Escalation Management: A Definitive Guide to Handling Tricky Service Requests (2023)

Giving your customers the best experience is vital to building a business, which sometimes means solving onerous issues. That's where escalation management comes in.

Escalation Management: A Definitive Guide to Handling Tricky Service Requests (1)

Ideally, your customer service team solves problems quickly. However, your team may need to work on some issues for an extended period or loop in team members with advanced product knowledge.

Escalation management provides a set of tips and procedures your team can use to navigate tricky customer conversations and provide a higher level of support when needed. In this post, you'll learn the fundamentals of escalation management, as well as helpful tips your team can use to diffuse friction.

Table of Contents

  • What is escalation in customer service?

  • Escalation Management Best Practices

  • Escalation Management Examples

  • Improve Customer Retention Through Escalation Management

What is escalation management?

When a customer service agent can't provide an answer or solution to a customer issue, they'll need to pass the issue along to someone else. This is called escalation management. There are three main types of escalation systems: functional escalation, automatic escalation, and hierarchical escalation. Depending on the customer's issue, your businesses may need to use one, the other, or all three approaches.

Escalation Management: A Definitive Guide to Handling Tricky Service Requests (3)

What is escalation management in customer service?

The different types of escalation are as follows.

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Functional Escalation

For some businesses, escalation can happen immediately in a customer service interaction. For example, an agent who takes a call might recognize they need more expertise or resources to answer questions. If they transfer the request to another team equipped to meet the customer's needs, that's functional escalation.

Automatic Escalation

Many companies today set up Service Level Agreements (SLAs) that define the level of service customers should expect to receive. This includes the time frame in which customer requests should be responded to and resolved.

Suppose there is an SLA violation, meaning the customer's request isn't resolved within the agreed-upon time. In that case, this results in an automatic escalation where higher-ups are notified automatically.

Of course, automatic escalations need to be set up using software to track your team's progress on cases.

Hierarchical Escalation

In other cases, the course of escalation may be more complex. Hierarchical escalation is when issues are moved up a chain of command based on how the experience is going. Typically, this occurs when the rep cannot solve the customer's problem and the customer is pressing for an answer. The agent then transfers the case to a supervisor or specialist trained to handle difficult conversations.

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

  • A customer's request goes above the service your representatives can offer due to company policy or limitations. Management or high-level team members must step in to work with the customer and potentially make an exception.
  • A client calls your customer service team and speaks to an agent. Unfortunately, the agent fails to solve their problem, or the caller is frustrated by the interaction. The agent then passes the case on to a more experienced agent or a team member in a position of authority.

As the examples above show, escalation often involves a customer getting more frustrated with a service process. They have an issue that has yet to get solved as efficiently or quickly as it should have been. Now, they're expecting your business to respond before you take up more of their time.

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Issue Escalation Process

To effectively manage escalation, you need an issue escalation process. This will clarify the workflow and channel of decision-making to solve customer issues quickly and with clarity.

Escalation Management Best Practices

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.

Escalation Management Best Practices

  1. Create SLAs for your team to follow.
  2. Design escalation pathways related to your SLAs.
  3. Have the right tools for the job.
  4. Teach customer-facing reps the soft skills for managing escalations.
  5. Learn from escalations and improve future customer service interactions.
  6. Keep your customers updated.
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1. Create SLAs for your team to follow.

Service Level Agreements (SLAs) are contracts or agreements that define the level of service a company will provide. SLAs apply to customer service but can also extend to other areas of your business.

In the case of your customer support team, an SLA stipulates the level of service that reps will provide to customers. For example, your SLA may specify that all customer requests will be responded to within 6 hours of being received.

SLAs are necessary to recognize cases that require escalation. SLAs also allow you to prioritize issues and define the requests that agents must handle 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.

Pro Tip: Make sure to research SLAs in your industry. You want to meet customer expectations and provide reasonable goals that your team can meet.

2. Design escalation pathways related to your SLAs.

There must be clear pathways for your service team to follow when managing escalations. Escalation pathways should be triggered automatically when an SLA breach occurs.

For example, if your SLA states that customer service will answer all inquiries within 6 hours, and a customer's email hasn't been responded to in that time frame, a manager or more experienced representative should automatically be notified.

If a customer's issue exceeds your SLA's defined scope, you should loop the appropriate team in. For example, if a customer discovers a bug in your software, you should have an established pathway for your reps to escalate the case to your development team, which is more equipped to handle the issue.

Not all escalations are equal in urgency, so you also need to develop a system for prioritizing escalations based on the severity of the problem and time sensitivity.

Pro Tip: Consider creating an escalation matrix, a flowchart, or a visual representation of all the various escalation pathways for solving different customer issues. This way, it is clear when a representative needs to pass a case on to another department.

3. Have the right tools for the job.

You must empower your support team with the right tools to deliver the best escalation management. Help desks and ticketing software are essential for handling escalations.

In addition, support software should come with a shared inbox that you can integrate into internal escalation support systems. This way your whole team has transparency which support tickets need some love.

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 work remotely.

What we recommend: HubSpot Help Desk is an easy-to-use solution for managing tickets and handling escalations. It's also free!

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4. Teach customer-facing reps the soft skills for managing escalations.

Soft skills are critical when interacting with customers, but they become even more vital during an escalation situation. Below are three essential skills that can help you deal with frustrated customers.


Your representatives must be empathetic to your customers' needs and frustrations. Not only does it put your customers first, but it also helps your agents resolve difficult service situations.

If reps understand the user's goal and the roadblock preventing them from achieving it, it becomes easier to align with the customer. Customers want to feel like you understand their problem and are genuinely invested in resolving it. A little empathy can delight your customers, even amid a very frustrating situation.

Active Listening

Active listening helps reps understand why customers are upset and how to support them during a stressful situation.

Active listening is more than just taking in information. It's analyzing and processing what someone is saying. After, ask constructive questions that build toward a resolution.


Customers don't like being left in the dark, especially when upset. They want to know how you can solve their problem and when they can expect a resolution. Therefore, it's essential to communicate your troubleshooting process. That helps the customer feel informed and allows them to prepare for what's next.

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You can only equip your staff with those skills through effective training. Any investment in this area will be well worth the outlay in the long run.

Pro Tip: Look out for these soft skills during the hiring process for your support team. A candidate with exceptional soft skills but minimal experience can be a treasured member of your team.

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

No company will have a 100% success rate for first-call resolution. Instead, expect escalations and use them as learning opportunities to improve customer experience.

Of course, you want to aim for the fewest escalations possible. However, when escalations happen, ensure you have a system to analyze the situation after the fact. That way, you can avoid the same problems and provide a constantly improving customer experience.

Pro Tip: Try to record and track each instance of escalation. With this information, you can dive deep into the causes of common problems and different service patterns that cause friction.

6. Keep your customers updated.

Even if you don't have great news, you still need to keep your customers in the loop when dealing with escalated service requests (and all requests, for that matter).

You might need to loop in management or even get ahold of busy developers to fix a bug that your customer stumbled upon in your product. These things can take time, but you must keep your customer updated throughout the process.

Customers would much rather have you affirm their request is being handled than be left in the dark. Transparency is vital, so ensure your customer is always aware of each step of the process while you handle their concerns.

Don't Forget: Empathy and clarity are critical in situations like these. Customers are far more likely to accept delays in resolving their issues if they are listened to and kept apprised every step.

Escalation Management Examples

Example 1: Payment Challenges

A customer calls in regarding an issue when they try to pay their monthly service bill, rendering them unable to pay. A customer service representative initially fields the call but needs access to the customer's billing details.

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Accordingly, the rep connects the customer with the account and billing team to resolve this request. This is a functional escalation because the problem simply falls outside the scope of what customer service can provide as detailed in an SLA. As a result, the representative escalated the customer's issue to the department suited to meet their needs.

Pro tip: Ensure that your SLAs are well-defined so your representatives understand the services they can render and when they need to perform a functional escalation.

Example 2: An SLA Breach

A customer ordered a product from your website. After a few weeks, it still hasn't arrived at their door.

The customer sends an email to your service department. A day later, they still haven't received an email back. The maximum response time designated in your SLA is 6 hours.

The ticket is automatically escalated to a more experienced representative who reaches out to the customer. This rep sets expectations and helps resolve the issue. This is an example of an automatic escalation, in which your help desk software automatically triggers per your SLAs.

Pro-tip: Help desk software is necessary when you want an SLA breach to escalate a case for you automatically.

Example 3: The Software Bug

A customer calls in because they have discovered a bug in your software that is causing their computer to crash. After speaking with a representative for quite some time, the issue persists, and the customer is unhappy.

In this case, the initial representative loops in a more experienced representative and someone from the engineering team to take over the issue. The experienced representative can empathize with the customer, making sure to hear their frustrations. Meanwhile, engineering works to squash the bug.

This is an example of a hierarchical escalation. The customer's issue could not be resolved during the initial interaction and needed to be escalated for resolution.

What we like: This approach demonstrates empathy. As long as your customer feels that their needs are being cared for, everyone will walk away happy when the case is closed.

Improve Customer Retention Through Escalation Management

Escalation management might seem intimidating, but with the right know-how, you can take ownership of difficult situations and delight customers through their most challenging problems.

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 transparent 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.

Topics: Customer Retention

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How do you effectively handle escalations? ›

Retain Customers for Life With Customer Escalation Management
  1. #1: Listen to the Customer.
  2. #2: Put Yourself in the Customer's Shoes.
  3. #3: Understand a Customer's Value to Your Business.
  4. #4: Route Customers to the Right Person From the Start.
  5. #5: Close Each Escalation Within 30 Days.

What is the escalation management process? ›

What is escalation management? Escalation management is the process of prioritizing customer support issues, evaluating problems based on severity, and making sure the appropriate representatives are assigned to handle them. Managing escalations is a key part of keeping more customers.

What is an example of escalation management? ›

For some businesses, escalation can happen immediately in a customer service interaction. For example, an agent who takes a call might recognize they need more expertise or resources to answer questions. If they transfer the request to another team equipped to meet the customer's needs, that's functional escalation.

How do you handle escalations at work interview questions? ›

“How do you handle escalations?” interview question
  1. Consider how to respond to escalating interview questions:
  2. Pay close attention to the consumer.
  3. Repeat what the customer said. ...
  4. Apologize for the inconvenience. ...
  5. Maintain your body language: ...
  6. Keep a cool head. ...
  7. Additional aspects to remember:
May 8, 2022

What are the 4 de-escalation techniques? ›

Listen to what the issue is and the person's concerns. Offer reflective comments to show that you have heard what their concerns are. Wait until the person has released their frustration and explained how they are feeling. Look and maintain appropriate eye contact to connect with the person.

What are the three keys to de-escalation? ›

Remain Calm: A purposeful demonstration of calmness and composure can enable de-escalation. Change the Setting: If possible, remove people from the area. This could involve parties to the conflict and onlookers. Respect Personal Space: Maintain a safe distance and avoid touching the other person.

What are the 5 levels of escalation? ›

  • 1.1 Level 1: Compliant (cooperative)
  • 1.2 Level 2: Resistant (passive)
  • 1.3 Level 3: Resistant (active)
  • 1.4 Level 4: Assaultive (bodily harm)
  • 1.5 Level 5: Assaultive (lethal force)

What skills do you need to be an escalation manager? ›

To become an escalation manager, you need executive-level communication skills and issue resolution in roles related to customer service. You'll also need a minimum of a college degree or high school diploma in some cases.

What are the responsibilities of escalation manager? ›

Escalation Manager is the Support Management interface for Sales, Customers, Success, Support, etc for all hot and Sales Escalations in LTAM. Typically the responsibilities include: – Help managing customer expectations. – Coordinating resource alignment and engagement.

What are the stages of escalation? ›

  • Phase 1: Calm.
  • Phase 2: Triggers.
  • Phase 3: Agitation.
  • Phase 4: Acceleration.
  • Phase 5: Peak.
  • Phase 6: De-‐escalation.
  • Phase 7: Recovery.

Can you give me an example of when you have dealt with a difficult customer? ›

Although I took her order and did not make her drink, I listened, sincerely apologized, thanked her for being a customer, and then I did my best to make things right. If given the opportunity to represent your organization, I would handle difficult situations similar to this with empathy, sincerity, and kindness.

What is your greatest weakness sample answer? ›

Correct Example: My greatest weakness is time management. I have always been very detail-oriented, so it sometimes takes me longer to finish a project than I initially think it will. This is why I started using time-tracking software in my last job.

How do you answer how do you deal with conflict? ›

The key to answering workplace conflict interview questions is to be honest and emphasize communication and conflict resolution skills. If you realized during the conflict that your opinion was wrong, be honest about it! Show the interviewer that you're willing to learn and are open to constructive criticism.

What are the 5 strategies for de-escalation? ›

De-escalation tactics follow a path of reducing people's agitation slowly.
  • De-escalating through language and listening. ...
  • Respect personal space and keep your body language neutral. ...
  • Make a connection with their interests. ...
  • Move people away from the source of the problem. ...
  • Give people options to move past the situation.
Sep 8, 2022

What two skills are normally used to de-escalate? ›

De-escalation techniques and resources
  • Move to a private area. ...
  • Be empathetic and non-judgmental. ...
  • Respect personal space. ...
  • Keep your tone and body language neutral. ...
  • Avoid over-reacting. ...
  • Focus on the thoughts behind the feelings. ...
  • Ignore challenging questions. ...
  • Set boundaries.
Mar 30, 2023

How to de-escalate calls with angry or agitated customers? ›

We've outlined 4 customer service de-escalation techniques to help you learn how to de-escalate an angry person calling your business.
  1. Remain Calm & Listen. Stay calm no matter how upset a customer may be. ...
  2. Show Empathy. It's important to show empathy when dealing with an angry customer. ...
  3. Apologize. ...
  4. Make it Right. ...
  5. Conclusion.
Jul 6, 2022

What is the ABC in de-escalation? ›

Aggressive Behaviour Control: The ABC Course™ Aggressive Behaviour Control: The ABC Course™ is a 2-day course from the Association for Psychological Therapies (APT), a leading provider of accredited courses for professionals working in mental health and related areas.

What are 3 Behaviours that cause conflict to escalate? ›

The conflict will escalate or increase if:

People get involved, choosing sides. The individuals were not friendly prior to the conflict. The individuals have few peace-making skills. They want to engage in conflict.

How do you respond back to an escalation? ›

How to deal with and de-escalate angry customer emails
  1. 0) Set up automated responses if you can't quickly respond. ...
  2. 1) Read the email first. ...
  3. 2) Do your research to understand the problem and context. ...
  4. 3) Escalate if necessary (based on policy) ...
  5. 4) Thank them for writing. ...
  6. 5) Use their name and take a personalized approach.
Jan 19, 2023

What are the correct process for escalation and complaints? ›

How to escalate a customer complaint
  • Complain without delay, preferably in person. When it comes to customer service, there's no time like the present. ...
  • Research their complaints process. ...
  • Give them a call. ...
  • Leave a review. ...
  • Take to social media. ...
  • Consider escalating internally. ...
  • Get the law on your side.

What are escalation responsibilities? ›

An escalation manager is a customer service expert whose responsibility is to oversee escalation management procedures. Hence, their activities are focused on increasing customer satisfaction through customer service. The escalation manager implements a company's escalation plans.


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