Strengthening retail brands with a seamless returns service

Genefa Murphy at Five9 explains why retailers shouldn’t make online returns after Christmas a last-chance saloon for customer loyalty

When it comes to customer service, UK shoppers are among the most discerning in the world. With high brand experience expectations, the last interaction is often the most important in determining whether a customer comes back for more.

With today marking ‘Takeback Tuesday’, when post-Christmas returns surge, retailers cannot afford to leave a bitter taste in the mouth of customers seeking a seamless returns experience.

Brand loyalty is being tested more than ever. In Five9’s annual Customer Service Index 2021, nearly four out of ten UK consumers felt that their customer service experience has worsened over the last 12 months, higher than any other country including in North America and Europe.

And they are not quick to forget. Nearly half of UK respondents are unlikely to conduct business with a brand after a poor customer experience – making the UK the least forgiving country for unsatisfactory service.

The challenge for brands is how to make the online returns experience as smooth as possible. An onerous returns procedure can sour an otherwise positive online experience. Think about when consumers have to go in-store or to a post office when the very reason for shopping online in the first place was to avoid crowds. Or just think about the requirement to print out the returns label when there’s no printer at home, not to mention the stress of a return getting lost on its way back to the retailer.

Sweetening online returns for lasting loyalty

One of the key challenges for online returns is siloing. The process often involves retailers, drop-off touchpoints, and couriers. Customers demand superior experiences at every stage, with retailers being the face of the transaction.

If a problem with the courier arises, the customer’s relationship with the retail brand itself is at risk. Brands must have visibility into the entire returns process and listen carefully to customer concerns when they are raised – whether that is via traditional channels such as phoning the contact centre, or through social listening.

One of the most potent differentiators for online returns is proactive communication. Brands must be ready to put themselves in the customer’s shoes.

Once customers have taken items to drop-off points, they expect instant updates, receiving a text or email notification that drop-off has been logged, for example. If a return is delayed, the customer can be alerted so that they are not left in the dark. If there are bumps in the road, it is a ripe moment to offer discounts for future orders to reward loyalty and patience.

Such strategies, of course, rely on data. You can’t act on what you can’t see. Further, if retailers harness that data, refunds become another tool for greater personalisation. Take on board why the customer returned an item, for example ‘table too small’, and offer an alternative that fits their needs.

Data is a portal through which brands can consistently provide valuable communications, including reminders, new offers, and personalised suggestions for similar products where an item is out of stock.

Golden rings; phone still reigns

Despite the prevalence of online shopping, many customers still turn to the phone as their primary channel to communicate with brands. When wanting quick answers to urgent or sensitive issues, over 65% of UK shoppers pick up the phone.

Here lies danger.

The same research revealed that over a third of UK consumers left brands they had previously been loyal to in the last year and nearly half (44%) were very unlikely to be willing to do business after a poor customer experience.

Too often, customers experience contact centres as disorganised or disjointed. CX suffers when callers are passed from one representative to another, waiting far too long to reach a representative who is skilled in addressing their issue. Positive experiences come from getting helpful answers from an agent, even if it takes more time. That means not siloing returns issues.

For routine matters such as returns, many retailers are turning to next-generation virtual agents to provide the correct answer through the channel customers want. 40% of UK consumers are already using virtual agents where available, and while nearly a fifth haven’t yet used them, they are open to it. This demonstrates the considerable opportunity contact centres have to capitalise on virtual agents to provide a better experience.

While returns are often seen as “boring but necessary” operations, retail analysts at Forrester highlight that this will become a differentiator for retailers in 2022.

“Returns directly influence consumer choices: About three out of five French, UK, and US online adults prefer retailers that offer free return shipping; about two out of five prefer retailers that provide refunds via the original form of payment. More fundamentally, online consumers have told us that fear of returns has outright discouraged them from buying online. Customer-obsessed retailers and brands will invest to upgrade returns (locations, streamlined processes, refund issuance, internal returns processing) and, will work to share data internally.”

As the battle for loyalty rages, any point of differentiation counts. Start 2022 as you mean to go on, ensuring each and every touchpoint is optimised for customer experience – whether first impression or the last link in the chain.


Genefa Murphy is CMO at Five9

Main image courtesy of iStockPhoto.com

© Business Reporter 2021

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