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Escalations: Service Recovery at Its Best

September 2, 2021 | 6min read

Call Escalation Queue – Complex and Complaint Call Handling

A call center's escalation support queue's primary purpose is to have those Agents working in that queue either assist customer service Agents in resolving a call or resolve a complex or a complaint call by talking to the customer directly. The escalation (sometimes called retention, helpdesk, or office of the president) Agent support queue is the last line of defense in many cases for resolving a complex call or a customer complaint.

Escalation Service Recovery - Complaint Calls

To help resolve customer complaints, escalation Agents must be excellent at resolving customer calls, and preferably on the first call. When you consider that escalation Agents handle so many complex and complaint calls and First Call Resolution (FCR) being low for the escalated calls, the business case to improve customer experience (CX) is strong.

Based on conducting over 500 Voice of the Customer (VoC) call center FCR benchmarking studies, figure 1 shows that FCR is 19% lower for customers transferred to an escalation Agent than customers who were not transferred to an escalation queue. The main reason why FCR performance is lower is that escalated calls tend to be more complex than non-escalated calls, and the Agent escalation queue is mismanaged.

Figure 1: Call Escalation Impact on FCR

Escalation Service Recovery - Figure 1

In many cases, customers are put on hold for a long time before they can talk to an escalation Agent. The long hold time is because call centers either do not adequately staff their escalation queues to handle escalated calls, or the call center does not have dedicated Agents to handle escalated calls. Furthermore, in many cases, a customer service Agent has to find someone who can help the customer, and it is usually a supervisor who may not be immediately available.

Often a real-time escalation Agent is unavailable, and the customer has to call back, or the escalation Agent has to call the customer back. It is not uncommon for a customer who has their call escalated to have called into the call center multiple times to get their call resolved. This situation makes it difficult for the escalation Agent to deal with a customer who has called in two or more times trying to resolve their call.

Furthermore, it has also been SQM's experience that escalation Agents need to get better at fixing customer problems and their ability to handle the emotional aspects of the customer's call. Therefore, a best practice tip for an escalation Agent is to acknowledge the customer's situation (i.e., the emotional aspect of the customer's call) first and then resolve the call. Put differently, an escalation Agent should first fix the customer's emotions and then fix the problem.

Most call centers do not define a complaint call and typically leave it up to the Agent to determine if it is a complaint. Given that most call centers do not have a complaint call definition, it is no surprise that most Agents and managers are not effective at identifying, tracking, and resolving customer complaint calls.

Figure 2 shows an effective customer complaint handling process that entails the Agent identifying a customer complaint, documenting it in the CRM for analysis, treating the complaint as a gift, and resolving the complaint to the customer's satisfaction.

Call centers should have a complaint definition that Agents can use to help identify a complaint. For example, customers who express dissatisfaction should be viewed as a complaint. In addition, all complaints should be tagged as to the type of complaint and documented in CRM. A complaint should be viewed as a gift from the customer because it allows the organization to provide service recovery and improve. Put differently, thank the customer for sharing the complaint. What matters the most is to resolve customer complaints, especially when you consider FCR and call resolution are leading indicators for customer retention. Moreover, it costs organizations five times more to attract a new customer than to retain an existing customer. Furthermore, complaint calls should be analyzed on an ongoing basis for identifying people, processes, and technology opportunities to be improved.

Figure 2: Complaint Handling Process

Escalation Service Recovery Figure 2

Customer service Agent handles most complaints. However, as previously mentioned, for the call centers with dedicated Agents for handling complaints, the name of this queue is the 'Office of the President' or 'Escalation' or 'helpdesk.'

Our experience is that customers whose calls are handled by the Office of the President, escalation, and helpdesk Agents are seldom surveyed for their feedback about their complaint handling experience. However, customers with complaints are by far the best customers to survey to find opportunities to improve First Call Resolution (FCR) and Customer Experience (CX).

Most call centers do not know the percentage of customers who consider their call to the call center a complaint. Many call centers do not have standard business practices for identifying and handling customer complaints. SQM research shows that 13% of customers calling a call center describe their call as a complaint. The complaint caller's Csat (top box response) is 41%, while the non-compliant caller's (top box response) is 76%. Our research data shows that the call center industry needs to improve in identifying and handling customer complaints.

Effective complaint handling for the call center industry has been a long-term Achilles' heel. Therefore, it represents an excellent opportunity to implement complaint handling best practices to protect the organization's greatest asset – its customers.

Call Escalation Support Queue

For most call centers, helpdesk or escalation Agents handle customer calls from the frontline Agent asking for assistance versus the customer calls being transferred to them. Therefore, in many cases, the helpdesk or escalation queue has two tiers of Agents (see figure 3):

​​Tier 1 helpdesk or escalation Agents assist frontline customer service Agents with resolving their customer calls and are not in direct contact with the customer. In other words, they act as an internal helpdesk for frontline Agents.

​​Tier 2 helpdesk or escalation Agents handle complex or escalated calls by having the frontline Agents transfer the call to them for resolving the customer's call directly.

​Figure 3: Helpdesk Agent Queue Structure

Escalation Service Recovery - Tiers

Of all the metrics you could track, First Call Resolution is the most essential for a customer support queue (e.g., escalation, retention, helpdesk) to help lower costs, improve customer satisfaction, retain customers, and increase the Net Promotor Score. The customer support queue Agents play a vital role in supporting Agents in resolving calls or handling complex calls. For many organizations, the call center helpdesk or escalation queue Agents are the last line of defense for providing First Call Resolution and retaining customers. 

To answer whether FCR positively impacts customer retention, we surveyed customers who used a call center with leading North American organizations.  SQM Group's research shows 95% of customers expressed intent to continue doing business with an organization when FCR is achieved.  Moreover, when it took two or more calls to resolve an inquiry or problem, 9% of customers expressed their intent to defect. However, an alarming 25% of customers expressed defection if their call was unresolved. 

Call Escalation Agent Improvement Tips

Call escalation Agent improvement tips to help resolve complex and complaint calls.   To help improve CX, here is a list of escalation Agent improvement tips:

  • Customer service Agent to escalation Agent support ratio should be 15:1
  • Escalation Agents are located in a centralized work area
  • Escalation Agents are available in real-time and are dedicated to supporting customer service Agents
  • If cost is an issue, create an escalation queue by areas such as key lines of business, or repeat callers
  • The fulfillment department has a reporting relationship with the call center
  • ​There is a complaint definition, Agents identify and document a complaint in the CRM, and complaint calls are analyzed for improvement opportunities
  • There is efficient and effective Knowledge Management and CRM tools for assisting escalation Agents in resolving calls
  • Escalation Agents treat customer service Agents as internal customers and are held accountable for supporting them in resolving calls
  • When a service Agent feels that the customer is going to leave the organization or expresses the intent to leave, the customer is transferred to the escalation Agent
  • Use escalated calls to understand where the areas are to improve FCR performance

Call Escalation Metrics

Very few call centers measure call escalation support queue performance from a customer's point of view, using metrics such as Csat, calls resolved, or FCR. In other words, let the customer be the judge of whether the call was resolved and their CX. Here is a list of metrics SQM recommends as a best practice for measuring , analyzing, reporting and actioning calls handled in your escalation support queue:

  • Percent of complaints resolved in one call (FCR)
  • Percent of complaints resolved
  • Average complaint resolution time
  • Number of unresolved complaints
  • Customer satisfaction with the resolution
  • Cost of customer complaints
  • Complaint call types reasons
  • Complaint root causes (e.g., people, processes, policies, products, and pricing)
  • The complaint calls the impact on customer satisfaction and retention
  • Customer service Agents satisfaction with Escalation Agents support


Escalation Service Recovery - Metrics

Service Recovery at Its Best

Many angry or upset customers have very low expectations that their issue or problem will get resolved to their satisfaction. However, dealing with an angry customer represents an excellent opportunity to meet or exceed their expectations to resolve the issue or problem. Put differently, a customer complaint is a gift because you get the chance to deliver service recovery and learn from mistakes. 

The following is an effective complaint handling three-step process an Agent or escalation Agent can use for service recovery when handling an angry or upset customer.

Escalation Recovery Steps

Mess Up

Allow the customer to tell their side of the story and vent their frustration without being interrupted. The Agent acknowledges that they have heard the customer by using words such as uh-huh, hmm, I see, and tell me more. Listening to the customer and letting them vent allows them to calm down.

Fess Up

Ask questions to ensure understanding of the issue or problem. Agent restates the issue or problem to confirm that they fully understand. Agent apologizes for the organization's mistake or expresses empathy for the customer's situation. If a full agreement between the customer and Agent cannot be reached on the issue or problem, try to seek a partial agreement on the issue or problem to defuse the customer's anger.

Make Up

Resolve the customer's issue or problem to their satisfaction. Many customers have low expectations that their issue will get resolved to their satisfaction. By providing a solution or solution options to resolve their issue or problem, you have an opportunity to meet or exceed the customer's expectations. The Agent should confirm with the customer that there is agreement that the solution or solution options will resolve the customer's issue or problem (e.g., Have I resolved your issue or problem?).