Why not make this coming return season (Dec 26 through Jan 15…and beyond) your golden opportunity to build customer loyalty?

During the holiday surge, a flood of orders originates from all different channels: including online shopping carts, postal mail order forms, inbound calls to customer service centers and physical points of purchase at brick and mortar store locations. As we’ve discussed in this blog series, an integrated order processing, inventory management, and shipping system puts you in a perfect position to profit by following back office system best practices.

But let’s not forget that, after the holidays, some of those flawlessly stocked and shipped items are coming back.

In fact, according to an NRF report, 75% of last year’s (2016) holiday shoppers checked a merchant’s return policies before making a purchase. Happily, over 80% described the return process as somewhat or very easy. Bottom line? This sets the bar very high for your own returns handling processes. Here are 5 ways you can streamline your return policy to make it seamless and easy, for customers and for you.

#1 Define effective returns policies and procedures in advance.

The most critical step you can take to finish out the holiday season successfully is to set up a good strategy for processing product returns and customer refunds now. Now is the time to define policies. Think about and decide on:

  • which items are returnable/exchangeable
  • time period exchanges are accepted
  • condition requirements
  • proof of purchase requirements
  • how to get return shipping labels
  • if you’ll offer free return shipping
  • and more

Also take into account the increased number of returns from gift recipients, analyze your forecasts to anticipate what’s coming (10% of in-store purchases and 15% of online?), game-plan your workflow (inspection quarantine?) and train customer service reps and warehouse staff with appropriate procedures and scripts (when and how to restock – discount – dispose).

OTHER CONSIDERATIONS:

  • Will you do bulk processing of returns and refunds, or handle them individually in real-time—or a combination of both approaches?
  • Are all the possible facets of a return scenario defined in the system?
  • Will your customer service reps (CSR) have full visibility and freedom of action to handle the range of customer expectations?
  • What tools do your warehouse staff need in order to receive returns and quickly reconcile order records and issue refunds?

The goal is to predetermine what store staff, CSRs and your warehouse team need in order to make customers happy with the full retail engagement.

#2 Automate and integrate the return process.

Whether a return is initiated at your eCommerce site, through contact with a CSR/call center team or via a store point of purchase system, the amount of integration and automation in your back office systems can make the difference between satisfied, long-term customers and a slow, confusing, profit-sapping grind.

A comprehensive order management (OMS) system lets CSRs, warehouse staffers and others quickly access the correct order using several means of customer identification, such as address credit card number, item purchased and more. A return code can then be assigned for the item (for example, flagging it as damaged, unopened, etc). A return ID number should be automatically assigned and a shipping label generated, either printed for mailing to the customer or emailed for the customer to self-print.

An integrated system can generate reports showing exactly how many returns will be coming in, allowing warehouse teams to prepare with confidence for the impending workload.

#3 Train your customer service staff.

Inbound phone calls are the most common initiation method for product returns and refunds. Your CSRs should interact with a “lookup screen” or returns dashboard facility that helps quickly and accurately validate and connect the customer to the order and the item being returned. The CSR can quickly match the client identifier to an order record number, or search for the item and customer name.

Depending on your return policy, the customer may be entitled to an immediate refund without return (think: perishable items), a product exchange or a return-for-refund. Any refund amount should be issued in the payment medium used for the purchase—cash, check, or credit card.

#4 Brick and mortar considerations.

Returns to the store usually include a scan of the product or receipt that submits item information to the system to initiate a refund or exchange transaction. The point of sale system may be part of an advanced order management solution (OMS) like Freestyle’s M.O.M., or may be a third party software system. The return policy may call for sending the returned items to bins at the warehouse (especially in the case of damaged goods), or returns may be recycled directly into stock at the store location for resale, perhaps on an open-box basis.

#4 Don’t forget online eCommerce.

In the case of an online return process, where the customer expects a do-it-yourself process, the web site customer interface should trigger an interaction with the order management system (OMS) to generate a return ID and return shipping label and immediately start the refund process.

#5 Tie it all together—customer, order, item, warehouse, refund.

When returned items arrive at the warehouse, staffers scan or type in the shipping label’s return ID to the integrated system, and instantly the circle is closed. The OMS immediately matches the return ID to the specific order. Warehouse staffers can designate where the item should reside (purpose- or channel- or inventory-specific bin) and validate that the customer refund can proceed (e.g. Return Merchandise Authorization).

Refunds can be processed as batches or interactive refunds. Freestyle’s M.O.M. system automatically flags customers designated to receive refunds, and the responsible person can execute the refund at the order level or batch up refunds for processing in bulk as part of a scheduled credit card refund process. M.O.M. checks the transaction ID to make sure it’s for the right item and does not exceed the purchase amount, so there can be no over refunds. M.O.M. records and displays all stacked discounts, applied coupons and credits so it can be made clear to the customer why the refund amount is what it is. Promo credits can be issued as refunds, as well, for customer appeasement.

The Takeaway: Getting items back into stock quickly and reconciling inventory accurately.

With a powerful integrated system, your call center, warehouse, finance and marketing teams don’t need to bounce back and forth from one system to another, re-enter information or manually execute steps that can be efficiently automated. Updating separate systems is a catalyst for holiday return errors and issues.

A powerful OMS should allow:

  • All stakeholders, if enabled by role, should be able to see orders and inventory clearly onscreen, with accurate, visible tracking of each item’s location and status (e.g. return to inventory).
  • Fields for extra notes that are valuable for communicating special instructions between, for instance, CSRs and warehouse staff.
  • The system to produce refund status reports daily, and support automatically filling back orders by order age, priority or customer status on receipt of returns into the system.

A long-term impact on business success can result from analyzing which products are being returned the most, by type, manufacturer, channel or other attribute. This tracking can lead to decisions that avoid problems in the future.

Whether you have a moderate-but-growing business footprint or are struggling to handle large numbers of sales orders, Freestyle’s M.O.M. creates confidence that you can follow a fair, customer-friendly, efficient returns strategy that will optimize customer loyalty toward your business for years.

Our myriad of useful capabilities—spanning the broadest spectrum from practical to advanced—is certain to brighten your holiday season! Please contact us!

Check out our series of videos on this topic and more, by clicking here!