I'm a consumer at heart. I buy groceries, clothing, tech accessories, and anything else sparkly that catches my eye. Whether you realize it or not, every one of these purchases comes along with a return policy of some sort. They can be wordy and difficult, or simple and straightforward.

Some businesses do not even have an official return policy. Take retailer Nordstrom for example: They take each return on a case-by-case basis, with satisfying the customer as their primary concern.

I recently had a terrible experience with a company while trying to exchange a clothing item. I had been a loyal customer for 15 years, but it turns out that the company's moral integrity simply doesn't meet my standards.

I purchased six complete outfits for a weekend of events I was attending, and unfortunately, one of the fashion shows was canceled. I had no use for a floor-length lace gown in the foreseeable future, and thought it was in my best interest to return it to get something more useful.

The item was returned to the store, still in its original bag, with receipt and all tags attached. I spent another hour searching for a replacement, only to be told afterwards that I had missed the 21-day return policy and couldn't receive any sort of refund--not even a store credit.

I left unsatisfied and annoyed, but what I realized in that moment was that when a customer moves on, the only person who loses out is the company.

In business, your competition is waiting around the corner, tempting even your most loyal customers with better deals, products, and service. It's important to treat your customers fairly. When you do, they will reward you by continuing to do business with you.

Here's how to do it:

Meeting customer expectations

Before completing a purchase, customers generally check the return policy to see if the requirements meet their expectations.

I hate it when I find something worth purchasing online, and it has a return policy like "Returns for Store Credit Only Within Five Business Days." What this says to me is: "Our product sucks, but hey, you missed the return period so you're stuck with it. Enjoy!"

If you sell a physical product, you should offer a generous return period such as 30 to 90 days. Allow buyers to enjoy the option of a full refund or store credit. Informing them of how long it will take to receive their refund is a must--nothing ruins a relationship like holding your customer's money while keeping the product (trust me--they notice).

Make sure all of this information is easy to locate. This will help build a customer's trust of your brand.

The honeymoon period

Once a customer feels comfortable buying from you, they land in the shopping cart and determine if your shipping costs are reasonable. It seems like many brands these days are trying to compete with large online retailers by matching their free shipping and returns policies.

I recommend doing exactly that. It keeps the customer happy and creates an easy shopping experience. If the item doesn't work out for them and they wish to return it, printing a label from home and dropping it into a USPS box is simple enough.

Go above and beyond

A return policy can be pretty straightforward when selling a tangible item, but what about a service that has been rendered? With a growing number of businesses supplying digital services - how do you deal with unhappy customers? I asked fellow Inc.com columnist Cheryl Snapp Conner for advice:

"Our primary approach if a client is looking for a refund (which very seldom happens) is to offer additional or re-directed service to ensure we've met their expectations, no matter what. In the case of service, we are paying our employees and can't really refund money spent for work already performed. But we can go above and beyond to ensure satisfaction."

This makes sense to me. Ultimately, the goal is to create a happy customer--and sometimes, you'll have to go above and beyond to make that happen. If you've made every attempt to satisfy them, you can sleep well knowing that you did your job.

I'm a strong believer that keeping repeat customers is a lot easier (and cheaper) than constantly hunting down new ones. I made these changes early on after realizing my policies were unrealistic. Lesson learned. Try it out--you might just have your customers singing your praises and telling all their friends.