Whew! You made it. Your team made it. Another holiday season is behind you. Despite all the challenges, despite all the:
- Product inquiries
- Order status checks
- Incorrect orders
- Lost shipments
- Website problems
- Higher customer contact volumes
- Agent sickness and holidays
- Holiday season angst (yes, it’s real–for customers and employees, alike!)
…and all the other topics that kept your customer service team occupied, you all made it through. Your team performed admirably. It’s time to relax and return to business as usual.
Wait a minute, not so fast.
It didn’t fit. It’s not the right color. It’s broken. It wasn’t really on the wish list. What does it all mean? Returns. Exchanges. And unfortunately, you know what that means: The holiday ride isn’t over yet.
UPS has dubbed January 2nd, 2020, “National Returns Day.” After the stretch delivering the intended gifts, this is the day UPS predicts another sharp rise in shipping activity as gift orderers and receivers address the problematic gifts they received.
As a logistics company, UPS has gotten pretty good at predicting its shipping volume. They rely on the National Retail Federation forecast. For the 2019-2020 holiday season, UPS anticipated handling a predicted average of 1.6 million returns per day, starting the week of December 16th. That volume alone is staggering, but returns volume is expected to further rise to 1.9 million returns on National Returns Day—a staggering 26% increase over 2018.
The good news? Your company alone won’t be receiving all 1.9 million returns.
The bad news? You and your customer service team are going to be processing perhaps hundreds or even thousands of returns and exchanges—and this added volume of customer inquiries comes on top of normal, day-to-day customer inquiries. Are you prepared?
While it’s too late now to prepare, a few leaders in the retail industry have demonstrated some best practices. Maybe you already have some or all of them in place; if so, congratulations! Your post-holiday returns journey is going to run more smoothly. If not, let this serve as a checklist for consideration on the run up to National Returns Day following the 2020 holiday season.
Providing End-to-End Self-Service
Before we begin, if your organization doesn’t already have some self-service capabilities in place, you are missing out. Over the years, Forrester has preached how customers prefer it and the positive impacts it has on customer service, such as faster issue resolution and higher customer satisfaction. That said, per recent research by Gartner, your self-service channels must focus on providing solutions and not merely adding a channel. That can’t be emphasized enough, because any cost savings from self-service are lost and customer satisfaction is negatively impacted if customers are unable to find answers. Now let’s dive in.
The cornerstone of self-service is knowledge management. With a knowledge base, the most important value comes from the fact that institutional knowledge isn’t lost. Common inquires such as the following are clearly documented:
- Return and exchange policies
- How the returns process works
- Return packaging tips
- How long an exchange or credit will take
With topics such as these clearly stated, answers are easily found by the customer, setting expectations and providing step-by-step instructions where necessary. And since these types of questions are more common during this period, consider “pinning” or promoting these and other relevant topics on your customer service website so they are that much easier for customers to access.
Once customers have questions to their common returns and exchange questions addressed, they are ready to take action. But rather than force them to pick up the phone or send an email to your contact center, provide them with the ability to execute these common actions directly online with a few clicks, taps or swipes. Workflow and integration makes this possible. It also means completing these tasks can bypass customer service either partially or completely.
If you think about returns and exchanges, they follow a typical process. The customer starts by deciding if they will return or exchange. For either process, the questions now begin: How will they get the product back to the company (and where is the right place–an office suite, warehouse or third-party)? Is a shipping label provided for free or will the customer need to use (and choose) a parcel carrier of their own? For all of these steps, workflow can assist by collecting needed details from the customer from that very first decision to return or exchange, through to how the item is shipped back. The big typical shippers (e.g. UPS, FedEx and USPS, to name a few) all have integration points into their systems that help to build the correct return label, including the proper sender and recipient addresses, as well as calculating the shipment price and including the RMA information to facilitate things once the package is received.
In some cases, some interaction or validation may be necessary: For example, providing proof of purchase before a return can be initiated. The person or team validating that proof might sit outside of customer service in another part of the company. Once the customer has uploaded a PDF of their email order confirmation or a photograph of a receipt, workflow can whisk that information off to the party responsible for verification. Once confirmed, workflow can then issue the RMA and notify the customer they can proceed with their return or exchange.
Human beings are an impatient lot. As soon as the package has been picked up, soon to follow is the need to check status. Once again, workflow and integration makes it possible to show where the parcel is if not yet delivered (leveraging that integration into the system of whatever shipper was used), the status of the return or exchange, and even provide estimated timeframes to completion by using analytics and other methods that measure returns and exchanges real-time.
Automation using workflow and integration is key to this process in two ways. First, it provides a repeatable, standardized process that reduces the amount of manual work for customers and bypasses customer service as much as possible, allowing customer service to focus on other tasks. Second, when done well, it simplifies the customer experience so they can enjoy their gift and get on with their life that much faster.
Another “staff member” to prepare for the post-holiday returns and exchanges onslaught is your chatbot. It’s available around-the-clock and can handle high volumes of inquiries. Though your service center may close or experience busy times that can affect the one-to-one channels like live chat or telephone, a chatbot doesn’t slow down or take a day off. It’s another important part of self-service that provides greater service and value.
The chatbot primarily helps customers zero-in on what they are looking for in an easy-to-use manner. Some customers may choose to avoid searching or browsing your customer service website due to prior challenges—challenges they may not even have had on your website that have framed their willingness to even attempt a search. Using a conversational approach, a chatbot can quickly triage what the customer is looking for, answering policy questions by offering up articles from the knowledge base, pointing customers to the appropriate options to initiate that return or exchange, and providing the status of a return or exchange in process.
Optimizing the Agent Experience
Try as you might, not all customers will take advantage of the self-service and automation you offer. They will reach out directly to customer service via telephone, chat or other live channels to “speak” directly with someone. It’s therefore important to streamline that experience as much as possible so the customer service agent can quickly assist the customer.
Start by unifying the agent’s desktop. Returns and exchanges require the agent to have visibility including verifying the proper documentation was submitted and where the item is (in transit and within the process). These details typically reside in other systems. Rather than requiring the agent to run multiple applications and switch screens while working with customers, integrate that information directly into the customer service system. This will significantly reduce the time needed by the agent and send a satisfied customer on their way faster.
With the relevant customer information more accessible, turn your attention to how to get the solution to the agent. Whether the agent is new or seasoned, machine learning can assist them by suggesting relevant knowledge base articles to share or automation the agent can initiate to facilitate the return or exchange process. This also serves to speed the conversation and solution along.
Reducing the Workload Beyond the Holidays
Returns and exchanges are a part of doing business for many companies. While not limited to the holiday season, the additional volume that comes as a result of a wildly successful holiday season can easily overwhelm a company that isn’t prepared, swamping customer service and negatively impacting customer satisfaction.
The good news is these tips apply to the frenzied holiday returns period as well as the rest of the year. Self-service—using knowledge management, automation and chatbots—is where most customers go first today for service, and these tools help to address the bulk of the requests. When customers choose or require assistance directly from a customer service agent, optimizing their work environment and providing pointers to helpful knowledge base articles and other solutions means tasks are easy to complete and take less time for the agent and customer alike.
Put the “happy” back into the holidays (and every other day of the year). With these ideas, you can make it easy for your customers and provide an efficient, low-cost process for your company to handle returns, exchanges and other common issues, too.