A borderline shopping addiction can teach you a lot about customer experience. What I’ve learned this year from sending back clothes? The returns experience is the shopper’s most meaningful customer service touchpoint.

“The data indicates that this isn't a temporary phase and we're firmly in a new era of sky-high return volumes,” said Garrett. “Whatever policies they introduce, retailers need to get returns right now.”

The customer’s default mindset is that a return in any form is already an inconvenience. An inflexible return policy provides the perfect excuse to blame the product or the retailer — either way, the customer won’t be back. The value of exceptional customer service cannot be stressed enough.

Customer Convenience Is Paramount

In competitive markets, customer satisfaction is directly linked to convenience.

“If the retailer has a slick and efficient return process and gets the money back or a replacement quickly, the customer has more confidence in ordering again,” said Simon Leach, director of SGAL Consulting Ltd, and former commercial manager of shopping channel QVC. “Trust is everything in retail. Good customer service and going the extra mile are components of building that trust.”

Online clothing retailer Boden makes a point of accepting returns for 365 days, no questions asked.

Last Christmas, I bought a dress for my teenage daughter, who took six months to decide she didn’t like it. One quick call — no bots! — to a customer service representative secured a free return label and full refund, one of the reasons I’ve been shopping with the brand for 30 years.

Is such a system open to abuse? Of course. Is it worth it? Absolutely.

“Some people might try it on,” said marketing expert Jon Walsh, CEO of Bio&Me. “But you know what, that’s fine — we’ll keep being nice to everyone and that will see us right in the long run, we believe.”

Related Article: How to Make Your Customer Experience Better: Be Convenient

Personalized Customer Service

Customers today expect frictionless and free returns as the norm rather than the exception. As such, retailers have to pull out all the stops to form the crucial emotional bond with shoppers that can make the difference between customer retention and true customer loyalty.

“Every member of the team knows customers come first,” said Walsh. “If the phone rings, a meeting stops. If they ask for something, we find a way to say yes. Commercially, sensibly, of course. But we find a way to say yes.”

This pivot to highly-personalized customer service was ably demonstrated by athleisure brand Lululemon when I contacted them with an outside-the-box request for a pair of damaged leggings otherwise destined for the landfill.

I needed to cut them in half to wear beneath a knee brace, I explained, and was unwilling to ruin a good pair at $118 a pop.

Not a problem, I was told. They didn’t have any damaged leggings to hand, but they’d send me a brand new pair free. Since then I’ve recounted that story to anyone who’ll listen, effectively becoming an unpaid brand ambassador.

Empower the Employee

Problems arise when retailers fail to empower employees to make decisions that impact the future of the company.

Learning Opportunities

In November, I ordered a bikini from online intimates store CUUP, in my usual size. The sizing on the swimsuit, it turned out, was vastly different from their range of bras and underwear. But when I contacted their online chat service, I was told it wasn’t eligible for refund or exchange.

I pointed out I’d been a loyal customer since the brand’s inception in 2018, having spent $1200 in the previous two years. No matter: “Swimsuits are final sale, that’s our policy,” I was told.

“We agree we were too rigid in this case,” the brand later said in an email to CMSWire. “Since then, we have changed our policy to use discretion on a case-by-case basis, taking into consideration all elements of each customer’s experience.”

Employees should be given leeway to make common sense decisions, even if that means breaking with standard company policy. 

Empowering — and training — customer service staff to make such decisions without the need for referral up the chain might cost more in the short term, but will pay long-term dividends in repeat business and positive brand word-of-mouth.

Related Article: CX + EX: The Formula for a Customer-Obsessed Culture

A Customer in the Hand…

Your grandma was right: it’s easier and cheaper to keep an existing customer than win a new one.

“I’ve seen a range of costs per acquisition from 2x to 10x depending on product category,” said Leach. “A returning customer is familiar with your product range and processes, and a repeat customer tends to spend more than new ones.

“Interestingly, a customer who returns their first order can go on to become a high purchaser. This is especially true in distance [online] selling.”

On top of that, employees want to feel like the choices they make will determine the success and direction of the brand. This has the twin benefits of improving customer satisfaction and aiding employee retention.

“Always assume the customer is right,” said Walsh. “Ninety-nine percent of the time, you’re winning yourself another fan — and that’s worth it every day.”