Return Strategy

6 tips to reduce post-purchase dissonance for ecommerce brands

Post-purchase dissonance is the silent killer ecommerce brands need to start taking seriously. Here are 6 tips to stop it once and for all.

Does this sound familiar: when purchasing a product online, you press the buy button, and then?... crickets.

How'd you feel? If you're like me, uncertainty really puts a damper on customer experience. Even as I write this, I'm thinking about a bottle of multivitamins that was supposed to arrive in 2 days... and it's now been almost 20.

A week after I made the purchase, I received a sad email. It coldly stated that the estimated delivery date would be much later than expected. Customer service wasn't helpful, and needless to say, I'm salty.

It's exactly that saltiness that the theory of cognitive dissonance in post-purchase behavior tries to address. For brands, here are the big reasons why you'd focus on that:

  • To prevent the returning of a product (saving you time & money)

  • To beef up your retention strategy (happy customers buy more & buy often)

  • To strengthen your brand overall (good experience = good reviews + more)

Post-purchase happiness is the new ecommerce battleground

It doesn't matter if you're a business owner, marketing manager, ecommerce manager - whoever. You need to get on top of post-purchase behavior and cognitive dissonance right now. Luckily, when brands start giving this concept the consideration it deserves, they can expect humungous results.

After all, it costs five times more to attract a new customer than to retain the ones you already have. This is especially important if you think in the context of repeat purchases... products like multivitamins come to mind 😤

In the future world of today, it's not enough to respond when customers have a problem. You've got to be proactive. But more than that, you need to read minds if you want to quell post-purchase anxiety before it strikes.

Here's the reality: 90% of customers have kept at least one item they actually wanted to return. Those customers almost certainly experienced post-purchase dissonance.

Ask yourself this: every time you push that shirt you never wear to the back of the closet, what comes to mind? I'll bet it's not "I can't wait to buy another one of those".

If your brand wants to prevent those sad moments and dominate the new post-purchase battleground, stick around.


Table of contents

  1. What is post-purchase cognitive dissonance?

  2. Post-purchase dissonance examples

  3. How do consumers reduce post-purchase dissonance?

  4. How to reduce post-purchase dissonance (6 tips)


What is post-purchase cognitive dissonance?

Let's be clear on what we are talking about. Post-purchase dissonance in consumer behavior is one of the most important concepts ecommerce brands need to know about.

Yet most couldn't even tell you what it is! Let's change that right now.

Post-purchase dissonance definition

Here's how we can define post-purchase dissonance (also called post-purchase stress):

Post-purchase dissonance refers to the customer's level of dissatisfaction after buying a product or service from your online store. If the customer feels the quality of the product fails to meet expectations, they may become regretful. They may even take steps toward getting a refund.

Here's why you should care

That's the "ecom 101" post-purchase dissonance meaning. The important thing to flag: it occurs during the period after the customer makes a purchase.

Keep in mind, that doesn't just mean "immediately after". There are actually a bunch of stages if we consider the post-purchase period as a whole (including post-purchase evaluation, for example).

Nobody knows this better than the master of all things customer experience, Joey Coleman. In his highly recommended book, Never Lose a Customer Again, he talks about the 8 phases of customer experience - most of which take place after purchase. Joey goes into great detail in his book, but those looking for the TL;DR breakdown should check out our podcast episode with Joey.

The sad truth is that a majority of brands are focused squarely on the decision process leading up to purchase, we think everything that happens after is just as important. That's why we analyzed more than 300 brands and over 2 million returns to create our ecommerce returns benchmark report.

No matter how you slice it, this is one of the biggest spaces to watch in ecommerce. Before we get to our tips, let's pivot and check out some examples of where & how post-purchase dissonance rears its ugly head.

Post-purchase dissonance examples

Okay, so we're clear on the post-purchase cognitive dissonance meaning & why it matters. Now let's take a look at some examples.

Here's how it could pop up in the post-purchase customer experience:

  • Customers may find a new review or source of info that sours them on the product.

  • A buyer may find another product with a better price or value for money.

  • The customer becomes disappointed with the product after finding it doesn't do what they wanted it to.

For most brands, dissonance could occur any time after purchase until the end of the return policy window. But according to post-purchase dissonance theory, the effects can be felt long after that.

Fail to address it, and you could end up with a bunch of one-off customers. Prioritize it, and you could end up with customers for life.

Read More: 5 ecommerce post-purchase experience examples worth copying

Is buyer's remorse cognitive dissonance or what?

By now you might be thinking, "isn't this just buyer's remorse"? Actually, no.

Indeed, buyer's remorse is an example of post-decision dissonance. But that's not the same thing as post-purchase dissonance. Without getting too into the weeds, the former focuses on customer psychology from a very different angle.

For example, according to Wikipedia, you may be experiencing buyer's remorse if:

  • You purchased a product now rather than at a more appropriate time.

  • You purchased something unethically.

  • You purchased a product using borrowed money.

There's even this whole psychological study around something called the dissonance theory of customer satisfaction. And while these theories are interesting, they tend to focus broadly on consumer behavior i.e. factors out of the brand's direct control.

With post-purchase dissonance, customer psychology does come into play, but the focus is different. It zooms in exclusively on the customer experience, which is something brands absolutely have the power to control.

How do consumers reduce post-purchase dissonance?

Here's something: consumers are actually keen on reducing post-purchase dissonance themselves. And why not? Who wants to feel bad about something they bought?

When you think about it, there are a lot of ways customers try to avoid dissonance. They read reviews & blog articles. Reference the experts. Check social media...

And they might even do the old "ask a real living person" thing. What a concept!

Despite the odd exception though, much of the consumer journey has shifted online. Recent studies suggest that 79% of consumers trust online reviews as much as personal recommendations from friends or family.

That may seem like a jarring statistic, but think about how you yourself buy products online - isn't it true? If you go to Amazon and buy 5 items, are you going to check with your friends on all of them? Probably not - but you'll definitely check the reviews.

While it may be the case that consumers do a lot to prevent dissonance on their own, it's still up to brands to manage it within the post-purchase customer experience.

So with all that in mind, let's start reducing dissonance in your customers.

How to reduce post-purchase dissonance (6 tips)

A true evaluation of the post-purchase decision-making process can give brands a ton of insight. If you're keen on turning disappointment into dollars, stay right there. We've got some expert tips that will give you a serious jump start.

Here's what you'll learn:

  • What are the conditions leading to post-purchase dissonance?

  • What you can do to prevent those conditions from hurting the customer experience.

There's so much we could get into here, but to help you squash customer dissonance fast, we've narrowed it down to these six concepts:

  1. Nail your transactional emails

  2. Have a post-purchase email flow

  3. Don't hide your return policy

  4. Proactively offer exchanges before customers ask

  5. Figure out what's causing the dissonance

  6. Maximize the unboxing experience

1. Nail your transactional emails

This is the real low-hanging fruit when it comes to reducing post-purchase dissonance. And luckily, it's dead simple. When people buy something, at minimum, they expect to be told:

  1. The order has been received, and;

  2. When it will arrive.

Love them or hate them, Amazon does a great job of this. They've done such a great job with transactional emails that ecommerce customers now expect the same level of service across all brands selling online.

Does that mean you need to have a giant budget? Absolutely not. There are tons of ecommerce focused email platforms out there that cost less than you'd think. For example, Klaviyo, which we are happy to say integrates seamlessly with our own post-purchase software.

Bottom line: Failure to nail your transactional emails could make customers feel immediately regretful. If you haven't put time into optimizing this batch of emails, do this first.

Read More: Post-Purchase Emails for Returns

2. Have a post-purchase email flow

Transactional emails are one thing, but they're really just a small part of the post-purchase experience. What you really want is a comprehensive post-purchase email flow - one that could last long after your customer has received the product.

I'll admit, post-purchase emails are far trickier than transactional emails. For starters, they could be focused on anything. The key to narrowing it down is to think outside the box of customer expectations.

The average customer expects to be told when their purchase may arrive. But they may not expect to receive an email with product tips the day before they receive it.

Here's one simple example taken from a recent podcast we did with Val Geisler, Customer Evangelist at Klayvio. It's based on a product designed to facilitate inner peace: a new yoga mat. But there's one aspect of this product that may be less than serene: that fresh plastic smell.

Customers will be eager to use their new mat, but if they descend into child's pose and get a lung full of plastic? That's where post-purchase dissonance lives.

So why not send customers an email a couple of days before their new yoga mat arrives? You can include instructions on how to hang the yoga mat outside for a day to get rid of the smell. Better yet, include some cloth pegs in the package along with the mat! Considerations like this can really set your brand apart from the competition.

It's possible that many brands operate with the idea that less is more. And indeed, that is often true. If you bombard your new customers with cross-selling offers, discounts, and other junk mail - then we agree - less is definitely more.

But if we're talking about value-driven post-purchase emails? We couldn't put it any better than Val:

"At post-purchase, pre-delivery, a lot of companies rely on transactional emails to get the job done. But you are not bothering [customers] if you are educating them and getting them ready for your product to arrive."

Boom.

Bottom line: Just like customers expect transactional emails, it won't be long before they expect a much more personalized post-purchase experience.

3. Don't hide your return policy

Brands often think of returns as the enemy. So much so that many of them make their return policies difficult to pin down. Is it written in a few vague sentences on the footer of your website? Small print at the bottom of an email?

If so: shame on you.

Put yourself in the customer's shoes for a moment. What could they be feeling if your return policy is vague and hard to find? Do you think that's going to instill confidence? Or will it lead them down the slippery slope towards post-purchase dissonance?

Confidence is an infectious quality across the entire human condition - and it absolutely doesn't stop at ecommerce. Proudly displaying your return policy on a dedicated page - that you link to often - is the perfect way to say, "we believe in our products and so should you."

Bottom line: Think long-term. If you stand by your products, customers will stand by your brand.

Learn More: Why you need a dedicated return policy page

4. Proactively offer exchanges before customers ask

Remember how we said you need to be able to read minds to prevent dissonance? Here's one area where psychic powers come into play big time: proactively offering exchanges.

Picture this: a new customer buys a scented candle for your online store. They receive the candle, light a match, and after a few breaths... they hate how it smells. Haven't we all been there?

If your business sells scented candles, you are pretty much rolling the dice on the consumer's sense of smell. But don't worry - if you aren't into gambling, here's a solution that could help you retain revenue and minimize those unhappy thoughts.

On the day that candle arrives, send customers an email asking them how things are smelling. In the same email, proactively offer an exchange for a candle that they may like better. You could even include a section describing alternative scents for people who didn't the one they bought (don't like lavender? Maybe you'll like coconut or pina colada).

You might be thinking about what to do with all those "once-lit" scented candles, but here's an idea: sell those at a discount! That's the classic two-birds, one stone: you retain your customers and maximize profits all at once.

Strategies like this can turn an impulse buying candle lover into a customer for life. Leaving them in the dark with a candle they hate, however, is a sure-fire way to lose them forever.

Bottom line: With a little thought, your brand can use exchanges to transform your returns from a cost center into a profit center.

5. Figure out what's causing the dissonance

It's one thing to automate your returns. It's another thing entirely to make returns a strategic part of your business. At the heart of any strategy worth a dam? Data - and lots of it.

If your goal is to reduce dissonance, insights from your product returns can be a goldmine. Using that data, you can get actionable ideas on how to improve product and product descriptions. If people get what they are expecting, they'll be happier.

A zoomed-out look at all the data can really help brands fine-tune the customer experience, but don't be afraid to zoom in as well.

Here's a great example of that from one of our favorite Shopify brands: Baseballism. Strategic Account Manager (and podcast guest) John Maddalone noticed that a lot of women's pants were coming back because they didn't fit right. Stats-obsessed ecom nerds like us know that 52% of apparel returns are due to sizing. Unavoidable right?

Most brands would stop there, but John implemented a deeper strategy. It started by asking customers for details and comments whenever they initiated the returns process. And guess what? Instead of filing those comments into some untouched spreadsheet, John makes a habit of reading almost all of them.

By reading those comments and looking at the data, he found that going up a size wasn't solving the problem for many customers. So he implemented a simple solution at the product level: stretchier fabric. With a data-centric approach, he figured out how to prevent dissonance and reduce returns all at once.

Bottom line: Consider data from all streams to help make the post-purchase customer experience a win for all customers.

6. Maximize the unboxing experience

Shopping online has been said to give customers a high. Customer experience pro Joey Coleman takes it a step further. He says that a carefully crafted unboxing experience "has the potential to be another dopamine rush" 🤯

The unboxing experience is about a lot more than giving customers what they expect. Alex, Brand Manager here at Loop, says the nature of ecommerce makes unboxing even more important:

"Since people aren't going into a physical store to engage with product directly, unboxing becomes one of the only experiential moments ecom businesses can rely on."

If you aren't sold on unboxing yet, consider Apple. They actually do have 500+ stores where people can play with all the Apple products they want to - and yet they still invest heavily in the unboxing process.

Anyone who's ever bought an Apple product knows this: the packaging, the smell... even the sound of the box opening - all of it is carefully constructed to maximize that dopamine rush at the moment of unboxing.

And if that seems like an extremely high bar, consider this: most brands aren't doing anything to enhance the unboxing experience at all. That means a little can go a long way.

Joey Coleman says that unboxing done right can "create a moment of connection". And when brands are trying to prevent a feeling of dissonance, that's huge.

So what does this look like for brands? It's going to be different depending on the product, but here are some unboxing ideas that Joey mentioned in a recent Loop podcast episode he guested on:

  • Sweetwater Audio drops a piece of candy in the box.

  • Apple ships its products with a fully charged battery.

  • A potential candle company could include a match along with their candles.

That last idea - including a match along with the candle - was a great idea Joey came up with on the fly. Think deeply about your products and your customers. What small addition can you add to the box to make people feel special?

Bottom line: Combined with the above six tips, a tiny amount of effort toward an improved unboxing experience can easily help customers feel better about your brand - and prevent that dreaded dissonance too.

Wrapping up

By now it should be clear: there are endless ways that brands can prevent post-purchase dissonance. Through understanding how it occurs & creating an info-backed strategy, you can convert bad experiences into a winning part of your overall customer retention strategy.

If you're a scaling Shopify brand looking to take your post-purchase experience to the next level, book some time with our team to learn how a customized returns experience can help you end customer dissonance for good.

And if you want to see Loop in action, check out how Chubbies increased customer lifetime value by 100% using returns alone.

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