It all started in France. Three of my friends set off on a road trip with plans to “rough it” most of the way. After being in Prague for a month, charming as it may be, they were thirsty for the seaside and willing to drive an uncomfortable amount of hours to make it there overnight. They made it – and spent the next two weeks hiking the southern hills, camping on the coastline and enjoying the great outdoors.

Berlin was next. This time, they were done with camping. A tad bit of luxury was in order, or at least a nice shower and familiar comfort. The pros and cons of getting an Airbnb or hotel were discussed, concluding that buffet breakfast and hassle-free check in were their top priorities. The Marriott hotel it was! And they were excited about it.

Marriott has a good reputation. In addition to the Ritz-Carlton, a dream hotel all unto itself, the Marriott portfolio consists of 15 other hotel brands that cover just about every persona in the book. Looking for contemporary luxury? Try Edition. Want a boutique hotel that feels “just like home – but with a bartender”? Check out Moxy. But all these hotels have one thing in common. It’s the trust in the Marriott name.

The Marriott standard,” she said in frustration, retelling the Marriott Berlin story.

They checked into their room with much anticipation. Freshly made beds with clean sheets, pleasant atmosphere with inviting decor and a friendly staff to welcome them “home” was finally theirs. But then something happened. There was a problem with breakfast. Their online booking said breakfast was included – a decisive factor in the hotel vs Airbnb decision – but for some reason the Marriott employee asked them to pay. A brief discussion ensued as my friends explained the reservation and showed her the confirmation. OK, problem solved. They assumed it was a small mistake that only wasted 5 minutes of their impending nap time. They were exhausted and happy to relax.

Then, an hour later, the phone rang. It was the same Marriott employee starting up the conversation about breakfast again. She wanted them to talk to her manager who would call them shortly. No, was their firm answer. They booked a room online that clearly had breakfast included, with proof, and refused to debate the topic any further. This was not the Marriott standard. This was not what they expected from customer service at the Marriott.

They slept comfortably in their cushy beds, felt rejuvenated by the high water pressure shower and with great pride took their seats at the breakfast table the following morning. Breakfast was delicious. Something worth fighting for. But should they have fought for it? Was this the Marriott standard? It was a customer service experience that left them feeling betrayed by the brand, the one they had known and loved for so many years. Maybe it was the time they switched to Airbnb?

The customer service lesson here is one that has been described well by Micah Solomon, “stop delivering customer service just one way, the way you think is best, and switch to offering it in a way that adapts to the customer and situation in front of you.” This applies on a micro level to service staff working face to face with customers, as was the situation with my friends. And on a macro level to developing a strategy that allows customers to get service on their terms, how and where they want it.

Customer experiences are happening more and more outside the context of the physical interaction. Customers discover new things on Pinterest, get friend recommendations on Facebook, engage directly with brands on Twitter and ask for help on live chat. These digital interactions are an intrinsic part of the customer experience that add up to a brand perception, and thus, relationship to the brand. Customer service has changed because customers have changed. 

Want to learn more about how companies can better serve today’s digital, mobile and social customers? Check out this white paper I wrote, “It’s Complicated: The Ultimate Customer Service Guide for a Complex Social Thread” and start offering customers what they want, not what you think they want.