Few things have the marketing impact of an unsolicited referral.

Fewer still, the long term consequences of an unwavering commitment to excellence.

Possibly because it is so rare.

We were a party of four waiting for lunch in a Nashville restaurant that had come highly recommended by a friend. The company was good and conversation lively; as a result, we had not noticed that our order was taking longer than it should.

But the service team had taken note. And before we realized what was happening, the manager was apologizing for the delay, and matter-of-factly announcing that brunch for the table would be his treat. Responding to the amazement he no doubt witnessed on our faces, he said simply, “this service is not up to our standard, so we will be taking care of it for you.”

There are at least five client service lessons in this experience.

1. Keeping the customer satisfied does not constitute excellence. No one in the party of four had been glaring at the wait staff. There were no well-timed impatient glances at a watch. As far as anyone serving us knew, we were still satisfied enough to pay the bill when it arrived.

2. Where excellence exists, there is a benchmark. The manager knew when the “standard” had not been met. Commitment to this benchmark forced him to be responsible, and take action.

3. Commitment to excellence instigates proactive communication. The wait staff did not wait for us to realize something was amiss. The team sought a solution before we even defined an issue.

4. A problem is an opportunity for dialogue. (Resist the temptation to gloss over this one.) In the context of what could easily have turned into an unhappy problem, the restaurant manager delivered an eloquent marketing message. His actions said, “nothing is more important to us than our promise to deliver an excellent experience.”

5. What you do speaks louder than what you say.  They may say it in advertising and marketing materials; it may appear on the website. But for the cost of lunch for four, the manager demonstrated the restaurant’s view of customer service. As a result we will all recommend the spot without reservation.

Memorable marketing campaigns have value, to be sure. Awards are nice, especially as shelf accoutrement. (Did I mention that the restaurant has been recognized as Italian Restaurant of the Year in Nashville for seven years running?)

But for the enterprise that aspires to something that differentiates, nothing has the impact or the reach of the brand of excellence characterized above — a commitment to do the right thing…even when few expect or would know the difference.

(When in Nashville, visit Amerigo — they are committed to excellence.)