My friend George — a veteran of the hospitality industry, and no push-over when it comes to what service looks like — was just back from a cruise during which he and his wife became customers for life. But it did not start that way.

The cruise coincided with an anniversary, and George’s wife had taken steps to surprise her husband by pre-ordering the “anniversary package.” She was anticipating elaborate cabin decorations, a decadent anniversary dessert, and an iced bottle of premium champagne as she and George returned to the cabin after a day in port.

But reality fell short of the package as presented in the marketing materials.

Decorations were nonexistent; the cake was puny and looked like it came from a convenience store; and the champagne was missing the ice bucket.

But George is a grateful sort; and absent any expectations, he was a happy voyager. There was something for his sweet tooth, and a bottle of champagne they could ice for later.

His wife on the other hand, was fuming. She announced that she was headed to client services.

Where The Real Marketing Began

The customer service rep made no excuses while apologizing profusely…and pledging to find a way to make it right. He would be in touch.

Later that evening he knocked on the couple’s cabin door. He reiterated his apology, and asked for permission to arrange for the couple to enjoy dinner the following evening at a special table in one of the ship’s premium restaurants. George and his wife said that would be a nice gesture.

The following evening the two were greeted and treated like VIPs. Arriving at the restaurant, they were escorted to one of the best tables in the room where an extraordinary bottle of wine was already decanting.

The couple inudged. And the evening was topped off with a spectacular off-menu dessert, compliments of the Captain.

When George signaled that he was ready for the check he was informed that it had been the Captain’s pleasure to take care of the entire evening, with his apologies for the earlier misstep, and best wishes for a memorable anniversary.

The likelihood that George will ever consider sailing with another cruise line is less than zero. The experience delivered was more targeted and profound than any message a competitor might throw together.

The dissatisfaction from which the experience was born only adds rich fabric to the story that George and his wife will, no doubt, retell for years.

The experience you deliver IS your marketing message.

And while it is always preferable to get it right the first time, the savvy service provider recognizes questions, concerns — even issues and missteps — as opportunities to demonstrate the real value inherent in a professional relationship.

No marketing message is more eloquent than an experience that differentiates.