A Trade Magazine for New Age Retailers

Exchanges & Returns

Real-Life Experiences


Every article about returns and exchanges encourages business owners to turn their worst experiences into their customers’ best. The writers insist, “customer service is paramount!” We read that every displeased customer is an opportunity to convert them to loyal fans of your establishment. Yet, none of these articles give us those real-life experiences of when those moments happen and how to dig yourself out of the moment.

Standard customer service issues that require a return or exchange are easy-peasy. You have your state-law researched policy clearly posted in your store and on your site. It is included on the receipt and invoice. The customer kept the tags and receipt and the return is within the allotted time. You have a replacement item and voila! Perfect case scenario. How often does that happen? Hopefully most of the time, but that is not the harrowing tale that wakes you up in the middle of the night wondering sometimes if you did right by that customer or if they will recruit their friends to leave bad reviews on the web about your business.

It’s the ugly moments of customer service that can make you want to quit the business. But don’t despair, you are not alone. The following are some tips on how to manage certain cases and as well as examples of best practices by real business owners and store managers like you and me.


Customer on a Rampage

You can see this customer from the door as they come in spoiling for a fight. They are ready to go all 10 rounds until they get what they want. It could be they are missing the receipt; they are dissatisfied with the item and someone needs to pay for their time, or they got up on the wrong side of the bed and you are in the line of fire.

They will demand a refund, a manager, an owner, or anything that will pass their pain and anger from their space to yours. They will cut in line, raise their voice, and even tell people not to buy from your store because (whatever the proof they are waving around), while you are shaken out of your pleasant mood and into a defensive position with all armor up. Of course, you are, because someone is trying to energetically kill you with a refund demand!

Double down that this is the holiday season, the store is full, and you are ready to escort them out the door. Instead, you put on your best customer service voice, plaster on a smile, and say: “Oh my goodness, let me take care of you in just one moment, I can tell you are upset. Are you willing to wait for me to finish up with the customers who have been patiently waiting?”

This pause allows you to take a breath, center yourself, and be present for the customer hoping to de-escalate the situation. You know that if there were no customers in line, you would still take that breath while smiling and ask the customer, “Can you tell me what is troubling you with this item?”

 You listen to everything they are saying and gently reflect back with confirmation of their concerns. “What I hear you saying is that you bought this item… And then… And now you want…” You make sure you empathize with the customer, “I can see why you are frustrated.” 

The customer feels heard and you think that de-escalation has occurred, and you are ready to let them know what you can do, “What I can do today is exchange this item for one of equal value. Let’s get you something that will suit you for replacement.” Then boom… it all goes wrong. You didn’t de-escalate, it was a ruse to make you think all was well and then they went in with the aggressive behavior.

“I demand a full refund and payment for emotional damages! I have called my lawyer, and the press! I will get what I want from you!” Now, what do you do? Your policy clearly states that this is an exchange-only situation. This person is trying to intimidate and manipulate you. You want them out of your store. But you breathe and start again.

“I can see you are really upset about this item. Tell me more about what is upsetting you? What were you expecting from this?” You listen more, you empathize more, and then you ask them how you can support them in getting the result they wanted from the item in the first place. In your head, you decide if you can’t appease them. You will refund, but you are going to take one more crack at an exchange.

 “How about this, you said you wanted… and that didn’t happen. How about you try this item and do… I think you will like it even better.” Once the negotiations end and the customer leaves, it’s ok to take a walk, scream into a hole, or punch a bag for a few. You did great and kept your cool!


The Uncontrollable Owner Ego

That out-of-control customer may come in on the wrong day, the day when you are not able to breathe, smile, and put on your customer service voice. That day you got up on the wrong side of the bed and your trigger button was waiting to be pushed. The story went a little different this time…

You can see this customer from the door as they come in spoiling for a fight. They are ready to go all 10 rounds until they get what they want and you are ready to meet them round by round. “Not today, lady!” You are done with abusive customers trying to bleed every dollar and dime out of you and you are ready to make an example of this one stomping into the middle of your holiday rush.

“I demand a refund” is the battle cry of the disgruntled customer. “I demand intelligence,” is the battle cry of the burnt-out ego-driven business owner who has lost all control of their senses. You know you are crossing a line when you meet that customer aggression for aggression, but you can’t seem to stop. In your head, this becomes a choose your own adventure book and you keep choosing the wrong path. What do you do?

You can’t get clear, you can’t find compassion, you can’t be calm. You refund their money and stop the escalation you are creating. In a moment of clarity, you realize that not only will no one win, your business can lose really hard.

You take a breath and apologize for your anger and lack of patience. “This was not acceptable on my part; I can only offer a moment of explanation that I am having a bad day. Please accept my apology. I am refunding your item and I hope you will return to our shop in the future.” As much as you hate to, you eat that humble pie and then go for that walk or take the rest of the day off. You know we all have bad days, and when they leak out onto our customers it’s time to take yourself off the floor and into a timeout.


The Untrained Employee

As much as you wanted to complete the training manual, you could not find the time to get to the last few items like the guide to doing an exchange or return. You drilled the policy into their head and make sure they tell every customer at the time of sale what it is. You just didn’t do the uncomfortable role playing on the type of customer service you want them to offer in tense situations. You thought you had time.

You thought you did until the two back-to-back phone calls you received on your one day off. The first was from the customer who somehow had your mobile number and the second is from the employee who was clearly upset and not sure how much trouble they were in. It was a dumpster fire with fuel being added by every phone call.

You have an employee who is ready to defend their actions to the bitter end and had no problem making sure you knew how crazy the customer was.

The customer, on the other hand, has no problem asking for your employee’s head on a platter. The story got bigger, and they want to let you know how much of a problem you have at your store. As a favor of course. The day off is now shot to hell, the hell within the dumpster fire. You breathe, stay calm, show empathy, and assure your customer on the phone that you will look into the situation thoroughly. You ask how you can be of service at the moment and invite the customer to come in at a time that you will be in the building to take care of any product issues they may have. One crisis is handled, and the next is the employee.

You talk to your staff member on the phone and ask them to take a moment to breathe, have a glass of water, take a walk and then write down what happened. You know now is NOT the time to dig into corrective behavior. You have to wait until everyone is calm and you have time to review their training and finish writing up the missing training you meant to get to.

The stories of returns and exchanges can go on. I have stories of people trying to return candles that have been burnt all the way down, but they didn’t like the smell. I have customers who didn’t like what the psychic reader told them, so they wanted a refund. Then there are the digital return issues that are another article altogether. The harrowing tales will happen, the trick is preparing for them in order to limit their impact on your day.

Reviewing dozens of articles and books on the subject there is a consistent list of best practices in preparing your business for handling returns and exchanges with style and turning your worst customer into your most loyal.


Returns and Exchanges: Best Practices

  1. Know the laws in your state — to check the laws, you can visit smallbusiness.com/selling/federal-state-return-regulations/
  2. Clearly post your policies and inform your customers in more than one way.
  3. Include your return and exchange policies in your customer service training.
  4. Train your staff on how to de-escalate angry customers:
  • Listen
  • Identify the issue
  • Apologize
  • Present a solution
  • Use the feedback
  • Repeat as necessary
  1. Stay calm with customers — practice and roleplay with your staff to make this second nature.
  2. Apologize when you lose your cool and when you are wrong. We all break from time to time, but more than once is a habit.

Returns and exchanges are easy, emotions are hard. It’s not the customer’s responsibility to know when that exchange is inconvenient. It’s not personal that someone wants to return an item. This is a normal part of the business. Big box stores figure a 10% return rate into their profit and loss. While 10% may be high for you, figure a bit into your bottom line and celebrate when you don’t hit that goal. Make this holiday season joyful for you and your customers!




Jacki Smith
Author: Jacki Smith

Jacki Smith is the co-owner of Coventry Creations. Her passion for personal empowerment and small business has been the driving force in her success and her journey of lifelong learning. Jacki is a regular contributor to the magazine and loves sharing her experience, successes and cautionary tales.