CSM to CSM: Tips for Handling Customer Escalations (Gracefully)

About the Author: Enrique is a passionate advocate of the Customer Success practice. He has more than 7 years in the SaaS industry and has been part of leading companies such as AppsFlyer, Appsee (acquired by ServiceNow), and Yotpo. He has worked with all types of clients, ranging from SMBs all the way to Fortune 500 companies. Enrique's expertise in CS has helped him lead customer retention and growth by focusing on one thing—constantly delivering value to the customer. He enjoys traveling, scuba diving, skiing, playing/watching sports, reading books, and learning new things.

It’s “easy” to succeed when your product is working perfectly fine and there are no setbacks. You are able to follow and execute the success work plan you have set up with your clients without any blockers or delays.

But what happens when there’s a setback with your product that directly affects the business outcomes of your customers? The way you will handle these kinds of situations will strengthen or weaken your relationship with your customers and will determine if your customers will continue using your product or if they will look elsewhere for a similar solution.

This might sound a bit scary, however, great CSMs know how to turn this challenge into an opportunity; to turn the tables around and let their customers know that they are in the most capable hands, and that there’s a reason they are using your product and not someone else’s.

In this article I’ll share some of the best practices I’ve learned in my career on how to handle customer escalations and come out of it with a big win for everyone—your customer, your company, and yourself.

Tips on taking steps to resolve it on your own

The first, and most important, thing to do is to communicate to your customer that you are aware of the situation and that you are on it. Communication during the whole process is going to be key as this shows transparency and ownership.

You’ve communicated to your customer that you’re working on it, now the next step is to understand what the setback is. Is it something I need to escalate to support or R&D, my manager, or is it something I can solve on my own? If it’s the latter, there are a few approaches that can help you find the solution:

  • Knowledge Base: Search for the feature or product that is not working, identify if there’s anything missing in the configuration or set up? Is there a known explanation for the setback based on how the feature works? If you have ticked all the boxes and still can’t find the answer then you can move on to the next point. If you do, then you managed to solve the issue in less than 24 hours. Your organization’s internal knowledge base will be one of your most valuable tools to solve setbacks, moreover, you’ll learn more about your product than you can ever imagine.
  • Past Support Tickets: One of the best ways to solve a problem is by looking at past tickets that were opened. If you use Intercom, Zendesk, Salesforce, or any other platform for managing your support tickets, that means there are past tickets that might contain the solution to the problem you are looking to solve. I can’t stress enough how many times I’ve used this tactic to find the solution to an issue, you will save a lot of time by doing this, rather than reaching out to support and waiting for an answer from them. It will also have the added bonus of giving your customer the impression that they’re in very capable and knowledgeable hands. This, in turn, will only strengthen your position as a trusted advisor for your clients.

So, you tried finding a solution on your own, but had no luck. Now’s the time to get the right people involved in order to find a solution to the issue.

Tips on looping in the right people

Odds are the first “body” within the company that you will approach is Customer Support. Before you even open a ticket with your support team, make sure to have an answer for each of the following questions:

What’s the SLA for my client? This will give you some context on how the support team prioritizes tickets. If you feel it’s a delicate situation that should be resolved relatively quickly then you can reach out to the person dealing with the ticket and mention that it needs a faster resolution.

What data and information does the support team need in order to solve this quickly? Trust me when I say this, you don’t want to find yourself in an endless loop with support, going back and forth on what information is missing in order to solve the problem. Pro tip: send as much relevant information as possible and even ask your support team if they need any additional information that could help them solve this faster. Remember, “explicit is better than implicit”.

How will support approach this and how can I stay in the loop? Why is this important? Remember when we spoke about keeping an open line of communication with your client? Well, understanding what support is doing to fix this issue and having the ability to track the progress in real-time will allow you to communicate the right message to your client, all while keeping things calm, transparent, and under control.

Will this require further escalation? If the problem turns out to be a product malfunction (a.k.a bug) or requires the assistance of the product owner, you need to understand what and who it entails. 

  • If it’s a feature request, start by figuring out who the product owner is, what would be the ETA on this fix, and how can I keep track?
  • If it’s a bug fix, what’s the prioritization and when is the next sprint for R&D?

Knowing the answers to these questions This will help you get a better idea of who are the teams involved in finding the solution to the problem. It is your job to make sure things don’t get stuck and that the relevant information is reaching all the relevant people involved.

All of these items will help you and your peers to reach a resolution much faster., Remember to keep the clients in the loop of any progress and updates on the matter, otherwise they’re will begin to start thinking that something is wrong and that you are avoiding/delaying the situation.

During this whole process, depending on the sensitivity of the situation and the type of customer, you will want to keep your manager involved, and, in certain scenarios, the key stakeholders within your company as well.

Tips on Managing Up

Your manager’s involvement can definitely help increase the sense of urgency (given the account’s background), and they can also direct you to, or contact, the right people within the company that can help you find a solution faster.

Keeping the customer’s background in mind (Tier 1/VIP, Renewal/Upsell in progress, strategic customer, etc.) you should always keep your CS executive informed about the situation and the progress achieved. Moreover, if the situation calls for it, it’s always good to have a VP/C-level step in to de-escalate things.

Once you reach an outcome (hopefully a positive one), it is important to have a post-mortem i.e. go over the process and learn what can be improved upon, and understand if we could have avoided this setback. We’d also recommend creating a pre-mortem when possible to help you see and stop future churn risks.

Now that we understand what action items are available to us when it comes to handling customer escalations and reach a positive outcome, let’s talk about what extra steps we can take to prevent situations like this from escalating further, and how to have a clear action plan in place so you and your team are fully prepared to take on any setback and come out of it unscathed. 

Being proactive and preparing yourself for the worst possible scenarios will help you identify risks and possible setbacks before they even happen, empowering you to be more prepared for handling setbacks and avoiding escalations.

Try to think of situations that could cause the customer to churn e.g. a gap between your customer’s needs and product, a champion leaving, pricing, and so on. Once you have a list of possible churn-risks, distinguish between the ones we can control and the ones we can’t. There’s not much to be done with churn-risks we can’t control, but with the churn-risks that we can, there should be a clear action plan on how to handle it in case this scenario happens. 

And rather than trying to hurdle through the items we touched on in this post, you’ll have a clear, step-by-step plan that will not only help you resolve the situation in a professional and quick manner, but it will also provide your customer with a positive customer experience which will only strengthen their trust and belief in you as a trusted advisor.

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