Why Returns Processes Are Such a Hassle: And How To Solve It

Luke Walker
March 7, 2024

We’ve all been there. You’ve bought a product from a new online retailer and you’re excited for it to turn up. So naturally, you’re pretty frustrated when it arrives broken, in the wrong size, or just simply not what was advertised. Not a great start to the customer relationship, is it? 

Frustrated, you start investigating how to return it. Should be fairly straightforward, right…?

If you’ve ever had to return a product you’ve bought online, you’ll know the reality is rarely so smooth. Often, you’re far more likely to experience excessive waiting times, delays, miscommunications, and confusion. But why does it have to be like this?

😩 Returns: Why Does It Have To Be So Hard?

Product returns processes are usually complicated, prone to internal and external fraud, inefficient, and lacking in sustainability. They can generate considerable losses to the business, especially as returns data is often not systematically collected, monitored, or reported to senior management.

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For many, the answer is obvious: Poor processes are a deliberate attempt to discourage customers from returning products. After all, the easier it is to return something, the more likely customers are to do it. And no company wants more returns, right?

In fact, the truth is much more pedestrian: Refunds are among the most complex processes a company might need to manage. As much as customers hate returning products, retailers hate it even more. That’s because managing these processes generally involves: 

🤝🏻 Multiple teams and stakeholders

📦 Managing shipping and courier logistics

🔄 Multiple back-and-forths with the customers

🔗 Integrations with ERP, CRM, finance systems, inventory management systems, and more

The complexity of these tasks means organizations generally rely on unwieldy, manual workarounds to manage returns. Often, a small number of senior CS reps end up managing most of the process themselves. This is a huge drain on their time.

Some returns can be quite simple, like if you’ve got a straightforward product that’s only sold through one channel. But things get complicated when you start working with multiple levels of merchants and sellers. At the same time, different companies will have different returns policies, requiring an agent to review the claim. All these elements come together to create a uniquely complex process.

Michael Guan, Customer Success Lead, Next Matter

Customer Experience in 2024: 4 Key Priorities for the Year Ahead

But even more importantly – it’s also wildly inefficient. Relying on spreadsheets, email, and manual processes to manage complex requirements like this is a recipe for disaster. In truth, the reality often ends up looking a lot like this:

🙎‍♀️ For the customer, it means confusion and frustration, with conflicting threads across email, phone, and live chat - and no clarity about when and how the product will be picked up. Refunds take ages, and the courier has to keep coming out to try again. The customer has to explain the situation to every new agent they chat with.

☎️ For the agent, it makes everything harder. Every time they chat with a new customer, they have to scroll through convoluted email threads to find the context – or into another app entirely. At any one time, they might have tens or hundreds of emails to respond to, without any idea what they involve, who’s spoken to whom before, and how urgently each requires a response. Agents have to constantly leave the helpdesk to click in and out of spreadsheets, send emails to customers, manage courier logistics, and more.

Ultimately, everybody here is trying their best, but technology is getting in the way.

So how do we get it right?

🎯 A Challenge and An Opportunity

Recent research suggests that an effective online returns process is important to 68% of shoppers – and as many as 76% now check the returns policy before making a purchase. Even more strikingly, 82% agreed that an easy returns experience would encourage them to shop with a retailer again. Conversely, a poor returns process would put off 62%.

In short, returns are both a challenge and an opportunity for retailers. When a customer returns a product, there’s a good chance they’re already frustrated about whatever went wrong in the first place. As the data suggests, a smooth and efficient returns process can turn them back into loyal customers. But in most cases, a poor returns process will cement a difficult reputation and scare customers away for good. Returns, in short, are make or break for your customer relationship.

For most organizations, that means returns are effectively an exercise in damage control. Very few see them as the opportunity they really are: To offer an experience that’ll actually bring customers back next time. 

But what does an effective returns experience involve? 

🤔 Choice and control - Customers want to be in control of as much of the process as possible. That requires multiple options for how they’ll get in touch, which shipping partners to use, and whether they want a replacement product or a refund. The more options you provide, the smoother the overall experience will be. 

⚡️Speed and ease - 64% of customers say that speed is as important as price in customer service, according to Forbes. The goal of the workflow should be to accelerate the process as much as possible from initial request to final delivery. 

🤝 Transparency - The last thing a customer wants is confusion over how and when the return is taking place. It’s important to keep customers informed at every stage, including communications to confirm the return has been approved, as well as shipping logistics, refund or new product details, and more. 

The key goal here should be to make the process as fast, friction-free, and transparent as possible. 

✅ Returns Automation Success: How To Get It Right

As we’ve established, manual processes are clearly not the best way to manage complex processes like returns. The more an organization grows, the slower and more inefficient these processes become. But finding the right automated solution is far from straightforward. 

📖 READ: AI in Customer Service: How To Use It – And When Not To

Many retailers are drawn toward out-of-the-box workflow tools. Tools like this can be great for simple processes (eg. a customer changing their address) because they don’t require many steps and tend not to vary much between organizations. 

Sometimes, there just needs to be a human agent involved to request more information or approve the return. But there’s a better way of doing that than expecting the customer to fill in a manual, unstructured email - which is super frustrating.

Instead, you can offer a pre-designed form on the website where customers just need to tick boxes and add images. Then, it can be automatically routed to the right agent based on the customer’s input or back to the customer if it’s not properly completed.  That’s a much better experience for everyone.

Michael Guan, Customer Success Lead, Next Matter

But when it comes to complex processes like returns, these tools often lack the specific functionality that’s needed to effectively manage the end-to-end process. To get it right, there’s a whole range of functionality that’s needed for an automated workflow to be effective:

📋 External forms - Customers should be able to trigger the returns process through a custom form that prompts them to provide the right details. 

📧 Automated emails - Retailers should be able to create email templates for each stage in the workflow. This could include confirmations of the return, shipping details, or a request for further information. 

🙋🏽‍♀️ Designated agents & stakeholders - Some tasks will always need to be done by specific people. That could be the same agent a customer already has a relationship with, or a particular person who’s responsible for eg. approving the return request. You need the functionality to designate specific people for these tasks, based on your own unique processes and team structures.

📷 Media upload - Customers might need to provide extra information or evidence like images, documents, or signatures. An effective tool should make it as easy as possible for them to upload this media, either via email or other digital forms. 

📋 Task hierarchy - There’s no use organizing shipping logistics before the refund has been approved. Some tasks will always require a previous task to be completed before it can start. Others can and should work in parallel, to avoid bottlenecks and holdups. You need the flexibility to specify how tasks will happen, and in which order - so you can accelerate the process as much as possible - without sacrificing quality control. 

🔗 Integrations - A returns process requires correlating data in an ERP or inventory management system, as well as communicating with couriers and other potential stakeholders. If a refund is needed, you’ll also need integrations with your finance software. The technology you use needs to work seamlessly with these tools and allow CS agents to manage the whole process from their helpdesk.  

📝 Compliance - To stay on the right side of the law, it’s important to have a clear data trail for all actions taken, by whom, and when. Where data protection is concerned, you may also need to ensure personal information is retained until, or deleted after, a specific period. 

Agents typically live within a shared helpdesk environment where they reply to emails and address tickets. One of the most crucial elements of any automated workflow tool is to integrate with that environment. Without this, agents are going to be clicking in and out of the helpdesk all day - which nobody wants.

Michael Guan, Customer Success Lead, Next Matter

If your workflow tool offers all of these features, there’s a good chance it’s up to the task. But few out-of-the-box solutions can offer the breadth of integrations, customizations, and functionality you need to actually deliver an effective workflow that can deliver for you and your customers at scale. 

📖 READ: AI in Customer Service: How To Use It – And When Not To

✅ A Case Study in Effective Returns Automation

We’ve established why an effective returns process is so important and what features are needed to make it a success. But what does it look like in action? What steps are needed? And how do the features we just discussed make life easier for customers and CS agents? To do that, we’re going to look at a textbook returns workflow:

1. Workflow trigger - Jane needs to return a new microwave that arrived damaged. She scrolls through her emails and finds a link to the return form on the original product confirmation. Since she clicked the link, the form can be easily pre-filled with the relevant item details and her customer information. All Jane needs to do is specify the reason and that she wants a replacement rather than a refund. These can be easily selected from pre-filled drop-downs. 

2. Request sent - She sends the form and immediately receives a confirmation email to say the request has been received - and that she’ll receive a response within 24 hours. 

3. Agent review - The request is immediately triaged to the agent responsible for managing returns, Mark - who sees the ticket appear in his Zendesk helpdesk. He’s got a few similar tickets in, so he can save time by responding to them all in the same place. He has three options for how to proceed; accept, reject, or request more information. For Jane, he needs evidence that the product is damaged, so he clicks the final option.

4. Additional evidence - Jane is sent another automated email asking for evidence of the damaged product. Using a link in the same email to another form, she snaps a picture of the microwave on her smartphone, uploads it directly to the form, and clicks send. Job done. 

5. Return approval-
Within minutes, the ticket is triaged back to Mark, who can clearly see the damaged microwave in the picture. He quickly approves the request. 

6. Logistics details - Jane is sent another automated email that confirms the request has been approved and specifies the process from here. The email includes a scanned PDF of the postage label she’ll need to print off - and details on how to arrange the pickup with the courier. 

7. Replacement product - At the same time, a separate workflow is triggered to send a new product out, based on Jane’s preferences. She receives an automated confirmation and delivery instruction for this as well - just as if she’d ordered the product from scratch. 

8. Inventory update - The courier picks up Jane’s damaged microwave as planned, and it’s returned back to the factory. Integrations with the retailer’s inventory management software ensure the product’s status is automatically updated when it’s picked up, in transit, and delivered. 

9. Workflow complete - When all tasks are complete, the workflow automatically resolves. Jane gets an automated email to confirm everything has been received and the process is complete. A few days later, the new, undamaged microwave arrives, complete with a $30 gift card for her next purchase - an apology for the inconvenience. “That’s nice,” she thinks - “Though all in all it wasn’t that difficult at all. A fairly smooth experience all round.” 

Next time Jane wants a kitchen appliance, I think we all know where she’s going to go… 

➡️ Turn Frustration Into Loyalty With Next Matter

When it comes to returns, many organizations are simply trying to neutralize a bad situation. But few see the real opportunity here - to make effective and smooth returns the cornerstone of your customer experience. While the rewards of this strategy are clear - achieving it isn’t always straightforward. 

To get it right, you need robust technology that can manage multiple teams, stakeholders, and third parties. At the same time, you need to provide constant transparency to the customer about what’s happening and when. Done right, you should also make the experience as smooth and seamless for the customer as possible, while putting them in the driving seat. 

If you’re relying on manual processes or out-of-the-box workflow tools to build these complex experiences, you simply can’t create the level of service, speed, and automation you need to guarantee a smooth and efficient returns process at scale. Instead, you need Next Matter. 

Check out the full guide to effective returns automation to find out more. 

About the author
Luke Walker is the Product Marketing Manager at Next Matter. He is a longtime process hacker, and writes about marketing, business digitization, leadership, and work-life balance. When he's not at work, you can find him listening to records or climbing rocks.

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