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To Reduce Costly Retail Returns Start Listening to Your Front Line People

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No one ever said customer service is easy. But it takes the thickest-skinned, most patient and unflappable customer service reps of all to work retail returns, where customers often arrive unhappy and spoiling for a fight.

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Many returns reps -- store associates, call center workers, warehouse returns processors -- know far more about how customers really feel about a retailer and its products than colleagues farther up the pay scale. And more than a few wish there was a way to share what they know.

Smart retail executives are listening, and harnessing that knowledge to learn from -- and reduce -- retail return rates. Because the best way to stop a return is knowing why it became a return in the first place.

The overlooked treasure chest.

Like any profession, returns associates let off steam by sharing their most egregious stories with colleagues, as they do here.

But in fact, returns associates work hard every day at a job that goes under-appreciated for its contribution to the overall company mission: To figure out how to please customers and keep them coming back.

Related: Improve Management of Retail Returns for a Better Customer Experience

These returns associates work at a key data collection point: The place where real consumers tell the retailer exactly why they want to send back a product. At most retailers, customers share a lot more detail in a human-to-human returns transaction than get recorded in transaction data:

  • "The handle is too loose" becomes "defective"
  • "It looked red online but it's really pink" becomes "wrong color"
  • "I thought it would fit my couch but the measurements were not right" becomes "wrong size"

A buyer or merchandiser who knows exactly what's wrong with the products they sell can act on that information, making short-term changes -- correcting the measurements in a product description, for example -- as well as long-term changes: requiring better quality control from the vendor, or changing suppliers. But if all that rich description gets winnowed down to unhelpful, boilerplate "reason codes," all that insight is lost.

Related: Why It's Time for Retailers to Embrace Online Returns

Even if a product return transaction is done without that person-to-person communication, retailers often overlook a chance to gather key insights about why products come back. They can provide a blank space on returns forms so customers can explain the reason in their own words. Warehouse clerks can shed more light: If the receiving clerk can take an extra 30 seconds to look over the product and make observations about it -- the handles are loose on all six of the pots that came back today -- they're gathering invaluable data that can help retailers take action to improve what they sell and prevent similar future returns.

Related: 5 Easy Strategies to Prevent Costly Retail Returns

Retail workers that manage returns aren't just performing a job that can test even the most patient: They're also acting as the face of the retailer in gathering important feedback from customers. With just a few changes in processes and use of returns analytics, retailers can capitalize on the rich knowledge of their customer service staff to drive down return rates and keep customers happy.

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