A special friend was getting married recently and we wanted to get them a gift that was out of the ordinary and personal. They had decided to postpone a honeymoon until the winter months. (Who can blame them? They live in the Chicago suburbs.) We thought it would be nice to surprise them with a downtown getaway so they could have a mini trip in Chicago to celebrate their new life together. Did I mention we came up with this brilliant idea the morning of their wedding?

No problem. I was certain I could put together this little adventure in a short time, online. To my shock and dismay, I was wrong! The hotels and restaurants I had in mind did not allow me to purchase a gift certificate online. I even resorted to calling them both on the phone only to be informed that the hotel could only handle this type of request Monday through Friday. The restaurant promised to send an email application that never came.

I was totally frustrated about the inconvenience. This was a high-end international hotel and a very progressive restaurant with multiple locations. Was I expecting too much, or did these businesses need to improve their total customer experience?

We all spend a great deal of time pleasing the customer when they are in front of us, but how do we make their life easier when they aren’t? According to an eMarketing Report, over 7 out of 10 people will make a purchase online in 2011. Another report looked at the shopping behaviors of women and cited that search behaviors, such as locating a store, price shopping and product research, are rapidly going mobile. So how do we bring a personal touch to our customers online?

1. Don’t hide your phone number.
Some people still actually use a phone for talking. If a customer is unhappy, they tend to get unhappier when they cannot easily find a number on your website. You really don’t want your customer service issues escalated to Twitter.

2. Keep it simple.
This is the old advertising adage that even the best companies overlook. It can be as simple as a contact form or a product search. If the goal is to eventually sell something, then make it super easy to do so.

3. Go mobile.
Offering a mobile-enabled version of your website helps make your product easily available in the moment a customer is ready to buy. It also can help get a customer in your door when they are on the go.

4. Educate and inform.
Adding a customer resource area, animated product tutorial, video tour or online chat widget will extend your offering in a supportive, engaging way.

5. Create a community.
Blogs and social networks allow your business to start and be a part of an online conversation.

6. Automate.
Make my life easier with automation. I expect it and so do your other customers. Easy online reservations, gift card purchases, appointment setting or service scheduling create customer loyalty and new revenue opportunities for your business.

So you are probably wondering what did we finally get the bride and groom? After about a week, our “we owe you” card was replaced by the real trip. Though I wanted to purchase from my favorite hotel and restaurants, I opted for ease and purchased from businesses that offered online gift cards. That is the inconvenient truth.