You've put in the work so your customer loves your product-- but what if they don't love the product for whatever reason? If you're like many brands who've paid little or no attention to returns, you're missing a huge opportunity for attracting new buyers and boosting customer satisfaction and loyalty.

That's because the return policy is no longer a vaguely-worded statement hidden away on the back of a receipt. Rather, it's table stakes and a major factor in shoppers' decision to buy. Case in point: 93 percent of shoppers say a free return policy is important when making a purchase, according to Dotcom Distribution's 2019 eCommerce consumer study.

If you don't have a fast and easy return policy or the customer has a bad experience when making a return, this often times turns into the dreaded one- or two-star review, negative tweets, Instagram or Facebook posts,or all of the above. This can impact your business because online reviews are also major influencers when it comes to attracting new buyers, so keeping customers satisfied across all brand touch points is key.

Moreover, our same consumer study found that 60 percent of respondents "would buy again" from a brand that offers free returns and exchanges.

Here's what you need to know to create a smooth return policy that attracts customers and avoids a negative review.

Keep it fast and free.  

Just like consumers want shipping to be fast and free, they also want fast and free returns. Almost 70 percent of consumers say they're "deterred from buying online by having to pay for return shipping," according to the same consumer study.

Your brand's return policy should be clearly outlined to the buyer, both online when they're shopping and within the package they receive. It's important to build the shipping cost in the product price, and work on the pricing and margins to ensure a clear and transparent policy. 

Offer a guide. 

Communication is key. The more you can minimize hassle for your customer, the better. Give consumers clearly defined, simple steps on how to go about returning a product. Once customers do their part, do your part by processing it quickly. The faster a return is processed, the faster a customer gets their money and the happier they are. It's a win/win.

You may also consider including a pre-printed return label in your package to remove that extra step for the customer of having to print at home or go to, say, an office supplies store for printing. Generally, the more expensive the order, the more likely customers are to expect a return label to be included in the package.

Give customers options. 

Brick-and-mortar shops are not dead, and may play a big part in how satisfied customers are with your return policy. More and more are preferring to buy online and return in store. In fact, customers now value in-store pickups and returns over free returns and exchanges, according to our survey.

The partnership rolled out by Amazon and Kohl's is a good example of this: Amazon customers can return packages to any Kohl's store and they'll ship it back for them. For smaller e-commerce brands who don't have their own brick-and-mortar stores, your fulfillment provider or your brand will usually have to handle the returns.

Handle with care. 

There must be a process in place for how a return is handled. Each return is looked up with information such as the order number and customer name and address. Next, the product must be inspected, and, depending on the type of product it is, there must be a process for figuring out what to do with it next: Put it back in stock, send it to scrap, reserve for liquidation or refurbish it (think: lightly cleaning it and then re-tagging and re-bagging it). This step is critical in inventory management as well. 

For example, beauty items should only go back in stock if they have not been opened; otherwise they are sent to scrap. Since the cost of return shipping a beauty item may not be worth it if it is only going to be tossed, many brands simply process a refund without a return. This will often delight a customer simply because they need to do nothing more than contact the company to get a credit. Of course it's a good idea for brands to keep a list of customers making returns to make sure repeat customers aren't making requesting refunds a regular habit.

Sometimes brands can use third-party fulfillment services to also process their returns for them. On the upside, outsourcing returns can be easier on brands logistically. On the downside, brands who outsource returns may miss out on some insights about the returns, such as knowing about the packages that were undelivered or the real reasons for the returns related to the package closely. 

Whether your brand chooses to handle returns or you outsource the process, the bottom line is that offering a hassle-free return policy can increase customer satisfaction and make consumers more likely to purchase from you. And happy customers make for referrals and more happy customers and, ultimately, happy brands.