terms-of-service

Terms of service? Are they really important? Actually, yes. If you plan to establish a successful eCommerce business, your customers need to know what to expect (and not expect), and that means knowing how to write the legalese that defines your obligations as a service provider.

And yes, it’s a little boring. Entrepreneurs look forward to this process about as much as a five-year-old looks forward to eating a plate of steamed broccoli. Or at least that’s how it usually goes. So let’s switch it up and give you a handful of best practice tips for what to include in an effective terms of service while also injecting some humor and humanity into what you write.

The 6 Must-Haves

First, while the terms statement does need to be fully accessible by any customer who shows up at your store, it shouldn’t be the first or even fifth thing your customers see. Instead, include a checkbox at checkout that allows shoppers to signify that they agree to your terms before they buy.

1. Using the services

A fundamental component to a terms document are basic stipulations about the services you offer, and the requirements for using them. Is there an age requirement? Spell that out. Is there a Q&A functionality, or some other user-generated content component? Be crystal clear about the fact that you will own the rights to that content. In general, just state clearly that you own the intellectual property generated by the services, as well as the services themselves.

2. Explain the purchase and return policy, if there is one.

Whether your business sells a product or service, it’s crucial for your terms to spell out what you’ll deliver, when, for how much, and what your policy is for returns and refunds. If items can’t be returned after being unwrapped or used, say so and explain why. “We’d love to take back that toothbrush you bought from us, but that would be, well, gross” isn’t exactly the right phrasing, but you also don’t have to be robotic. Instead, follow the legalese with something like this: “And if our product isn’t working the way you expect? Give us a call at 800-HELP-ME or write to us at [email protected]. We can’t guarantee that we’ll be able to fix the problem or get you exactly what you’re looking for, but we’ll do our best to meet your needs.”

3. Define what amounts to abusive or unacceptable behavior.

No one likes a bully, and you needn’t tolerate them at your website or store. Make it clear what legally rises to the level of abuse and then be specific about the consequences for engaging in unacceptable behavior. Then, make it real with language anyone can understand. Something like this should suffice: “So, yes, if you’re trolling us or other users in the comments or using profanity or other rude language, we reserve the right to kick you out of the club. Be nice and we’ll be cool. Cool?”

4. Limit your liability. Frivolous lawsuits do happen, unfortunately.

Protect yourself by including in your terms legal language that indemnifies you and the site in the event of errors or unanticipated events, such as outages. Also, if you offer a warranty on products you sell through the site—and you should—this section of your terms is where you set reasonable limits. Include some plain language to put it all in context. “We’re only human and we’ll make mistakes. So please, don’t ask us to take back the product you bought two years ago and broke yesterday. We’re not going to do that. Our kids have to eat, too!”

5. Pick who gets to decide if there’s a dispute.

This is where you discuss what’s called governing law. Usually, it means if your business is located in a certain state, that the laws of the state where you’re incorporated will “govern” any dispute. You can also choose to include a clause that says disputes will, by default, skip court and instead be resolved through arbitration. Add some reassuring language so that customers who’ve taken the time to read this far don’t see you as a bully. Something like: “Obviously we don’t want it to get to this point. Let’s agree that it would be just better for us to get you something you love—and we’ll try our best to make that happen, OK?”

6. Explain who owns what.

You own the content of your website and all the intellectual property that went into building your products and offering your services. Place copyright notations and trademarks where necessary and then be clear about the protections you’re claiming in your terms. Follow it with a kind but unambiguous warning: “We love you for being a customer. Don’t ruin it by stealing our stuff. Let’s all play nice.”

This Is Easier Than You Think

Now, ready for the best news of all? You don’t have to write your terms of service from scratch! Avvo has a terms of service form available for download if you’re just getting started. Or, if your business is taking off and you need more expertise, you can have a lawyer review or help you customize terms and conditions and fix whatever holes might need plugging.

Happy terms writing!