Customer Support

The Complete Guide for Managing Customer Support Escalations

January 22, 2019
12:00 am

As your business grows, your framework for escalating customer support needs to keep pace.

Customers, whether business or consumer, want fast turnarounds, a good relationship, and their issues solved. How you accomplish this will vary depending on your company’s size, industry, and complexity.

We’ve collected successful support escalation strategies for business to business (B2B) and business to consumer (B2C) companies to help you take your customer service to the next level.

High-Level Escalation Structure

The most common way of structuring customer support escalations comes from the tech support world. It’s a tiered structure that divides your agents into a hierarchy:

Level or TierLevel DescriptionPossible IncidentsPossible ToolsLevel 0 (L0)Self-service.
Frequently asked basic questions, learning about the product/service. Knowledge base, customer portal.Level 1 (L1)First-line support agents
(basic and intermediate knowledge).
Resolution goal: 80% of all inquiries Basic troubleshooting and questions, account unlocking, explanation of features and workflows.
Should have the knowledge to resolve the majority of customer questions.
Can create a ticket for tracking customer requests and data, and escalate the request to L2. Phone, knowledge base (for internal reference), ticketing platforms, live chat, co-browse, screen share software.Level 2 (L2)Second-line support agents
(intermediate to advanced knowledge, may train L1).
15-20% of all inquiries may arrive here. Intermediate troubleshooting.
Refer to the data and response from L1 agents.
Intermediate questions, advanced product features, known solutions to complex problems.
Can escalate request to L3. Ticketing platforms, video, live chat, co-browse, screen share software, customer profile management. Level 3 (L3)Third-line support agents
(experts, may have built your product, may train L2).
5% of all inquiries may arrive here. Expert troubleshooting, ability to address complex product bugs.
Complex or custom management.
Expert-level questions on any necessary topic (compliance, technology, service, etc.).
May conduct research and development into solutions that don’t yet exist.Ticketing platforms, video, live chat, co-browse, screen share software, customer profile management.Level 4 (L4) - optional
Support agents from a vendor your product interfaces with.
Troubleshooting on their product/service.
Complex or custom management.
Expert-level questions on their product/service. Ticketing platforms, live chat, co-browse, screen share software, customer profile management.

Large businesses may find the tiered system detailed above useful for most customers. In addition, some, such as those with a mixed model of B2B and B2C, may create a separate wing of trained specialists for larger customers, to field issues requiring greater expertise.

Small businesses (such as B2C business Whizz Education) may find that they only need L0 and L1 tiers of support to cover most of their questions. Escalations can go directly to a technical department, developers for example.

Alternative to tiering: Some companies, like Red Hat and Cisco (both B2B technology), use an approach called “swarming” that pulls in multiple agents collaboratively, rather than escalating up a chain. This approach may be most valuable when your team is supporting very complex or custom products. One other argument against a straight tiered system is to help prevent your customer service agents from getting bored.

Typical Needs for B2B Customer Service

There are some fundamental features of B2B customer service that set it apart from B2C:

  • Because customers are businesses rather than consumers, the product or service usually comes at a higher price point. That means the relationship can be very long-term and high-value.
  • Crises can have higher consequences. For example, if an enterprise finds a SaaS product it relies on is down, even minutes of delay could impact revenue. Support needs to act fast and keep communication lines open.
  • Multiple touchpoints often exist with customers. Since more than one person at the company may contact you about the same issue, it’s important to keep unified records of who you worked with and what support you provided.
  • B2B questions tend to be more complex. Customers themselves may be experienced in the field, not even picking up the phone until the issue becomes highly complex. First contact resolution can be rare. Avoid frustration for your team by building this knowledge into your key performance indicators (KPIs).

Managing Common B2B Support Escalations

Simple troubleshooting: Many B2B organizations offer a Level 0 knowledge base or self-service portal for common troubleshooting questions. If that doesn’t answer a customer’s question, the customer reaches out to the Level 1 support. Level 1 will record and try to resolve the problem.

They may provide password resets, account unlocks, application navigation, and so on. They may also make use of a cobrowse tool when it’s tricky for the customer to explain what they’re facing. They will escalate to specialists in Level 2 (who have the option of escalating to Level 3) if they cannot resolve the issue.

Complex troubleshooting/fixes: If the product is custom or complex, like a SaaS product, some companies immediately escalate their largest customers to a dedicated, expert customer service team. Support teams can make use of a cobrowse or screen share tool to see exactly what a customer is seeing and why it might not be operating as expected.

Some customer service all-star companies, like American Express, even engage their business customers proactively with priority service if they detect a glitch. This requires your support team (and your system) to track and flag relevant customer data.

Payment/billing: Level 1 support agents may be able to manage simple payment issues, like a payment not going through. However, due to the nature of B2B companies’ larger or more complex payments, issues regarding billing may need to be escalated to a higher level. B2B customers covet speed and accuracy, but also flexibility in their billing.

Outage/crisis: Since many B2B products and services are technology-based, the risk of a product being unavailable or failing at scale is high. It’s important to prepare your support team for such events in advance by creating a crisis management plan. Zendesk support designates several team roles specifically for crisis support and escalation.

Some key principles of managing these highly-stressed customers are drawn from psychology: apologize genuinely, and communicate action frequently in the form of status updates.

Compliance issues: Industries like financial services and telecommunications work to meet regulatory compliance while serving customer needs with as little friction as possible. Since compliance issues can be internally or externally managed, some overlap with a customer may arise.

If your company is managing such issues, it’s important that your customer service team has access to a compliance expert and is trained in areas of overlap with their roles. A risk manager at Wells Fargo notes that it’s important to involve the right people and be timely when escalating a compliance issue.

Cases of potential fraud: Identity theft and security breaches are another serious issue that may be escalated to your support team. In addition to having fraud controls in place, your team can make use of tools like cobrowse to improve the customer experience. They’ll be able to see what your customers are seeing and verify identity details, while still keeping certain details private.

Typical Needs of B2C Customer Service

B2C customer service should not be thought of as easier than B2B. The following are some generalizations that apply to B2C customers when contrasted with B2B customer service:

  • Customer knowledge may be all over the map, from very little familiarity with your product to specialized expertise. B2B has a higher average level.
  • The volume of customers may be higher overall, so knowing how and when to escalate and prioritize becomes critical.
  • Customer relationships may be shorter-term, providing less history to work with. Support agents may need to work harder to create a warm, personalized customer experience.

Managing Common B2C Support Escalations

Troubleshooting: A Level 0 knowledge base may go even further with a B2C business than a B2B business in cutting down on support requests. Many B2C requests are simple and are often comprised of the same question.

If L0 doesn’t help your customers, they can escalate to your Level 1 agent. B2C customers also value mobile access, with L1 agents able to use live chat to respond to multiple customers, even on mobile devices. Small business Whizz Education only uses Level 1 agents but escalates the most complex questions to their developers.

If you’re trying to stand out, say, in the large retailer space, you may want to take a page out of Zappos’ book, which is widely lauded for its customer service approach. Zappos sets itself apart by encouraging customers to reach out via phone, then offering compassionate, high-quality service. If live chat isn’t solving your customer’s problem, you can suggest a cobrowsing session to work directly with their screen, getting them help faster.

Payment/billing: B2C billing issues are often simpler than B2B, so empowering Level 1 support agents to offer refunds and solve payment processing issues is a good idea. Providing this speed of resolution is necessary if you want your customer experience to stand out. When facing a more complex payment issue, it’s helpful if your customer shares their screen to troubleshoot. B2C businesses with more complex billing may need to escalate to a Level 2 support agent or supervisor.

Solving customer challenges in real-time: B2C customers using your service may sometimes face issues that need resolving straight-away. On-demand marketplaces, like delivery services for example, may need a fast-acting service team to ensure a positive customer experience. For its food delivery, Uber employs a CRM solution to review customer data and restaurant data, direct couriers, and stay in touch with customers.

Other large organizations that offer live services, like hotels, can benefit from technology that connects staff and escalates issues to the right expert.  Live chat, coupled with voice chat and other software like cobrowse, can help you create seamless customer service in urgent matters.

Stronger customer relationships

Make sure customers have quick access to the right expertise that provides a human touch.

Help organize your support reps with a clear structure of escalation that makes sense for your size and industry. And empower them with tools like profile management for a fuller picture of the customer, live chat for efficient communication at high volume, and cobrowse and screen share software for high-touch customer engagement and swift incident resolution.

The needs of B2C versus B2B customers may vary, but the emotional impact from well-planned customer service escalation is the same: it fosters confidence, loyalty, and strong customer relationships.


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