Escalation management: 6 strategies and best practices

As your company grows, it is inevitable that you’ll experience a rise in customer support tickets from frustrated customers. One smart way to improve customer satisfaction and reduce ticket backlogs as your customer support needs become more complex is to implement a customer escalation management strategy.

Escalation management is used to route key customer service challenges to associates with the appropriate level of expertise to solve them. Here are our top tips for developing an effective customer service escalation process that helps you solve your customers’ problems in real-time.

What is escalation management?

During escalation management, a customer service agent hands a support request to another team member – either because they can’t resolve the issue on their own, or because the customer needs a more experienced team member to handle their inquiry.

Escalation procedures usually fall into one of two categories:

Functional escalation management

In functional escalation management, someone with specialized or technical expertise needs to address a customer’s issue. For example, a general support associate may need to route a billing question or technical issue to a rep in accounting or web support.

As long as your team handles this type of escalation in a timely manner, you’re likely to see a faster resolution time and a more positive customer experience.

Hierarchical escalation management

Hierarchical escalation management involves passing an issue further up the chain of command. This often happens when the customer is unhappy with a support associate’s response and wants to speak to someone with more authority or expertise.

However, you may just need someone with more authority to offer a solution. For example, if a customer asks for a refund or discount an associate isn’t allowed to give, they may need a manager to handle the request. This type of escalation can also be used for extremely upset or angry customers who need a more experienced associate or manager to calm a situation.

6 best practices for escalation management

Distinguishing between functional and hierarchical escalation is the first step to effective escalation management. Now, let’s look at more specific strategies and best practices that’ll come in handy:

1. Have a clear service-level agreement (SLA)

Service-level agreements (SLAs) are contracts that describe the levels of service that your customer service team is expected to provide. For example, if you outsource your customer support phone calls, an SLA might spell out a timeframe for resolving concerns based on priority levels.

SLAs are usually broken down into “tiers,” which determines which customer support associates will handle each ticket. Clearly defining service tiers is key for routing tickets to the correct associates and prioritizing urgent issues. Tracking customer service metrics such as how many tickets fall into each tier can also help you find the right mix of support tiers when outsourcing customer support services or hiring new associates.

Tier 1 support 

These requests are simple issues that entry-level service reps can handle. Often, the issue is as simple as resetting a password, changing a subscription level, or pointing the customer to the right resource. These issues are usually easy to assess, are frequently able to be solved with canned responses, and associates have a clear process to follow.

Tier 2 support 

In this tier, you’ll see requests that need a higher level of expertise or involve a problem that’s specific to an individual. Tier 2 associates may have more technical skills in general, or more advanced training on your specific product. They need to be able to identify why the Tier 1 team wasn’t able to address the issue, and be prepared to think outside the box to find a solution.

Tier 3 support 

This tier consists of highly technical issues, high-priority requests, and emergencies, such as a customer experiencing a bug that hasn’t been reported before. Tier 3 associates should have expertise in a particular technical area, and work closely with your product team to identify recurring product issues.

Some companies with extremely technical products may define additional tiers above these. For example, companies with support engineers that are expected to ship code to fix bugs or develop custom solutions for customer edge cases may define those associates as Tier 4

It’s up to you how you want to define your tiers, as long as the lines between them are clear.

2. Improve your self-service support options

Although most customer support interactions begin at Tier 1, there’s actually another tier that often gets overlooked: Tier 0. Questions and concerns at this level are minor enough to solve with self-service support solutions such as an FAQ page or knowledge base.

Self-service support requires some oversight and upkeep, but it can allow customers to address problems on their own before turning to your help desk team. Additionally, instead of routing or escalating requests manually once they reach a support agent, an interactive knowledge base or chatbot can escalate requests to the appropriate associate automatically based on what the customer is asking about or looking at.

3. Equip your associates with the right skills (and tools) for the job

Support agent learning about escalation management

Functional escalations are often expected — it isn’t always possible for a customer to find the right person for their question the first time. But you can reduce many hierarchical escalations with the right training and equipment.

First, make sure your support associates have a comfortable work environment. Find ways to make sure your associates can focus on the conversation they’re having with a customer without hearing distracting workplace discussions around them.  

Next, train your associates on how to navigate difficult conversations. While higher-level associates may have more experience dealing with angry customers, new associates can develop these skills through mentoring and practice exercises. 

When customers feel heard and understood, they may be more patient and willing to accept a solution, and you may not need to escalate the issue.

4. Develop escalation paths and an escalation matrix

Certain issues may follow a different escalation path than others. For example, social media posts, like a negative tweet that tags your company, may be a higher priority than private social media messages, because they’re highly visible. You can visually represent these paths using an escalation matrix.  

If you use an omnichannel customer support strategy, create a clear workflow for each support channel so your team knows how to handle escalated issues on each one.

Your workflow should answer questions like: Can Level 1 associates re-assign a difficult ticket themselves, or do senior managers have to reroute it? Are department heads automatically CC’d on escalated issues that weren’t resolved in a timely manner?

5. Don’t escalate tickets too quickly

Getting a customer’s ticket in front of the right associate is important, but be careful not to escalate tickets unnecessarily. It’s important to challenge associates to a reasonable extent so they build the skills they need to address more complex issues.

It also takes time for Tier 2 and 3 associates to review a ticket and understand its history. The fewer times a ticket changes hands, the fewer times the customer has to reintroduce themselves or restate their issue, and the faster problems get resolved.

Escalation can sometimes make a customer’s problem worse. If Tier 3 associates apply a complex solution to something that could have been resolved at Tier 2, for example,  customers may end up confused and frustrated. Make sure your team is trained to exhaust all options before escalating in most cases. 

6. Review escalated tickets

Finally, look for ways to improve your customer success metrics. Review your escalated tickets to find out what the team could have done differently.

If your team is taking too long to respond to tickets, you may need to hire more support associates or outsource tickets to an on-demand team. If your support requests are too advanced for your associates, offer more training and guidance for how to handle those customer issues.

Not every escalation is a failure on the part of your customer support team. Technical or billing issues, such as a pricing discrepancy or a bug in your mobile app, can also cause an escalation rate spike.

Improve your customer support with better escalation management

Agent discussing escalation management

Escalation management refers to your company’s strategy for handling complex support issues and routing them to a senior team member. An effective escalation management process should take into account both functional and hierarchical escalation, and should be clearly defined in your service-level agreement with all relevant stakeholders.

If you’re dealing with a ticket backlog or a high escalation rate, visit the PartnerHero blog to find more ways to improve your customer support strategies.