How retailers can manage returns to Europe post-Brexit

By Sean Sherwin-Smith, general manager for Post Purchase at HelloDone

After a tense end to the transition period, the UK finally secured a post-Brexit deal on trade with the EU. Yet, retailers which import goods from Europe are already struggling with the bottleneck at our ports caused by the impact of COVID-19 limiting resource availability. The addition of Brexit is creating further challenges, not only for the physical movement of goods but what data needs to be available for customs in spite of a deal.

For those who have traditionally only exported within the EU, this represents a sizable change in how their companies must operate. And their success or failure will rely on how well their teams have been trained and prepared.

All the time we have been in a free trading zone, there has been little to worry about in the way of harmonised codes and country of origin visibility. However, one area that may have been overlooked is returns. For e-commerce companies, the Brexit deal means cross-border returns are now even more complex, with a CN22 or CN23 customs declaration form (depending on the value of goods) required to accompany every order.

Whether products being returned by customers will pass back through customs without incurring further delay or tax and duty charges (especially when only part of the order is being returned) could entirely depend on the customer’s own understanding of international freight. This could prove costly in 2021, with the real risk that retailers are stuck trying to recoup double charged tax and duties. That is unless, of course, they take proactive steps to make this process foolproof for customers.

Practically, this means making sure their data, documentation and processes for cross-border returns are all in place. Get these fundamentals right and the customer should (fingers crossed) be unaffected. But there are compelling reasons to go further than this. Being readily available to customers and investing in the capability to communicate with them quickly and effectively, at any point during the post purchase journey, can help minimise anxiety.

Customer service teams should, by now, be experts on the post-purchase journey in the world after Brexit. However, they must be allowed to focus on the customers who are in most need of assistance and being exemplary ambassadors for your brand. The last thing already stretched customer service departments need are more WISMRs (Where Is My Refund?) to add to the WISMOs (Where Is My Order?).

This is where technology, and AI in particular, can play a bigger role – in customer communication more broadly, and then in returns. Advances in natural language processing mean that automated conversations with customers can be fully context-driven and therefore successfully emulate human interactions.

Forward-thinking retailers are already combining this ‘conversational AI’ with the most popular messaging apps and their existing IT infrastructures – including order management and customer communication systems. In essence, this means customers can ask questions about their order and receive instant responses, freeing up customer teams to handle more complex cases.

Applied to cross-border returns, this opens up the potential for retailers to proactively communicate and make customers aware of their policies at the outset, and then keep them fully updated throughout the process until any issues are successfully resolved. Since the system knows where the customer is and where their order came from, it could even send them a digital CN22/23 form when needed.

A further benefit of this type of ultra-responsive communication is its ability to reduce the volume of returns. Whether they’re international or domestic, returns can be a source of frustration for customers and a cost and time sink for retailers. Effective two-way contact with customers can help ensure the right product is being delivered to the right place and when the customer needs it. The additional logistics and potential costs associated with international returns just make this even more vital.

Although the legal changes resulting from Brexit are immediate, it is going to take a number of years for the dust to settle in terms of new ways of operating. There are likely to be some bumps along the way as we all figure out how to adapt.

Many of the contributing factors are out of our control. But retailers can earn goodwill with customers and maximise their chances of getting repeat orders, even when things go wrong, with a powerful combination of proactive communication and problem-solving technology.

Sean Sherwin-Smith is general manager for Post Purchase at HelloDone.

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