Are you a support leader looking for ways to improve your CSAT and improve your team’s productivity this quarter? You might want to take a look at your escalation process. Not only are escalations where you see the days and minutes added to your resolution time, it’s also where your customers feel the stress that leads to frustration and rage ratings.

There isn’t a customer service department on the planet that’s immune to escalations. Some tickets are simply more complicated than others and sometimes the initial response to common questions simply isn’t done well.

Amazing customer service isn’t just how you answer the easy questions - it’s about how you effectively deal with the most complicated cases in the most uncertain times.

Getting escalation right is critical to your company’s long term success. Keep customers waiting in the dark or make them feel like they are going in circles talking to several different people who offer the same canned answers, and you’ve lost them.

Researchers at McKinsey & Co. recently highlighted that successful customer service teams are the ones that demonstrate their ability to retain customers—and in many cases, high retention rates are a direct result of solid escalation plans.

What does an effective ticket escalation strategy look like?

Before creating an escalation workflow, it’s essential to understand what a good one looks like. When you escalate tickets to a manager or a specialized team, things have a tendency to get dropped. But with an effective escalation process, you’ll achieve five things:

  • Customers are satisfied with the resolutions.

    If your escalation process isn’t keeping customers around, even after a complicated issue, it’s not doing its job.
  • Resolution time decreases.

    “Zombie tickets” that keep coming back to the queue and outliers that take 10x as long to resolve on average will torpedo your resolution numbers and your team morale with it.
  • Expectations are set with customers and then they are met or exceeded.

    As the case is escalated, customers should know what’s happening and what to expect next.
  • Customers shouldn’t have to repeat themselves.

    Regardless of how many transfers the case goes through, customers shouldn’t bear the weight of repeating information that they’ve already provided.
  • The number of escalations as a percentage of incoming tickets decreases over time.

    Tickets that aren’t resolved by front line reps are more time-consuming for both your company and your customers. Because of this, your escalation process should become a negative feedback cycle and you should reduce the number of escalations required over time.

When escalations run smoothly, even the most difficult tickets can result in happy customers. Here are a few steps to take to set your company apart by ensuring your customer service teams are equipped to escalate customer tickets efficiently.

Related post: 10 Customer Intimacy Strategies to Drive Higher Revenue

Three Projects for Creating an Effective Escalation Process

A. Train Your Team to Listen to the Customer

Scripts are a widely-used tool in customer service—and for good reason. They’re consistent, improve efficiency, and enable junior-level representatives to deliver a best-in-class experience.

Well, at least in theory those things are true.

Research by Software Advice found that 84% of customers feel that their experience improves “more than slightly” when they believe a representative isn’t reading off of a script. And there’s plenty of room for that experience to improve; according to research by Salesforce, 62% of consumers feel that customer service teams met their expectations, while only 5% exceeded them.

The problem is that using scripts can encourage agents to stop listening before they truly understand what the customer is asking for. That same Salesforce study found that one of the most critical skills that customer service teams should have but often lack is effective listening. Easy enough, right? All you need to do is train your team to improve their listening skills!

In case you didn’t catch that bit of sarcasm, teaching listening skills is really hard. Still, Bernard T. Ferrari of McKinsey Quarterly suggests that there are three keys to excellent listening:

1. Show respect

To harness the power of those ideas, fight the urge to ‘help’ by providing immediate solutions, suggests Ferrari. Don’t rush to resolve an issue quickly, especially if the situation is complex.

2. Keep quiet

“We’ve all spent time with bad listeners who treat conversations as opportunities to broadcast their own status or ideas,” Ferrari says. “Or who spend more time formulating their next response than listening to their conversation partners.”

3. Challenge assumptions

“Good listeners seek to understand—and challenge—the assumptions that lie below the surface of every conversation,” Ferrari argues. This is particularly true in customer service, where customers tend to assume that they won’t get a decent resolution to their issue. This can leave customers primed for a fight when there doesn’t need to be one.

Regardless of your escalation process, leave room for your agents to get creative and focus on solutions. Consider the solutions your whole company provides - product, people and brand - and add a step to your guides around customer intent. What is the customer trying to accomplish? How can you help them achieve that?

Customer service teams can stand to do more listening and less talking — at least from the onset of a conversation, especially when it comes to escalations. If you’re finding that the scripts are causing more escalations than resolutions, it might be time to create guides that encourage active listening and focus on the customer.

B. Document a Standardized Escalation Process

A standardized escalation process takes away any of the uncertainty agents have about passing on a ticket. It makes sure they cover all the necessary steps and gather all the important information so that you don’t have to keep going back to the customer. Two things that should be included in the plan are when to escalate, and what needs to be done as part of the escalation.

When to escalate

What tickets should be escalated? Which ones should be handled by the front line teams? Documenting the types of issues that should be escalated will help your agents know what to do.

If resolving the problem would take too long: depending on how your team is set up, you may not want frontline reps spending hours on the phone troubleshooting an issue, or deep diving into research about a specific niche product bug. In these cases, it’s best to escalate the ticket to someone who can resolve the issue faster.

If the issue requires special skills or access to resolve: if the issue is particularly technical, your agents may want to bounce it up to a more specialized tech support team. Alternatively, if frontline support reps are only allowed to refund up to a certain amount, an escalation may be required.

If the customer asks for it: occasionally customers ask to talk to the manager when they aren’t getting the response they want. While it’s not always necessary, having a process in place for a team lead or manager to step in and assist can be helpful.

How to Escalate

Once your agent has decided that the customer would benefit from an escalation, they will need to follow a set of steps. This ensures that the ticket gets to the right place and that you can report on it later.

  • Do you want to tag escalations for better tracking?
  • What Service Level Agreements do you want to apply to escalations?
  • What do you want to tell the customer?
  • Do you want to create a macro to ensure consistency?

One of the easiest ways to keep escalation processes consistent and simple for agents to follow is to document them in a Stonly guide. When issues are escalated using a Stonly guide within the support CRM, every action is logged for the next agent. Plus, agents can launch macros right from the end of the guide.

Learn more about how internal Stonly guides can help your agents deliver faster and better service.

Here's what a Stonly guide looks like.

C. Keep Track of Your Escalations

Customers frequently complain that being transferred to another agent is frustrating and time-consuming. Minimizing the number of escalations (while still quickly resolving the issue) is critical to reducing your customer’s effort and keeping them happy.

To help reduce escalations, it’s insightful to track the number of escalations each category of tickets creates. If you’re frequently seeing technical escalations due to a specific feature, additional product training may help reduce those. If customers are routinely being escalated to a manager for refund issues, perhaps consider offering some leeway on refund timelines. Digging into escalations can help identify the most frustrating questions your customers have - so you can work to eliminate them altogether.

It’s also helpful to track unnecessary escalations, where front line agents should have been able to resolve the issue themselves. By knowing what types of questions cause unnecessary escalations you can train your team more effectively and prevent customers from having a frustrating experience. For example, with data on escalation trends, you can:

  • Train agents how to say no to customers requesting an unnecessary escalation
  • Offer further training on technical products
  • Provide performance management coaching

To start tracking and reporting on escalations:

  1. Create tags for each reason your agents escalate. These might be:
    a. Technical_Escalation
    b. Manager_Escalation
    c. NegativeCSAT_Escalation
    d. Billing_Escalation
  2. Add these tags to the relevant macros, or include them as a step in your escalation guide.
  3. Create an escalation dashboard that compares each type of escalation with other metrics. For example, one report may look at technical escalations by product area. Another may compare the type of escalation by resolution time.

You can also add another tag “Unnecessary_Escalation” that could be added by the team member that resolves the ticket or by a QA team member. This tag will help you identify the tickets that should have been resolved by front line agents, but were passed on instead.

Final Thoughts

Escalation has always been a tricky challenge for customer service leaders to solve. Even the best-laid plans can leave some customers unsatisfied with their experience with your brand. But in most cases, thoughtful planning and a bit of flexibility can make escalations less inconvenient for the customer, more strategic for your team, and ultimately deliver an experience that will make consumers want to come back time and time again.