Many happy returns

The packages have been opened and the ribbons have been collected by that one relative who claims to recycle them. The good news is that early reports suggest that 2010 was a robust holiday shopping season. But now retailers are starting to hear that the sweater didn’t fit, the electronic gadget is on the fritz, and Great Aunt Gladys didn’t really want hang gliding gear after all.

For companies that were careful to explain their return and exchange policies at the time of the sale, the post-holiday rush shouldn’t pose a problem. For others, the process can leave the gift giver — and the recipient — feeling frustrated. What can businesses learn from retailers famous for their sterling customer service?

► Upfront and center. Spell out your policies clearly. A mention on a website won’t help the brick-and-mortar shopper. A fineprint label, an obscure hyperlink, or a small sign posted in an out-of-the-way place aren’t likely to do the trick either.

► Timing is everything. How a retailer handles returns often factors into a gift giver’s buying decision. One common method — a brief mention on a post-sale receipt or order confirmation screen — may be too late to be effective.

► Turning an oops into an opportunity. It’s unfortunate when a present isn’t just right, but addressing post-holiday consumer complaints courteously can pay dividends in the long-term. Walking into your store (or going to your website) to handle an exchange may be the first contact a gift recipient has with your business. As experts will tell you, that initial visit — if handled graciously — can win you a loyal customer for the rest of the year.  And these days, of course, customers don't just share recommendations with family and friends.  Blogs, social networking, and even reviews on your own site offer new avenues for word-of-mouth buzz.

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Extremely useful information, having good return policies in place is a must, but a bit of customer services added in goes without saying.

Chris Brookfield

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