Jan 12, 2021

Read Time 4 min

5 Steps for a Smoother Customer Escalation


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This is a guest blog post by Kristen Hayer, Founder & CEO of The Success League

Nobody loves it when a customer feels the need to escalate their concern. For the customer, it feels like they have to take an extra step to accomplish what should have happened, from their perspective, in the first place. A CSM can feel like they haven’t done their job well, and may even feel like their company reflects poorly on them as a CS professional. Other teams who need to get involved may feel like they don’t have an incentive to help or the support from their own leader. CS leaders and executives who have to step in to resolve customer issues often feel that they are a distraction from the critical work of managing and guiding the organization forward.

As a CS professional, how do you balance the need of the customer to feel like they are being helped, with the internal constraints of your own organization? Here are 5 steps to take when a customer wants to escalate an issue.


Step 1: Try to diffuse the situation

Before you escalate an issue inside your organization, take a few minutes to try and resolve it on your own. Know that in every difficult conversation, there are things going on under the surface. Your customer may have a lot of pressure from their peers regarding the problem, they may be feeling disappointed and frustrated, or their job could be on the line. Until you understand the scope of the issue, you can’t effectively escalate it anyway. Ask questions about the impact the problem is having on the customer and their business, and actively listen to the answers. This does two things: It helps you understand what is really going on behind the scenes, and it gives the customer a chance to feel heard. Sometimes this is enough to de-escalate the situation. If not…


Step 2: Tap into your peers

Ask your co-workers for suggestions on handling similar situations. You’ll find that more often than not, one of your peers has faced the same challenge and learned a lot from tackling it. Your team can be a great source of information on ways to tackle the issue directly with the customer, and also when and how to escalate further. Some CS teams have a Slack channel set up specifically for escalations, so that anyone can make suggestions when an escalation surfaces. By tapping into your own team, you can limit escalations to other teams inside your company so that when you need to you can…


Step 3: Form a task force

In customer success, often solutions involve other teams like product, engineering, operations or support. For small issues that require a handoff, follow the handoff processes you have in place and let the customer know what you’re doing (Note: if you don’t have a handoff process developed, consider our class on Customer Advocacy, which includes an escalation handoff worksheet). For larger escalations, however, you may need to form a cross-functional task force to tackle the issue. It helps to plan this out in advance and consider things like: When is a task force required, who decides when to pull the group together, who should be in the group, and what is the group allowed to do in order to meet customer needs? If the task force isn’t able to get to a resolution with the customer, the next step is to…


Step 4: Escalate to your manager

I think it is important to note that there are three steps that come before this one. You don’t want to be the CSM who is always bringing things straight to your manager – that makes it seem like you don’t know how to handle challenging situations on your own. However, you also don’t want to be the CSM who doesn’t know when a manager needs to be looped in. The trick is to work things through very thoroughly (and quickly) on your own first, and then escalate to your manager when you have exhausted your other options. When you bring the issue to your manager make sure you explain the issue, discuss what you’ve already tried, and offer up any suggestions you have. This will help your leader take things to the next level rather than just repeating things you’ve already tried. And if that doesn’t work they may need to…


Step 5: Loop in an executive

If this issue is a big one, and executives on the customer’s end have also been looped in, it may be time to bring in your own executive. When challenges move outside of what you or your manager can resolve on your own (things like, the customer needs a major piece of new functionality or the customer won’t accept your security protocols), your executive has the clout to make business changes for the customer, or make the decision that they are OK with the churn that not making those changes may cause. This stage may take some time because your executive may need to bring issues to the rest of the leadership team or look at the business case for a resolution. Be sure to ask your executive about their timeline instead of assuming that it will be similar to your own.

There is no shame in escalating an issue. By following this series of steps, you’ll be looping in the right people at the right time, and ensuring that you’re not escalating too early or too late. You still need to use your best judgement throughout this process, and you have to be honest with yourself before you kick off an escalation. Be sure that you aren’t escalating because you’re nervous about having a tough conversation (here’s a class on Difficult Conversations if this is a challenge area for you), and don’t escalate before you have a clear understanding of the customer’s perspective on the issue. Knowing your escalation plan ahead of time ensures that all of your customers get the help they need.

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