More than three years ago, I wrote about my online experiences and the typical steps from a customer’s point of view. As you can see from the flowchart below (and hopefully agree), the steps have not fundamentally changed:

What has changed is the way that retailers and consumers now interact with each other and the advancements in technologies used. Today, Step 1 can be more reliably triggered through social media, word of mouth or print cross promotions; mCommerce has consumed a larger percentage of the digital commerce market (Step 2), up from 16% in 2013 to approximately 30% this year; and Steps 3-5 carry the expectation of unquestionable ease across multiple devices, channels and payment methods.

However, the steps that have changed the least and were the inspiration of my previous entry were the levels of communication (or lack of) for Steps 6 and 8. These steps are arguably the least stimulating part of the experience, usually satisfied by an automated email. However, these steps are customary, anticipated and give us a sense of assurance that we will receive our order. In summary, underrated but deeply appreciated—a paradox.

While I believe that all the steps equally work towards the result of a happy customer, during the first half of the process, the customer is primarily in control and has visibility to the majority of actions and information. There is a clear shift in ownership once the customer clicks the submit button to place his or her order. The retailer is responsible for quickly validating, communicating, and responding to the customer. Even the amount of time waiting for the next step, can sharply impact the customer’s perception of the brand and be a huge factor if they are willing to repeat the steps in the future.

All of this brings me to a recent online experience that unexpectedly changed my view of the seemingly most boring steps. I’ve actually wanted to share this experience for a while, however had to wait because it was a birthday gift, and I did not want to spoil the surprise.

To catch you up, I wanted to buy an oak barrel for a very persnickety recipient. For those not familiar, these barrels are used to age, mellow and/or flavor whiskey, bourbon, rum, tequila, brandy and wine. The barrels for home use typically range between 1 – 20 liters and require some prep, monitoring and maintenance. It can turn into a passive, but expanding, hobby through experimentation with different recipes.

Standard order confirmation

When I began my search, I knew I wanted a niche supplier who could be a source of future supplies and consultation if needed. I finally decided on Red Head Barrels after viewing their product assortment, services and customer reviews. I did my part and completed Steps 1 – 5. There was no surprise, when I quickly received an order confirmation email listing all of my items, cost and customer information. Great, with Step 6 complete, I could go to bed and proceed to wait (i.e., Step 7).

Later that night (next day), I received an email that not only provided some pertinent (and I will admit somewhat unexpected) information about my order, but also provided a quick chuckle, while also increasing my confidence in this previously unknown brand.

If it was not apparent to me before, the brand has a sense of humor and a personalized touch. This is not a standard response; it is not even a usual communication. Even with the levity, it conveyed some important information.

Standard shipping confirmation

The next day, I traded emails with the company to approve the engraving proof, which was also a pleasant surprise considering the quick turnaround time. Later that same evening, I received an ordinary shipping confirmation from both FedEx and the retailer.

Standard. Wonderful, Step 8 complete…actually not yet. I received a subsequent email shortly after, which was again tongue-in-cheek, but once more provided me with some valuable messages.

I was not disappointed when my customized order arrived only a few days after my order submission. And they even included something a little extra—but of course my new friend Steve would do something like that. All of this makes me wonder how they were able to disarm a hardened online shopper like myself.

These are probably standard emails for the company, but the extra effort makes the customer feel that they are actually happy that they choose the brand. I would guess that these emails are a result of a mix of the brand’s natural personality and also questions / issues that customers have had in the past. What a great way to really exceed customer expectations, enhance at least the perception (if not reality) of customer service and conduct a preemptive strike to potential misunderstandings. I think of how many opportunities more brands miss in communicating (or not) to customers—after an account is created, after a customer walks away from a full shopping cart or even confirmation the order was delivered.

In the end, the birthday gift was not only very happily received and highly coveted, but I also gained an enlightened perspective on how retailers of all sizes can and should be boosting their overall customer experience. It goes far beyond data mining and “personalized” promotional offers via text or email – it really boils down to anticipating not only what your customers want to buy, but in differentiating their overall experience with the brand by providing enhanced product information and showing personality (with perhaps a bit of wit) through unexpected touchpoints and communications which truly delight the customer.