Like it or not, returns are an important part of any eCommerce operation.
At its most fundamental, it’s simply fulfilling your obligations as a retailer to provide customers with a channel for returning defective goods, or those that are not sold as advertised. That’s one compelling reason alone why you should have a straightforward way for customers to return their goods to you.
But returns are also an important part of the marketing process. In some sectors, it’s vital to let customers know that being able to return a product is a routine part of your transaction with them, even if the products are exactly as described.
Let them know it’s not something you’re going to kick up a fuss about and you’ll find people speculatively buying from you with fewer misgivings about being saddled with unwanted goods. In fact, a satisfying return and refund can turn a disgruntled customer into a loyal one.
In Marks & Spencer’s heyday, easy returns were among its key selling points – customers were more likely to give that sequinned top a try if they knew it could be brought back if they changed their minds. It’s great marketing, and contrary to what your instinct might tell you, it doesn’t lead to a particularly greater returns burden. Returns are still a last resort measure for most customers, who also want an easy life.
How to streamline your entire order returns process
So knowing that a frictionless returns policy is always a good thing, now you need to put it in motion. Here’s how to make it streamlined and keep those customers coming back.
1. Maximise fulfilment efficiency
Returns don’t always come from damaged or defective orders. In a lot of cases, they happen because the wrong items were sent, or because they took so long to arrive that they were no longer necessary, for example if they were for a holiday or the start of school term.
Ensure a smooth and well-maintained fulfillment process and you can reduce your returns straight off the bat. Remember also that packaging is an integral part of the fulfillment process too. When it’s rushed or scrimped on, damaged goods are the result. You guessed it – that means more returns.
2. Keep it simple!
Always remember that a customer who isn’t satisfied with the product isn’t necessarily dissatisfied with the retailer. It’s how little the process of returning the unwanted or damaged goods interferes with their life that determines the lasting impression.
One question should always be on your mind when designing a returns policy: could this be any easier? Think about including returns packaging, ready-addressed, with the order. For some items, collection might be the best option. If a small outlay today can lead to a long-lasting customer relationship, it’s worth it.
Put yourself in the customer’s shoes and work out how it could be easier. It’ll only happen in a minority of cases, but having a plan in place is vital.
3. Be transparent
A dissatisfying returns process can double the disappointment of unliked goods. That is never going to be a sustainable route to growing your customer base. That’s why it’s vital that your customers know exactly what to expect from a returned package, ideally at (or before) the purchase stage. How long will a replacement take? When will their bank account be refunded? How will the customer need to initiate the return?
Are there times when the process might be slower than usual (e.g. Christmas)? Let customers know what they can expect from the transaction and if you meet or improve in their expectations, they’re less likely to be dissatisfied.
4. Utilise a 3rd party
Third party logistics (3PL) is one solution to a complex returns situation. With this arrangement, you simply supply the 3PL company with your products and they take care of the entire fulfillment process: that’s taking orders from your website, packaging, dispatching and returns.
Any returned goods will either go back into stock if the customer has simply changed their mind and not used the product, or back to the retailer or manufacturer if it’s defective. As a retailer, all you need to do is communicate the method by which returns will be handled, and the 3PL company, who should be expert in the field, will deal with it.
5. Returns rate versus returns processing time
Some industries don’t just have higher than average returns rates – it’s integral in the business model. The most obvious is online fashion retail. Online shopping might be convenient, and there are plenty of digital try-it-on and 3D visualisation tools, but the lack of a physical changing room will always mean that it’s harder to meet expectations. The industry has risen to this challenge by offering easy returns. But with the promise of returning unwanted goods easily comes a need to fulfil that promise. Good 3PL companies are perfectly set up to deliver on that goodwill, and keep those customers happy.
More than just saving you time
Using third party logistics really does free up your time to concentrate on all the other parts of running your online business – keeping your website populated, dealing with employees and suppliers, tracking returns and seeking out new openings. Your days of regular visits to the post office or courier’s depot are over. But there’s really a lot more to it than that.
When you integrate your website to the 3PL company’s portal, a whole world of data becomes available to you that you can use to keep your site and your fulfillment operation running smoothly. You’ll get 100% visibility of stock levels for a start, and that means you can be prepared for seasonal rushes or upticks in sales due to promotions or campaigns, as well as the more mundane stock control activities.
If you detect any weaknesses in the system, it’s in your power to rectify them before they become business-threatening problems.
The important thing to remember is that as far as your customers are concerned, it’s your business that is dealing with their order – not a courier. If they have a query about a delivery or a returned order, it is your team they will be dealing with.
That’s why it’s great to know that the exact position of a dispatch or a stocked item is at your fingertips as soon as an enquiry comes in. You might even be able to give customers an ETA if they ask for one.
Furthermore, you can use this visibility to grant customers themselves access to the whereabouts of their order or whether an item is in stock, meaning you won’t have to dedicate any human resources to such customer service issues.
Choosing a third party logistics partner isn’t something you can take a gamble on. It’s as integral a part of your eCommerce business as you can imagine. If it does its job, it acts as a freeway for getting your products to customers’ front doors, and nobody even notices it’s there. If it’s full of holes and log jams, the opposite happens – expect a very busy customer helpline and some less than friendly opinions on review sites and social media.
That’s why partnering with Zendbox for your 3PL solution makes perfect sense. We were designed around the technology, with our fulfilment centres, warehousing and logistics infrastructure feeding off it at every step. Founded from experiencing the pain of poor fulfilment services, we set about building a company that not only ensures fulfilment is smooth and logical, but that it offers complete visibility to the businesses we serve.
We are honoured to be the logistics partner of the complete range of businesses, from plucky startups working from the spare bedroom to multinational organizations with global clients. Although the scales might be different, the overall service is the same – we look after your products until they’re purchased, and then we ensure they’re delivered.
This assurance comes from the fact that we ourselves have trusted partners, particularly in the delivery industry, and we know how to choose the best one for each dispatch on a case-by-case basis.
If you’re taking the next step from self-delivery or ad hoc fulfilment to a less time-consuming solution, or if you feel your current 3PL partner isn’t providing the satisfaction your customers demand, find out more about how we can help.
Technical Operations & Product Development Manager at Zendbox
Alex spearheads product development initiatives at Zendbox with expert precision. His in-depth understanding of B2C and B2B consumer models enables him to lead a highly adaptable team in creating ground-breaking solutions for eCommerce retailers seeking a premium fulfilment service.