Three Tips for Making the Most of Postholiday Returns

The holidays are especially frenetic this year, as a late Thanksgiving has made the official 2013 Christmas shopping season six days shorter, putting pressure on shoppers and retailers alike. "Busy sidewalks" are everywhere indeed, along Main Street as well as the information superhighway. The impact of making the sale during the holidays cannot be understated; for some retailers, the holiday season can represent as much as 20 to 40 percent of annual sales. To this end, delighting the customer is high on retailers' holiday wish lists. According to recent surveys, 92 percent of businesses note customer experience as a top strategic priority, and 40 percent believe it can differentiate them from their competitors.

But many retailers struggle with a "Yule logjam" when dealing with the onslaught of customer service requests in the days following Christmas. According to the National Retail Federation, one in three consumers expect to return at least some portion of their holiday gifts this year. How can savvy retailers prepare themselves to deftly handle returns or exchanges and assist with replacement parts, damaged orders, or other issues? Read on.

Opportunity Knocks

Accompanied by all those returns are customers who probably aren't exactly thrilled to be in your line. Recognize that every customer issue is an opportunity to make a positive impression. The use of empathy and a proactive can-do attitude go a long way in setting the right tone for the interaction. You don't necessarily need to agree with the person, but you should accept the fact that it's a problem for him. Deal with his feelings first, then deal with his problem. Next, it's important to reiterate to the customer your understanding of the problem or issue, and have the customer confirm so he feels heard. Finally, underpromise and overdeliver. We are often tempted to make promises that are difficult to keep. It's a far better strategy to exceed the expectations originally presented rather than promise the moon and fail to deliver.

Giving the Gift of Context

Context brings meaning to data. It has the ability to improve the speed, efficacy, and pleasure of your online customer service interactions. Shoppers want an individualized conversation based on their history with your organization. They know you have detailed customer and transaction data in your systems, and they expect customer service agents to bring it all together to drive a unified, "all about me" type of conversation. Specifics solidify the engagement and can turn a cumbersome task or mere transaction into a rewarding experience that demonstrates your organization truly values each customer and understands their needs.

Context also respects shoppers' time, by speeding calls and interactions and empowering agents to streamline resolution—and that's big. According to Forrester Research, 71 percent of customers say that valuing their time is the most important thing a company can do to provide good online customer service. As soon as a customer makes contact, the agent should have a full history of previous interactions, shopping preferences, and any prior issues at the ready.

What's more, contextual data helps your customer service agents turn potentially troublesome situations into positive—and even profitable—ones. Once an issue is resolved, the agent can use all the available information to provide special offers or customized products or services that fit that customer's needs or shopping patterns. If those offers are meaningful and timed in conjunction with an exceptional service encounter, the customer will likely be receptive to another purchase.

Keep It Consistent

This is the first holiday shopping season where many retailers are offering cross-channel options, such as the opportunity to buy online and return in store. Upon first blush, this is a boon for busy shoppers, yet many retailers have yet to perfect the returns process. And combined with newly minted and inexperienced holiday sales associates, this can be a recipe for consumer angst.

Consumers don't shop channels; they shop brands. And, as such, they expect the same experience across all channels. Be sure that as consumers switch from one service channel to another, they don't slip through the gaps. An omnichannel customer service solution solves the greatest hurdles retailers encounter in trying to address issues and make stronger connections with today's shoppers: consistency via the same quality of experience and outcomes on all channels; completeness, with seamless transition across those channels no matter where or how the customer engages; and contextual information that is automatically presented to the customer and/or the agent precisely when it is needed.

While the holiday shopping season brings more chances to engage customers, it also brings more chances to lose them. A focus on service after the sale will ensure you keep those customers well into the new year and beyond.

Scott Hays is senior director of product marketing for KANA Software. Based in Silicon Valley, Calif., KANA works with more than 900 enterprises, including many of the Fortune 500 and more than 250 government agencies. For more information, visit www.kana.com, and follow KANA on Twitter @KANAsoftware.

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