Global commerce is undergoing a major change that has not been finished yet. The blueprint for selling products to consumers and business customers is far from being redefined and both branded and retail companies are looking for answers to many Customer-Centric Commerce questions. Practices from the past are outdated as the customer is now in control over how companies sell and deliver products to them. Customer behavior has always been unpredictable for planning purposes and that is just getting worse. The biggest challenge is to become even more responsive to even less predictable behavior. It is not just about what customers want and when, it is about how they want it.
Another growing challenge is to safeguard the loyalty of these unpredictable customers. A customer once doesn’t mean a customer for life anymore.
Finally, commerce needs to be ecologically sustainable. The voice of the customer for supplier responsibility can no longer be ignored. A viral customer opinion can destroy any brand reputation that has been built carefully.
Much attention is paid to the customer journey that stretches from “Orientation” via “Purchase” to “Delivery”. No need to mention developments like social commerce and drone deliveries. We all know what is happening in this space.
However, one of the most underestimated and ignored challenges in commerce is the extended part of the customer journey. The what?
The Customer Journey continues after the delivery
It is remarkable that attention for the relation with the customer often becomes less intensive after the delivery of the product has been made. Many will say that this is the point where the customer journey stops. Sales have been made and revenue has been recognized.
In fact, this is the point where another important journey starts: the time that the customer is using your product. This is the extended part of the customer journey. It stretches from “Start of Use” via “At Use” to “End of Use”. In the extended customer journey, the customer experiences using the product and receiving service in case of an issue. Both experiences influence future customer loyalty.
There is something else with the extended customer journey. A customer might decide to return the product for various reasons. Reasons that are different in the 3 stages; undesired products at the start of use, defect products at Use, and obsolete products at the end of use. Returning a product can be considered a call for service.
How customer service is offered influences the service experience and customer loyalty. How returns are handled and what is done with the returned product influences the effectiveness and sustainability of the supply chain.
So it is about product returns? Isn’t that an operational and financial burden that we prefer to ignore? Many companies just deal with the return fact and accept the consequences of it.
Considering the challenges of returns that might be right, there are many other priorities in the customer journey with a bigger return on investment. But how about the financial risks like product value erosion while the product is in the returns cue? That treat becomes bigger with shortening product lifecycles. It is not just the costs of returns that might eat sales margin, lost product value will just make it worse. How about the customer loyalty and sustainability opportunities?
Returns in the extended customer journey can no longer be ignored. Returns are part of the game. The good news is that dealing with the return challenges has a direct opportunities spin-off. Another good news is that technology can offer a helping hand.
Technology can bridge the challenges with the opportunities in the extended customer journey
There is plenty of good software around that deals with the topics above. Customer service software like Zendesk supports customers asking for service. Smart API like Shippo supports integration with carriers. Fulfillment systems like Shipwire support return processing, shopping cart software like Shopify supports refunds and all well-known ERP systems have features for return authorization, processing, and settlement. So what’s the issue?
The problem is that some of these systems are just customer service oriented and others focused on execution. None of them are doing both. None of them span the end-to-end extended customer journey. The execution systems simply cannot capture and translate the unpredictable situation and preference of the customer upstream in an optimized and planned execution downstream. The result is sub-optimized execution that does not meet the service preferences of the customer.
What is needed is a returns management planning and execution system with a steering wheel that is held by the customer. The wheel is the tool for the customer to manage his own (self) service. A smart planning logic behind the wheel is the tool to translate the service preference into a planned, sustainable and cost-effective execution of the returns process. In reverse supply, chain systems should have a control device that is owned by the customer. A reverse supply chain app in the hands of the customer. Let's call it an RMA Portal or return portal.
All combined in a platform that spans the end-to-end returns process and that enables integration and cooperation with all external systems that contribute to the execution of the returns process.
Returns service with technology
At the end of the day, returns are both a customer service request and an operational necessity. Technology can bridge the operational burden into a sustainable service that makes the customer and all other stakeholders smile. What is needed is the technology solution and the trust to power the customer with it.