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Give money back as happily as you take it

(MoneyWatch) The coming days and weeks separate the customer service men and women from the boys and girls. For many retailers and other consumer product companies, post-holiday business presents the ultimate test of their service chops. No company likes to take money back out of the register; but done right, it's a transaction that can often lead to immediate offsetting sales, and more importantly, long-term customer acquisition and loyalty.

It's a matter of increasing fact that ease of returns plays a major role in customers' decisions about where to do business. That's why more and more retailers are touting extraordinarily liberal return policies as key elements of their marketing and sales efforts: From L.L. Bean's "return anything, any time" satisfaction promise, to Kohl's "no questions asked" policy, to Zappos' 365-day returns with free shipping, the best customer service companies understand that removing any friction, or source of possible hesitation, from the purchase decision is good for winning both the immediate sale and future business.

Of course, in any truly customer-obsessed culture, there is a risk of getting taken advantage of. Companies can and do lose money on returns, and some customers can and do game the system. Every business has different challenges. So while your company may need to have some controls in place, it will do best by avoiding excessively paranoid safeguards, and focusing on these four keys to customer satisfaction and loyalty during and after the return season:

- Be fast: To every extent possible, make the return process as fast and easy as the purchase. Not to oversimplify, but a purchase involves identifying and adjusting inventory, verifying payment, and delivering goods to the buyer. A return is, for all intents and purposes, the same thing in reverse.

- Be friendly: Be as pleasant giving back money as you are taking it. The customer is not out to get you (in most cases); she is just completing a transaction. Don't take it personally. The nicer you are in handling the return, the more likely the customer will be to exchange, buy more, or come back again. Nice is nice.

- Minimize red tape: Take a critical look at your processes and procedures, and what you require of customers in order to complete a return, and eliminate anything that is not absolutely necessary. Many companies make customers jump through far too many hoops, which can easily discourage them from buying again.

- Err on the side of the customer: Maintain fair and equitable standards, but when necessary, give the benefit of the doubt to the buyer. Don't be defensive, don't stand on ceremony, don't hide behind the language of the return policy. Too many companies try to "win," and of course usually lose in the long run. Unless there's a compelling reason not to, always tip the scales in the customer's favor.

The bottom line for service providers is as it should be for all matters customer-related: Put yourself on the other side of the counter (or phone, or email), and base your decisions and actions on whatever has the best chance of making the other person as happy as possible. Obviously, rules and regulations, procedures and small print can present challenges, but that doesn't mean you can't use your head and act with empathy. People know when someone is genuinely making every effort to help them.

Again, from a service standpoint, a return is really not much different from a sale; it's just that the product and money are reversing direction. So the way in which you treat the customer during this transaction can determine whether the return is the last time you'll see her.

Please share your own return-season practices and successes, horror stories, creative solutions and suggestions, and have a happy, healthy New Year.

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