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I’ve a big fan of e-commerce – it is such an amazing convenience and time saver that I buy things online whenever I can instead of visiting a local store. (This includes clothes, shoes, gifts, gift certificates, electronics, books, music and more.)

No doubt many online shoppers have found that name/reputation and return policies are king in the online commerce world. And while I’ve been burned online that doesn’t keep me from going back and buying more – in a wiser way. For example I’ve been burned by incredibly complex return policies (story below) and I’ve been burned by dishonest sellers on eBay. So I always check return policies and never buy on eBay.

Let me talk about return policies. I’m a consumer who realizes when you buy things online it might not fit, the color may be slightly different than shown (due to your computer monitor) or it might look different in person. That comes with the territory. I’m fine with it – for the time savings it is worth it.

However, when you get the wrong thing shipped to you and then you can’t return it – we are talking bad news. I bought a cell phone headset from X10.com (I know, what was I thinking that is the company that pioneered pop-under ads for webcams – but I had forgotten this). I found this site by googling the headset item number and comparing the shipping costs and buying the best deal. When the headset arrived it was totally wrong.

Here is what happened next:
Step one: I read the return policy and learned that you must call the company to get a return authorization number (RMA) and then return the merchandise within 10 days of the shipping date to get a refund. From a customer viewpoint, why would I ever need an RMA? and why within 10 days? NOT a good customer experience.

Step two: I called to get my RMA number (waited 10 minutes to get the number and an unhappy customer service agent). The agent tells me the number and nothing else. I had read the online policy so I had the other facts but they are critical for a successful return – but would have been nice to have that information confirmed.

Step three: Return the product under the policy conditions: (1) in the original box – hope you kept that, (2) with original product packaging, (3) within 10 days, (4) with RMA marked clearly on the box, (5) sent via insured trackable mail, (6) enclose the RMA paperwork they emailed to me, and (7) enclose the original invoice.

Whew. I had done all they said and within the time frame. Now I can await my credit and go get the right headset.

Not so fast.

The package was returned to me. Darn. I had marked the box twice with the RMA number and followed all the hurdles yet it was returned to me. So I called customer service again, they said they return all boxes with no RMA numbers and that is likely what happened. I told them I wrote the RMA twice on the front of the box and that their hurdles for returns were impossible and I felt they weren’t being a good merchant. (They didn’t really care.)

At this point if I re-sent the package it would have been past the 10 day return window. And by then the cost of postage and my time way exceeded the value of the return credit. SO I GAVE UP. I kept the wrong headset that I can’t use and gave up. I realized at this point if I could find an owner for this one and buy a new headset from a well-known store with a good return policy I would be better off. So that is what I did. What a horrible customer experience and I have the feeling I’m not their only customer who has lived this experience.

I learned three painful lessons here: (1) check return policies up front (2) never buy from a retailer that makes you get an RMA number to return a package (3) go with a company you have heard of or has credibility. This is my new credo. Recently I followed these lessons for another electronic purchase and learned that dell.com requires an RMA – so I left their site and bought the item from amazon.com who doesn’t require an RMA. I love amazon.

Yet another example of how customer experiences make or break your business.

And take a moment to think of x10.com – they have no idea I was so displeased or how much damage their return policy had on their business (bad word of mouth) — they think they made a sale. But instead they lost me and as many people as I can tell and those people will tell. While those return policies may “save” them money somehow – they lose more money by keeping them in place and giving their customers (those who want to spend money with them) a bad experience that severs any future relationship.

And take heart there are many good e-commerce websites out there. Try llbean.com, talbots.com, stampman.com, amazon.com, and many more.

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