm and friendly demeanor.
People are not normally cheerful when they're making store returns. They may even be rude, obnoxious and foul-mouthed. It's imperative that staff be trained not to respond in kind and remain calm and friendly throughout the return process. This kind of demeanor can calm an angry person and will certainly help achieve the goal of making the store return process as pleasant as possible.
  • Make the return process as fast and simple as possible.

Having a clear return policy is the cornerstone of speeding up the return process. Your staff don't have to make decisions when handling returns; they just apply the policy. Keep the paperwork simple, too and be sure your staff is trained to use whatever computer program your business uses and to fill out a form (if required). Also, avoid extras. When someone is making a return is not the time to try and collect customer data extraneous to the transaction or to ask if the customer would like to be part of your rewards program.

The Bottom Line on Store Returns

Store returns are a fact of retail life. No matter what you sell, people will want to return things. Make the return process straightforward and simple and turn it into a pleasant transaction rather than an unpleasant chore and you will not only keep customers but encourage them to spread positive word-of-mouth about your business - a truly positive bottom line.

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