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Escalation Management: Caring for Unhappy Customers

March 7, 2024

escalation management

Unlocking the door to business growth hinges on customer satisfaction.

We are not just saying it; the data agrees with us.

A whopping 93% of consumers are more likely to stick with brands that deliver outstanding customer service. And if the customer service is unsatisfactory, you will need to give the customer 12 positive experiences to erase the negative one. That’s a heavy weight to balance, don’t you think?

To add to this, the demand for quick responses is incredibly high. 90% of customers say a fast reply to their questions is essential. 60% of them define “fast” as under 10 minutes.

Considering these numbers, you have to understand the complexities of customer service that result in escalation management. Only then can you be certain that your customer service meets and exceeds expectations. Let’s begin!  

What is escalation management? 

Escalation management is a structured approach that addresses customer concerns when they move beyond the initial point of contact. Even though these matters need immediate attention, escalation management doesn’t just put out fires. It focuses on fostering positive relationships with your customers at all times. 

This process is vital because it helps customers see how serious you are about helping them out, which makes them more likely to be happy that they stuck with you. 

Imagine a customer has a complaint about a product that the frontline staff cannot resolve due to its complexity. Instead of leaving the customer frustrated, escalation management steps in to ensure that the issue is directed to someone who can provide a solution. It could be a product specialist or a higher-level manager, depending on the type of escalation.

Types of escalation

Not all escalations are the same.

They can vary based on who takes over the issue and how it's handled. Let's dive into the three main types of escalation we encounter in this process: 

Functional escalation

Commonly known as technical escalation, this happens when a problem needs special knowledge or skills.

For example, if someone’s phone isn’t working right and the basic customer service team can’t fix it, the issue goes to a tech expert. 

Automatic escalation

This process is triggered by predefined criteria, like if a customer issue remains unresolved for a longer time. Businesses use service level agreements (SLAs) that spell out how quickly they should respond to customer issues. 

An automatic escalation comes to the rescue if a customer’s problem isn’t fixed in a set time. It guarantees that important issues are flagged for higher-level attention without manual intervention.

A typical example of this escalation would be if a customer orders a pizza through an app, but it’s taking way too long. The app notices the delay and automatically sends a message to the restaurant manager to look into your order and speed things along.

Hierarchical escalation

This type of escalation moves an issue up the ladder to someone with more authority than the initial agent or point of contact. Say you’re at a restaurant, and your meal isn’t right. You first tell the server, but if they can’t fix it, you ask to speak to the manager.

Hierarchical escalation and functional escalation often get confused. Just remember that with functional escalation, the original point of contact transfers the customer to someone with more expertise about a product or service.

However, the original agent and the expert agent are equals in the company. Hierarchical escalation means the first point of contact sends the customer to a supervisor who has more power to make decisions.

Customer service scenarios leading to escalations

When customers ask to speak to a manager, it’s a clear sign of deep frustration. Several triggers can get them to this point, and each of them gives a new way to improve your team, prevent escalations, and enhance customer satisfaction.

Poor customer service or product quality

Nothing frustrates customers more than receiving a product or service that falls short of their expectations. Whether it’s a gadget that malfunctions out of the box or a meal that’s below par, poor quality is a direct ticket to dissatisfaction. 

Customers require value for their money, and when they feel shortchanged, they’re likely to seek resolution from an authority figure, hoping for a solution that matches their expectations.

Signs you need to focus on escalation management

Source: Outreach Monks

Unsatisfactory response from frontline staff

Your frontline staff are the face of your business. Their initial response begins shaping the customer’s experience. If the customer sees the staff member as unhelpful, dismissive, or unskilled, they won’t hesitate to ask for a manager – probably you. 

This situation often arises from a lack of empowerment or training, which prevents your frontline employees from resolving issues effectively on the spot. 

Long wait times

Long wait times test customer patience and signal a disregard for their time. Moreover, when delays become excessive, customers often believe escalating their complaints expedites resolutions. 

If these situations occur frequently, you need to manage customer expectations and improve operational efficiency.


Misunderstandings or lack of clear information lead customers up the ladder of escalation. To be more specific, when customers feel misled by promotional materials, confused by conflicting information, or frustrated by a lack of communication from staff, they’re more likely to demand a manager’s intervention.

That’s why it’s important to ensure clarity in all customer communications and practice effective staff training staff to prevent such situations.

Inflexible company policies

Sometimes, the root cause of an escalation is not the service or product itself but the policies surrounding it. Strict return policies, non-refundable services, or any rule that seems unfair can drive customers to seek satisfaction through escalation. While policies are necessary for operational consistency, let there be some flexibility for everyone’s sake. 

Plus, you should trust your frontline staff and empower them to make appropriate judgment calls to prevent the need for – well, you. Or any other supervisor.

Each of these triggers points to underlying areas where you need to pay more attention. It will help you proactively address the issues and boost customer satisfaction, loyalty, and retention rates. Your staff will be much happier, too.

How to handle escalations proactively 

Businesses, especially startups and small firms, tend to believe that effectively managing escalation is just about dealing with issues as they arise.

However, in reality, you have to pull them out by the root to stop them from happening in the first place. To attain this goal, adopt proactive strategies like the ones here. 

Strategies to handle escalation management

Source: Outreach Monks

Identify early warning signs

Recognizing that no issue escalates into a major problem overnight is crucial. There are always warning signs that lead to larger issues down the line if overlooked or purposely ignored. These signs could be subtle changes in a customer’s tone, specific phrases indicating dissatisfaction, or a pattern of similar complaints from multiple customers. 

Additionally, an increase in the frequency of support requests on a particular issue or negative feedback on social media channels should also serve as red flags. By staying alert to these early warning signals, you and your team can potentially defuse the situation before it intensifies. 

Training and empowering employees

Training and empowering your staff are key to preventing escalations. When employees are well-trained, they’re more confident in handling complex issues and making decisions that resolve situations before they require your attention. 

Employee empowerment here means eliminating micro-management and giving your team the authority to make judgment calls within certain guidelines. This trust-based approach encourages employees to think critically and act decisively, knowing they have the support of their managers to back them up.

For example, allowing a customer service representative to issue refunds or replacements without needing managerial approval can resolve issues quickly and efficiently.

Use customer data

The old playbook of simply aiming to please customers isn’t enough anymore. The smart move now is to harness technology to gain deeper insights into customer behaviors and preferences. 

Surprisingly, numerous firms today still find themselves puzzled by questions like “What is a customer data platform?” or “How does a customer 360-degree view work?” If you’re in this group, it’s high time to shift gears and start using customer data.

By collecting and analyzing customer interactions and feedback across all touchpoints, you create a comprehensive view of each customer that will help you learn which issues may arise and why they happen in the first place. 

This proactive approach to escalation management means you can solve problems before customers feel the need,  reducing the number of escalations and improving customer satisfaction.

Streamlining communication channels

Make it easy for customers to talk to you. People want to reach out in many ways – calls, emails, social media, live chat. So, being certain they can get through to you easily is non-negotiable. 

It’s like having open doors on all sides of your shop. Customers can pick whichever door they like best and enter to find what they need inside.

Doing this makes customers happy because they don’t have to jump through hoops to talk to you. It’s all about making things smooth and accessible for everyone.

Regularly review and update business policies

Company policies often include instructions and guidelines on how difficult customer issues should be handled. However, rigid or outdated policies can lead to customer dissatisfaction and even escalations. 

On the flip side, if you regularly review and update these policies to reflect current customer needs and market trends, your team can easily resolve these escalations. It’s like making sure the rules of the game are always fair and clear for everyone. 

For example, when a return policy is too strict and makes it hard for customers to return items. This traps and irritates people, which isn’t good for anyone. 

By reviewing these policies regularly, you can catch things like this and make changes that meet and exceed your customers’ experiences. It’s all about staying flexible and keeping your customers’ needs at the heart of what we do.

The role of customer satisfaction metrics in escalation management

It’s now clear that customer satisfaction plays a pivotal role in escalation management.

So, let’s dive into the top five customer satisfaction metrics that will give you valuable insights into your service quality and its impact on your customer base.

The net promoter score (NPS)

NPS measures the likelihood that your customers will recommend your service or product to others.

It’s a key indicator of customer loyalty and satisfaction. High scores indicate happy customers ready to boost your business through positive word-of-mouth marketing.

The customer churn rate (CCR)

CCR measures how many customers stop using your service over a period of time. Let’s say you own a cafe. In that case, CCR informs you about the number of people who haven’t returned.

If you notice more customers are leaving than usual, it could mean they’re not happy with the coffee or service. That signals you that it’s time to make some changes to bring them back.

The customer satisfaction score (CSAT)

CSAT captures how much your base enjoys their experiences with you. This information is collected through surveys, where customers rate their contentment on a specific scale. Lower scores suggest areas where you and your team can do better.

By monitoring CSAT, you identify trends, make informed decisions, and implement strategies to enhance customer happiness.

The customer effort score (CES)

CES tracks how easy it is for clients to interact with your service or resolve issues. If customers frequently report that the business process is complex (with a high score indicating complexity), it’s a cue to simplify instructions or rework the product for a better user experience.

Making things easier for customers makes them happier and more likely to stick around and keep using your service. So, by using CES to find and fix the hard parts, companies can keep their customers loyal.

First contact resolution (FCR)  

FCR measures how often customer issues are solved the first time without needing any follow-up. High FCR rates mean happier customers and fewer escalations.

How do customer satisfaction metrics help employees?

  • Identifying trends and patterns helps understand recurring issues and customer expectations.
  • Measuring the impact of resolutions allows you to see your solutions' effectiveness from the customer's perspective.
  • Enhancing training and development gives employees the confidence and knowledge to address common customer challenges without escalation.
  • Benchmarking performance enables you to compare your service levels against industry standards and competitors.

Effective communication strategies to prevent escalations

Finally, effective communication is the ultimate resolution for all the “May I speak to your manager?” requests.

The way we talk, listen, and hold our bodies can influence whether a situation is escalated or calmly resolved. Here are some key strategies to prevent escalations through communication:

  • Demonstrate empathy and validation to customers: When customers feel understood, their frustration levels tend to decrease. It makes them more open to solutions. Saying something as simple as “I understand why that would be upsetting” can go a long way in making the customer feel heard and respected.
  • Use tone, language, and body language to de-escalate situations: A calm and friendly tone, clear and simple language, and open body language can help soothe an upset customer. It’s about being approachable and reassuring, showing that you’re there to help, not to argue.
  • Follow effective verbal and non-verbal cues: For instance, nodding to show you’re listening, maintaining eye contact to demonstrate your attention, and using phrases like “let’s see how we can fix this together.” These cues convey empathy and a willingness to solve the problem, which can prevent a customer from escalating their issue further.

Keep in mind that it’s all about creating a connection with the customer, showing them that their satisfaction is our priority, and working with them to find a solution.

Final thoughts

Whenever a customer raises any concerns, it all boils down to proactive escalation management, understanding customer triggers, and employing strategic communication.

You can reduce escalations and improve customer satisfaction by training employees, applying customer data, and maintaining clear policies. Remember, every interaction is an opportunity to strengthen your relationship with your customers and turn potential challenges into moments of excellence.

Dive into intelligent strategies for using generative AI to enhance your customer service.

Edited by Aisha West

Customer service software Serve up smiles!

Customer service software helps streamline your support, delight your customers, and elevate your brand reputation.

Customer service software Serve up smiles!

Customer service software helps streamline your support, delight your customers, and elevate your brand reputation.

Escalation Management: Caring for Unhappy Customers Discover effective escalation management techniques and learn about common triggers, proactive strategies, and the role of customer satisfaction metrics in this guide.
Sahil Ahuja Sahil Ahuja, the founder of Outreach Monks and a digital marketing expert, has over a decade of experience in SEO and quality link-building. He also successfully runs an e-commerce brand and continually explores new ways to promote online growth.

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