The Definitive Guide to Escalation Management

Xiaoyun TU
Xiaoyun TU



Keeping your customers happy and offering them the best experience possible is vital to building a growing business. This means your customer service team should address every issue brought to their attention and try to resolve cases during the first interaction.

Escalation management expert on a customer call

In reality, this won't always be possible as some cases will require your team to work on the issue for an extended period of time. That's where escalation management comes in and provides a set of tips and procedures your team can use to navigate tricky customer conversations, especially when breaking news that could potentially upset customers.

In this post, we're going to discuss the fundamentals of escalation management and how it's used in customer service. Then, we'll provide some helpful tips your team can consider when diffusing friction in customer service situations.

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Functional Escalation

For some businesses, escalation can happen immediately in customer service. An agent who takes a call might recognize immediately that they don't have the expertise or resources to answer a question. So, they transfer the request to another team. Such a process is called ‘functional escalation.'

Hierarchical Escalation

In other cases, the course of escalation may not be as straightforward. ‘Hierarchical escalation' is when issues are moved up a chain of command based on how the experience is going. Typically, it's when a problem or question can't be resolved and the customer is pressing for an answer. The rep then elects to transfer the case to either a supervisor or specialist who's trained to handle difficult conversations.

Here are some examples of when and how hierarchical escalation may occur:

  • If a customer emails you but receives no response in the timeframe set out in your Service Level Agreement (SLA). The issue should then get escalated to ensure a timelier response.
  • A client calls your customer service team and speaks to an agent. The agent fails to solve their problem, or the caller is frustrated by the interaction. That customer's problem is then passed to a more experienced agent or a team member in a position of authority.
  • Rather than reaching out to a rep directly, a customer interacts with a chatbot. If that automated channel is unable to help, it should be escalated to a human agent.

As the examples above show, escalation often involves a customer getting more frustrated with a service process. They have an issue and it hasn't got solved as efficiently or quickly as it should have been and now they're expecting your business to respond before you take up more of their time.

escalation management: avoid long wait times

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Now that we've described a few scenarios where you'll need escalation management, let's discuss some best practices that your team can use in their approach.

1. Create SLA's for your team to follow.

SLAs aren't specific to customer service. They're contracts or agreements that define the level of service a company is going to provide.

In the case of your customer support team, an SLA stipulates the service that reps will provide to customers. For example, you may want all service-related emails to be answered within six hours and an SLA can hold your reps to that benchmark.

SLA's are an excellent way to set and maintain high standards for your agents and they're essential when it comes to escalation management because they make it easier to recognize queries that need to be escalated.

SLAs also allow you to prioritize issues and define the types of requests that must be dealt with more swiftly. This way, you can focus your team's attention on problems that need more immediate support, like major product breakdowns over general service inquiries.

2. Design clear escalation systems and processes.

Structure is the cornerstone of escalation management as it gives reps a clear indication of when they should escalate an issue. Ideally, it should be an automatic process that queries move through until the issue has been resolved to the customer's satisfaction.

If customers have complex technical issues, specialists should enter the equation. You should also introduce separate pathways to resolutions depending on the support channel the customer has chosen. This creates an omnichannel experience for the customer and allows your team to work in a channel that best supports the customer.

When a customer requires a higher level of assistance, it should be clear when an issue should be escalated and how it should be positioned to the customer. If you transfer them to another rep, you need to involve the right person at the right time. You don't want to jump up the ladder too quickly or neglect a customer who needs to speak with someone of more authority.

For whoever gets folded into the escalation process, cross-organizational cooperation is essential. Specialized departments can help customers with complex questions as sometimes they're better placed for the issue than the customer service agent.

3. Equip your staff to handle escalations.

To deliver the best escalation management, you should consider giving your staff support tools that help them manage inquiries. For example, a help desk or customer service platform is a must for growing companies. It provides reps with a shared inbox that can be integrated into internal escalation support systems.

Noise-canceling headsets or other similar hardware can also make a real difference. Such equipment is vital to high-quality phone support, especially if your reps are working in a remote setting.

4. Teach customer-facing reps how to manage escalations.

Soft skills are critical whenever someone is interacting with customers, but they become even more vital during an escalation situation. Three of the most critical skills to deal with frustrated customers are:


Half of customer service is being empathetic to your customers' needs. Not only does it put your customers first, but it also helps your agents resolve difficult service situations. If they understand the user's goal as well as the roadblock that's preventing them from achieving it, it becomes easier to align with the customer.

Active Listening

Active listening helps reps not only understand why the customer is upset but also how they support them during a stressful situation. Active listening is more than just taking in information, it's analyzing and processing what someone is saying then asking constructive questions that build towards a resolution.


Customers don't like being left in the dark, especially when they're upset. They want to know how you're solving their problem and when they can expect a resolution. It's important to clearly communicate your troubleshooting process so the customer feels informed and can prepare accordingly.

escalation management: soft skills

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You can only equip your staff with those skills through effective training. Make sure you give them the time and attention needed to get your team members up to standard. Any investment in this area will be well worth the outlay in the long run.

5. Learn from escalations and improve future customer service interactions.

Escalations happen for all businesses and no company will have a 100% success rate for first call resolution. Instead, what you're aiming for is having as few escalations as possible and learn as much as you can from each one that occurs. That way, you can avoid the same problems and provide a constantly improving customer experience.

Try to record and track each instance of escalation. By doing so, you'll quickly be able to recognize the causes of common problems and different service patterns that cause friction. Alternatively, you may discover weaknesses in other departments as well. Relaying information to those teams helps your organization solve problems as a whole and work collaboratively as a company.

Improve Customer Retention Through Escalation Management

If you want to improve customer retention, your customer service team must be top-notch. It only takes one bad experience with a brand for a person to look elsewhere.

To succeed in escalation management, you must first understand the level of service you need to deliver. From there, you can establish a clear response system that's easy to follow and leads customers to effective resolutions.

Editor's note: This post was originally published in May 2020 and has been updated for comprehensiveness.

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