March 9, 2017 23 comments

Think Twice About Your Online Course’s Refund Policy

by Regina

Why self-serving refund policies make me cringe.

P.S. For you fellow Drake fans, I was considering titling this post, “If you’re reading this, it’s not too late” but then I realized you would have no idea what the article was about.

P.P.S. I am seriously open to debate on this topic. I will present my views but I am deeply interested in learning from the way other people see the world.

There is one reason (you—if you’re someone who is busy building a meaningful business) I was inspired to write this, and I have a few quick illustrations below to show my reasoning. Hopefully you won’t hate me when it’s over.


Why I’m strongly against online course and digital product refund policies that make people do X amount of work or jump through fiery hoops to get a refund.

You.

I write this blog for you. I create tools for you. I stay up at night dreaming, scheming, and creating for you. Not just in the “I say this because this is how online marketers are supposed to talk” way, but in the “No, literally, I relate to where you are and who you are, and where I had to come from to create various businesses and products I love” kinda way.

Refund policies that make clients submit worksheets, and modules, and proof of this and that and the other rub me the wrong way.

If your entire audience consists of people who don’t care about money at all, then cool.

If you have people in your audience that care about spending their money on things they get value out of, or who are on a specific budget, or who may, despite your wishes and requests, spend their last dollar on your program, then hmm.

If your audience potentially includes people like the people I know . . . where an emergency may come up a few days after they purchased your truly great program, but they need money all of the sudden and you advertised a “100% money-back guarantee” . . . then let’s talk about the real reason you make it a chore to get that money back. It’s not like everyone is going to have an emergency.

Let me not get too deep into a rant just yet, and actually outline my reasons for saying that self-serving refund policies disturb me, plus tell you why I think they are so self-serving in the first place:

1. They are not what people expect, assume, or want.

I was at a vegan restaurant in Playa del Carmen, Mexico the other day and I ordered some pie. Let me be honest here. It was disgusting. I didn’t want to be rude to the chef so I took two bites instead of just one, but then I just couldn’t do it anymore.

Laura, a super kind lady who works there, noticed that I didn’t eat the pie when she brought me the check and asked if it was okay. I was honest that it wasn’t my favorite, but that I was of course going to pay for it. She said, “No. If you didn’t like it, I’m taking it off of your bill.”

This is the level of service that sticks out to clients. (I’ve been back to that restaurant 25 times since the pie because I have a new level of trust for them.) The average consumer who buys online courses and digital programs is used to being able to take any item back, whether food, drink, clothing, or otherwise, within a reasonable amount of time to get their money back. We don’t expect you to come to our homes, make sure we’re using the new boots we bought, but have a $50 refund waiting in your pocket if we aren’t using them, but we do expect to be able to bring the boots back if we don’t use them or if they hurt.

When you want something removed from your bill at a restaurant, they don’t make you eat the pie in front of them, or try at least 50% of it to make sure it really doesn’t work for you. The attendant at the clothing store doesn’t make you wear the blazer for 25 minutes in front of them and stare at yourself in the mirror the whole time to try to assess your deep wounds/reasons for not feeling you look good in said blazer.

We expect to be able to return something we don’t want anymore, or gasp, realized we really couldn’t afford (we’re human; we make mistakes and miscalculate) or fit into our lives, but we were carried away with the hype or sales tactics.

2. They serve the course/product creator solely. They do not serve you, the customer.

I’ve yet to meet the person, not saying they don’t exist, who loves the fact that they wanted to get a refund for a course, but were told they had to submit 5 screenshots of work, 22 pages of the workbook—completed, and a statement that they really gave it their best. Perhaps there is one story of someone who did the work and then realized, “Oh no. I love this course and the creator for making me do this.” I’ve just never met that person.

You are the one investing hard earned money and time into the program. I personally believe you should have the right to change your mind, run into an emergency and need the money back within a reasonable amount of time, or realize you made a rush decision or a decision off of faulty/incomplete information that the course’s affiliate, sales page, etc. gave you.

If you think of my ridiculous illustration above of trying to return a blazer and the store representative making you try it on and stare at yourself for 25 minutes, the store is now moving into the realm of life coaching, psychiatry, and spiritual healing.

I can hear the person saying, “Why don’t you feel like you deserve this blazer? Why are you not willing to put in the work to make this blazer everything it can be in your wardrobe?”

And you’re like, “Umm. I just didn’t realize it had purple polka dots on the back and that it is a little too loose in the front.”

3. They establish a mother-child relationship with you, the client. The one paying money. From one adult to another.

Here’s my favorite thing ever. Extreme sarcasm. I saw a headline a few months ago for an old interview session that one big name industry person did with another big name industry person. The headline was interesting, “How SoAndSo lowered return rates . . .”

I clicked. I read the text that went with the session so you could get a gist of what would be talked about. I almost threw my computer across the room in disgust. I showed my friend what I thought was the most outlandish, ridiculous stuff ever. He agreed that it was terrible business.

The person lowered their return rates by making it harder to return the course. That was not even the hidden message of the “resource,” it was the very highlighted and praised message of the interview session. Something about how it makes people be more responsible for actually doing the work. Nothing about how the course creator invested time in improving the experience of the product.

My thinking (as someone who has both people who’ve asked for refunds AND amazing super supporters who buy everything, happily): If 20 – 30% of the people who invest in a program want their money back (first off: I would die, then need to be brought back to life to fix the issues), it is less likely that it’s related to the client and their sense of personal responsibility, and more likely that they can’t understand the value of the program yet, or that they were confused during the buying process, or that the program doesn’t do what it said it would. All of those things are on us as the course creators.

So, turning a refund into an “opportunity” to teach a grown adult a lesson about personal responsibility is a little too “Am I 7 years old?” for me.

4. They’re a bad business practice.

A couple of months ago, I felt like I was frozen in time/twilight reading a horror story when someone linked to the Facebook post of a course/program creator they used to love (someone I’d never heard of, but has a large following online) when this course creator went into a long story about refusing to refund a woman who said she needed the money back for a health procedure.

It was so painful to read. Even if this woman completely made up a medical condition and wanted the money back to buy 1,000 yo-yos for herself and 53 chew toys for her dog.

The course creator framed her adamant, “No.” as the best thing for this client, as standing up for herself, and as believing in the strength of her program and not being bullied by people who don’t want to do the work.

I expected the comments on this post to be FIRE DRAGON level. And indeed, many people expressed dismay and extreme disappointment in the course creator (to which she replied individually something along the lines of “Look inside yourself to see why you have a problem with what I did.”), but what surprised me is that the post had a few, “You go girl!” comments. “Way to not back down.” “You showed her.”

I believe in my heart that most course creators, even those who have a “You have to send me a blood sample and gold doubloon to get a refund” policy would choose to give back the money to someone who says they’re in need, so I really use this just to show that making refunds hard typically isn’t good business.

Why?

Do you get to keep the money? Yes. But at what cost? You are creating an environment where people speak poorly of your brand.

I was teaching an in-person workshop on online courses (ahh, the irony) last year when a few attendees went on a rant/tangent when they discovered they had all purchased a certain course from a specific brand online . . . had all not liked the experience . . . but had all been unable to ask for a refund in time because of the work they had to submit (that they didn’t realize) or had decided to just forego the refund attempt because of how much work it was.

Did they have anything positive to say about this course or the brand behind it? No. Did they pass on a certain impression of this course and brand to those of us listening in amazement? Yes. Was that good for that brand? No.

Time to give your refund policy a refresh so you can keep your business and reputation looking good?


Oh, and here are a few personal reasons not everyone will agree with:

5. The refund policies are usually enforced by people who don’t need your money.

Whether the program is $250 or $2500, the person usually doesn’t need your money to survive.

6. These policies don’t put much pressure on the course creator to create something amazing that is easy to understand. And then motivate people to begin.

It places the pressure on the client to begin, progress at the rate the course creator would like, then submit proof if the materials don’t work.

7. The refund policies seem lazy.

Whereas if you run a business where you’ve incurred significant extra costs to take on a new customer (renting a physical space for an event that can fit everyone, creating a gift bag, etc.), it can make total sense to not allow certain refunds, but for online course creators delivering a digital product, the marginal cost to bring on one additional student isn’t (to me) justification for keeping their registration amount if they want it back.

As the product provider, wait until 30 days after the person has purchased, and then on the 31st day count the income as real. If you’re not as attached to it and to making a specific amount, it won’t be a big deal to process the few refund requests you might get.

To be honest, I much, much prefer when people state that there is no refund (where legal), and I’m pretty sure I bought a digital kit with that knowledge before, over people using language like “100% satisfaction guarantee” or “try this risk free” or any number of phrases, when the fine print is that we really have a few days with your program to figure out if we like it, then we have to do the most to detach from it.


If you’re in the online business space, you might wisely be asking “Why in the heck would you write a blog post that is going to cause big industry names to not ever want to work with you, Regina?”

Great question.

1. If the industry person is someone who actually finds they agree with some of the points above, and decides they don’t really need their return policy the way it is, then we all win, because more information is available truly risk free.

If the industry person is someone who reads this and hates me, then I’ve successfully helped to disqualify us as awesome collaborators in the future. I would have views that they hate, and they would have views that I don’t believe serve the people I want to serve.

I’ve accidentally introduced you to (through this blog and past collaborations) brands that don’t stand for you the way I would want anyone I introduce you to to stand for you, and I don’t want to do it again.

2. I’m going to be very frank and “nontraditional Regina” here, I don’t need one specific relationship with one specific industry name in order to make money and live. I need you. And I need to continue to build a brand through which I can help you create a business that doesn’t rely on one specific industry person for you to make money and live either.

3. Lastly, if I don’t use the platform that I spent long hours and actual blood, sweat, and so many tears building to ACTUALLY serve you and to take a moment to say, “Hey, there’s another way. Anyone who will listen, check out what message you might be sending with your return policy.” then what am I doing?


Pause. Let me not be 100% rant-y and 0% helpful in your quest for the perfect return + refund policy. First, if you are the creator of courses and digital products, if you are an infopreneur like I am, then I would suggest thinking through your different policies and preferences for eBooks, email courses, online courses, templates, and events.

As an example, my refund policy on eBooks is 14 days. I figure that’s enough time for most people to get use out of, and make a decision on, a book that’s 100 pages or so.

My refund policy for courses is typically 30 days. There are exceptions when there are in-person components (and I’m literally holding one of 5 – 10 spots for you), but I try to give people enough time.

My policy on live events is that you can request a refund through the end of the day of the event. If you wait until the day after, it’s a bit odd since the event has already been delivered. But, if someone told me they watched my live event and didn’t get value out of it, I’d give them their money back and truly question what went wrong for them.

These weren’t always my refund policies. I had to live and learn through some silly phases of mine (like a 10-day time period—for what, Regina? . . . or a 14-day refund period but then the course doesn’t even start for 10 more days). This ridiculousness was a result of moving too fast through everything I had to do, or being shorthanded and leaving administrative details until the very end.

I recommend really taking some time to think through what you want, what your client wants, what you need, and if your fear of refunds is based more on your feelings of how hard-working your audience is going to be (eye roll emoji) or of how incomplete/confusing/etc. your product may appear to someone.

Do the things on the presentation side (what you tell people before they buy), the experience side (how you treat your students and how you guide them through the materials—I’m still testing the best ways to do this), and the backend of your product (its organization, ease of use, completeness, and more) to alleviate your stress and fears about refunds. Build a product so good that if someone asks for a refund, it has nothing to do with you.

P.S. Here’s a tool/product you can use to generate your return policy—among other policies and legal language.

Generate your return and refund policy easily with TermsFeed

P.S. Image (c) TermsFeed

Let me end by saying . . .

People who have jump-though-hoops return policies are not necessarily bad teachers, bad people, or people who don’t care about others. That is NOT the message I’m trying to send. Also, there are a lot of people doing returns in super ethical ways. Ways that inspire me and that I can learn from.

This is a call for anyone who will listen to not take a practice into your own business or life simply because that’s what some big names do. If you want to have a course with a specific refund policy, I’d encourage you to think about why you want that policy, who it serves, what you would want if you were the client, and how to explain your reasoning plus create an environment where someone is not both pressured into the sale and then told they have to do the most to get a refund for the item.

I am certainly against these policies because of the people I serve, but if you have reasons for supporting these policies, please do not be afraid to share them with us below. I think we can all benefit from hearing each other out and from critical thinking, so please don’t take my rant as a closed issue. Yes, I have this platform so that I can talk about things I believe affect you (the people I write for), but I love to hear and learn from you and others as well.

Seriously.

23 responses to “Think Twice About Your Online Course’s Refund Policy”

  1. Stephanie says:

    I agree with this when it comes to courses. Services, on the other hand, are completely different, especially if they’re digital. I love the 30 day policy for my course that I’m launching this month, but after I’ve sent any deliverables to clients, they can’t receive a refund. It’s way too easy for them to just take the design and run- I’ve seen it happen way too many times!

    • regina says:

      Yes. I 100% agree with you that contracting for services is way different. Even though we design different types of things, I feel you!

  2. Kerry says:

    This is definitely an eye-opener. I’ve not actually come across a refund policy like that – touch wood – but it definitely makes me think that I should look into it before making a purchase.

    I’m working on my first course at the minute, and I’ve not yet got to the refund policy, but my plan is to make it as simple and accessible as possible.

    • regina says:

      Kerry, ooh congratulations on your first course–and yay for a simple and accessible refund policy! When do you plan to release it?

      Thank you for taking the time to comment, by the way.

  3. Annalisa says:

    Thank you! I literally was turned off by a course immediately after I had my debit card out ready to purchase because I felt the course creator was already “talking down to me” with the terms and language of the refund policy. Plus thanks so much for the plug on TermsFeed 😃

    • regina says:

      OMG, right? Like. Did you just try to give me a stern talking to before I even buy your course? I’m good.

      Jaja!

      And yes, TermsFeed is so easy to use, I’ve purchased a few policies from them for separate brands. Thank you for commenting, Annalisa.

  4. Sharon says:

    I just have to say this….sweet Regina stay you…..fir the past few months I have consumed anything and everything blog…..hoping to start soon….I love your content, I love your style and from what I can tell you are taken but I would totally adopt you ad my 3rd daughter….ROK ON sweetie, ROCK ON!

    • regina says:

      Awwww, Sharon! Thank you. I’d love to hear back from you after you’ve started your blog, too. I’d like to check it out. P.S. Don’t tell my mom, but I’m always open to being adopted into additional families. Jaja!

      I appreciate your comment!

  5. Tracy Hall says:

    Great article Regina. I really like that you’ve raised the need to question the practices used by other business owners, and given me a new perspective on how I proceed with my own courses and products.

    A couple of years ago I was really let down by a refund policy where I needed to prove I’d done the work, and it still makes me feel regret and disappointment. The sales pitch was really hardcore and I was feeling like, wow, doing this course is really going to change my business! I got access to the course just before Christmas (so not a great time to get stuck into something like this) and wasn’t immediately impressed by the content. I thought it was ok, but maybe not really worth the high course fee so decided I needed to delve deeper. After looking through it further I was feeling hesitant to continue (it cost nearly $1000, and money was tight) so I reached out to the course creator and asked if it would be possible for me to extend the trial period for another couple of weeks so I could try more stuff. She replied saying that it would be ‘out of integrity’ for her to do that, and unfair on all the other students to give me special treatment (so, guilted me into thinking I was being a jerk). She said that I needed to invest in myself and also said she would help guide me through the first few steps to get started. However, the advice she eventually gave me a few days later was to use a ‘low hanging fruit’ strategy in order to get some money coming into my business, but didn’t even explain what she meant or how it might apply to my situation. Like I wouldn’t have done it already if it was so easy! Sheesh!

    It was her offer to guide me that made me think that maybe I’d give the course another chance, so essentially I missed the 30 day cut-off waiting for her reply, and therefore she ultimately got my $1000. Ugh. As a result I feel really disillusioned by her and haven’t gone back in to try to salvage what I can from the course. Lesson learned!

    • Elizabeth says:

      I totally understand. Going through something very similar right now. I paid to have special leadership training $2000. We are 2/3 of the way through the course. I ask from the beginning what I was going to be doing. No direction was given. I asked for a refund. I don’t care if they want to keep the initial $497 for the course but, I was told no refund, however, if i wanted they would give me 1 on 1 for the next twelve weeks which according to them was above and beyond what they would normally charge. Mind you this is what they offered me after I asked for a refund. That’s not what I signed up for. I think from the get go there should have been something set up with the course creator. I don’t think it was my job to go after them. Anyway very bad taste in my mouth and Regina you are so right. I will never do business with this person in the future. Oh and they told me I would have preferential treatment on any courses they do in the future. Not likely.

  6. I actually read this article the whole way through instead of skimming. I’m not even at the point yet where I’m launching courses or digital products but I found this so helpful. Putting the cart in front of the horse I’ve already wondered what I would do about return policies, etc. and found myself really conflicted about which way I wanted to go. But you’ve definitely made things a little more clear for me. Thank you!

  7. Mikli says:

    Thanks so much for this blog post, Regina! ♥︎

    As a new entrepreneur, it’s so easy to doubt myself — and I’m especially doubtier when I see big names (I read that article!) talk about how this and that are best practices, when these best practices feel a little “… really?” Because then I fall back on, “but hey, what do I know, I’m new here, and SoandSo is so successful, do they have a point though?”

    What ends up happening is I get stuck in paralysis. I don’t want to do something that would have made me, as a customer, feel bad. But I also then don’t know, so, what else can I do?

    So thank you so much for this! For showing that sometimes things are, while not necessarily bad, totally legitimately questionable + why. Aka thanks for making me feel like I wasn’t just going a little bit loopy. This was really helpful, and has validated the way I would like to do business myself. The suggestions make such good sense that they got me thinking about my own stuff — that I now feel better about getting around to!

    I appreciate this, and I appreciate you! ♥︎

    P.S. I haven’t yet asked for a refund from anyone online, but have totally not-bought stuff based on sketchy refund policies!

  8. Only in one course I teach do I ever use a textbook. I have been disgusted at the way the publisher keeps issuing “new” editions that incorporate one new visual example or correct a typo from the previous edition, etc.

  9. Charlie says:

    Thank you for this. It made me look a lot more closely at some courses I was considering. I’d never seen the “must complete X amount of content” form of refund policy before, ouch. I absolutely agree with keeping refunds simple. When I launch my own courses I’d much rather stand by the quality of my content, and stick to keeping customers happy instead of locking them into something.

  10. Eleanore says:

    And that’s why we love you. Customer first, people first. What a lady. Honestly, these ego driven people need to step back into reality.

  11. MJ says:

    Aw Regina, I actually teared up while reading this, especially

    “I’m going to be very frank and “nontraditional Regina” here, I don’t need one specific relationship with one specific industry name in order to make money and live. I need you. And I need to continue to build a brand through which I can help you create a business that doesn’t rely on one specific industry person for you to make money and live either.”

    This post is so inline with how I’ve been feeling as someone who is currently the most broke and literally desperate to start making money from my biz asap (and am guilty of an accidentally letting a free trial I didn’t use go into the paid period 3 months later, and was not able to get a refund of $99 for something I didn’t actually use at all), and also wanting to help out other dreamers trying to get their thing going too, to not feel “tricked” into buying things they don’t need or even understand how to use, because a big name makes them feel rushed into it, whether intentional or not.

    My jaw has definitely dropped when hearing a big name refer to something that’s $97 as a “tiny product,” and feels like they must not know, or forgot what it’s like to think in terms of “which bills will get paid this month, and which will keep racking up the credit card?” It’s still really hard for me to swallow the idea of selling a product for $97 myself, and if I do I’ll probably be like “but if you can’t afford it, just pay what you can!’ lol 😛

    I am someone who understands that sometimes you DO need to invest in yourself, but not everyone has money to throw around at the next shiny product…they need their investments to count! And so I do make purchases to help me (like your course ha!), because I so desperately need and want to eventually not have to worry about this stuff all the time.

    Anyway, sorry for the long, long comment! I just wanted you to know how much it means to hear someone who has already found their success acknowledge that those of us who haven’t made it there yet can maybe use a little extra empathy and patience;) <3

    • Adia says:

      MJ, I just had to respond to your comment because I am 100% right there with you! It really blows my mind that some of these courses go for hundreds of dollars (or upwards of $1k) and don’t offer solid, secure, refund policies.

      Right now, I’m building a course that I am juuuust feeling comfortable and confident about the idea of charging $XX for, because of how much value it has, and abso-freakin-lutely am I going to have a no-questions-asked refund policy. I am STILL that person who needs to watch every dollar coming in and out of my bank account, and I know that a lot of the people who would buy my course probably are the same way as well.

      I appreciate your comment and Regina’s post because I totally get how you feel and that it’s so important that these courses, e-books, etc. serve their intended audiences.

  12. Michael says:

    There is also one other drawback to that inane policy, Visa and Mastercard hate it. I would be forwarding a copy of the policy to my credit card company so they could process a charge back instead of a refund. With the service charges for every charge back and the possibility going over the processors fraud/charge back thresholds, they wouldn’t be long in changing the policy.

  13. Lily says:

    Couldn’t have come at a better time. I’ve just invested into a ‘list lab’ course for payment of $97 x6. I watched the 1st few videos and realised this was very basic stuff. All about what an email list is and why we should be building one. I needed some solid tech walkthroughs and step by step game plan and that’s what was on the sales page, I realised early on this course wasn’t going to be a fit for my business. There is only one tech video which shows you around MailChimp for 5 minutes…..

    But now I am having to jump through hoops to get a refund. I need to…
    – complete workbook and send proof
    – set up a website and provide a link to a freebie and opt-in form I have created
    – photos of my email list
    – screenshots of my google analytics page
    – screenshot of my about page with another freebie on there too
    – proof of active participation in the facebook group!!
    – screenshots of me emailing past buyers asking them to sign up to my list
    – oh yeah, and complete ALL 12 modules and all work associated

    ….. in less than 10 days! Yep, so now I’m sat here on the verge of a breakdown. trying to rack my head around how I’m going to do all of that. I’m a young mama, a student, business owner and to top it off my partner is just finishing up treatment for stage 3b Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

    This is why I love coming to Regina’s resources. She’s actually for humans.

    There are some really icky course creators out there. I almost took a $1k on creating a signature course and then found out the creator had completely deceived her audience about her past businesses and revenue. She claimed she was making $10k+ on etsy selling vintage clothes but her etsy store had 90 sales…..

    I feel like there should be a website out there for customers to provide honest feedback and rate courses. It would be so helpful.

    • regina says:

      Lily, oh my freaking goodness. I can not even understand this. How freaking terrible. Will you please email me at heyhuman at byregina.com? I want to send you a little something. This makes me so sad. Booooooooo!

      And thank you for commenting.

  14. Jan Limark says:

    That’s why I am not entertaining my thought about creating digital products. I just hate policies and stuff. (Who’s with me?). I prefer offering services on my blog so that the result will be agreeable with both sides. Thank you Regina for sharing this wonderful piece of content!

    All the Best,
    Jan Limark | Brotherly Creative

  15. Eve says:

    Regina. Epic post. thank you for writing and sharing this. I have been ‘trained’ in different ways. One person said to have a strict no refund policy as my sewing patterns are something that can be used immediately. another say that I should have a 30 day policy that required proof of doing the work – for my sewing course…

    I myself know that I have taken three paid online courses. One was for $37 and taught me how to use Indesign. I learnt so much I would never have asked for a refund. Another course was $800 and was really essential at helping me to set up my online business. This is the course that has stopped me from buying from you – there is quite a bit of crossover with your Business School For Humans and I cannot afford to buy multiples of the ‘same’ product. Otherwise, I’d have bene there in a dash! 🙂 The third course I actually almost requested a refund. It was $450 and I had 60 days to do the work and proved that I hadn’t made the results. I did the work. I did get the results. But, because of the first course (same person), it was hard to tell whether the results were from the first course that I implemented several months earlier, and taught similar strategies.. I’ll never know for sure, but I do know that I couldn’t prove that the strategy didn’t work for me on course two, because there was too much overlap with Course 1.

    Anyhow, I have rambled. I shall stop. It has been super helpful to read this post and give me ideas on my own refund policies. Thank you!

  16. Thanks For Share , There are also quite a few web stores that do not copy large retail chains. It is often unclear how these dubious stores operate, whether they comply with e-commerce legislation, or how their return and refund policy works.

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