After 10 minutes of guessing among ambiguous voicemail menu choices, a caller is connected with someone who cannot solve his problem -- and who insists on putting him back into voicemail. Neither of them knows that the computer is systematically (and unfeelingly) routing people with billing questions to Children's Clothing.
A customer who gets to the front of the checkout line and finds the clerk on the phone is angry that he is not being served. She is unaware that the clerk is required to do double duty answering the company telephone.
An airline passenger who asks a question of the person behind the desk at the gate is annoyed to be told that he will have to wait for a different employee who might know the answer. He has not realized that the person at the computer is a pilot, not a gate agent.
The employees are just as frustrated as the customers:
"If this guy wanted a giraffe onesie for his daughter, I could help him. But why is he yelling at me about a billing problem?"
"I'm wearing a company headset and answered the phone by saying, 'Enormous Corporate Chain, how may I help you?' Isn't it obvious that I am waiting on another customer, not chatting with my boyfriend?"
"I'm a pilot with 20 years of experience, and I'm wearing my hat. I'm using this computer to get a flight plan so I can fly this passenger quickly and safely to his next destination. Why does he expect me to know how many points he needs to qualify for Agate Geode Status?"
Who was at fault? Everyone.
Someone not present at the eventual blowup has created a situation in which misunderstanding is certain to occur. The checkout person, the sales clerk and the pilot have been made to look rude by a badly programmed voicemail system, an unfortunate assignment of duties and the placement of a computer.
So the customer has taken offense and turned aggressive. And the employee has responded in kind.
They have Miss Manners' sympathy, if not her approbation. But as everyone has misbehaved, everyone can help Miss Manners clean up the mess.
Corporate America -- and any consultants paid to think for it -- needs to finish what it starts. After what feels like a lifetime on computer support, Miss Manners understands what happens when a technician "fixes" a computer problem, but fails to verify the result. People designing airports, programming voicemail systems and making duty assignments need to think through how these will be used.
The same is true of everyone else involved in decisions that will affect what we now call "the customer experience."
The employee needs to remember that he or she represents the company, for good or ill. It is necessary to be prepared for the possibility that the customer has already had reason to be frustrated, and to be able to defuse the situation with an apology and a solution.
"My apologies, you were routed to the wrong department, but I can get you to the correct one. And let me give you the direct extension for that department in case voicemail fails again."
"Forgive me, I have a telephone customer, but you are next."
"I'm sorry, but I'm the pilot and am not trained in gate operations. This station will open 30 minutes before your flight, when someone will be able to help you."
The customer must accept the apology gracefully, if not, perhaps, gratefully, and employee and customer should both consider contacting corporate headquarters to give them a chance to correct the original mistake.
Meanwhile, Miss Manners will attempt to decipher the corporate website, which is forcing her to choose among "Plan My Visit," "Enhance My Experience," "What's Happening," "Information" and "Help." She doubts that any choice will live up to its title.
(Please send your questions to Miss Manners at her website, www.missmanners.com; to her email, email@example.com; or through postal mail to Miss Manners, Universal Uclick, 1130 Walnut St., Kansas City, MO 64106.)