How to Handle Customer Escalation

Amrita Thakur

Director of Product Management at D2L Inc.



Customer escalation typically occurs when there is a misalignment at the intersection of Sales, the business, and a customer. A customer has its own business to run and your product helps them with their own processes. Since your product has a direct impact on their ability to do business and be successful, any changes in it will affect their bottom line either in terms of their operations, their ability to build revenue, or to make their own customer happy. However, when your customer comes to believe that your product gets in their way to achieve that, their dissatisfaction could lead to customer escalation.

Actions taken

The most important thing to start with is to understand what is the risk-reward associated with selling your product to your customer. Without understanding what their challenges are, you will merely be aware of their dissatisfaction without being able to empathize enough and move forward with solving their problem.

Understanding begins with understanding what were the types of expectations that were being set with the client when they were purchasing your product. Oftentimes, if you don’t have a solid sales enablement in place and a tight alignment with your sales team, your sales team may end up being account- or deal-focused and their only objective would be how to close the deal and make a revenue. Through a rigorous sales enablement process, you should be able to establish if a customer is a poor fit for your product. It is often hard to walk away from revenue especially in certain phases of the company’s growth, but anything else would further perpetuate the problem.

After doing a sales enablement you have to understand what are the risks you are stepping into if you want to move forward with a client who is not the right fit for your product. For example, it is a big strategic customer and you can’t walk away from them. In that case, you want to assess the risk early on. You have to understand if it would impact your roadmap, to what extent, what is the blast radius of that change and who are the customers to be impacted, what are the other types of revenue opportunities that you are impacting. Ideally, you will be able to make this assessment during the pre-sale process and proactively mitigate that risk if you would find that a customer is a risk. In addition, a strong ongoing relationship with the customer success team should help you catch that escalation much faster and realize early on what a customer is not happy about.

However, you may follow all the proscribed steps and things could still blow in your face. Sometimes you would just inherit a number of poor-fit customers, but nevertheless, you should go step back and understand what is the risk-reward for that line and their business. Again, you should try to understand if any workarounds are available and how you can adjust your roadmap to accommodate these. If you believe that nothing of these are feasible and significantly beyond the realm of what can be accommodated you should talk to your business who should make a strategic decision to either pivot from what was planned or potentially take that revenue loss. Be transparent with the leadership -- you will either have to make an investment to fix this or will potentially lose the client. And you will have to pick one or the other.

Lessons learned

  • Don’t ever walk away from a customer and their problem without really listening. You need to sit down and hear them out whether you would like it or not. Your clients should be assured that you are listening to them regardless if you will be able to address their problem(s).
  • It is not wrong of a customer, sales manager or customer success manager to be focused on their job -- to reduce their own risk and make a client happy. They will take whatever path they can and escalate it to whoever they can in order to make that account happy. However, that approach is perpendicular to how we as product managers think because we are not focused on an individual client, but we are thinking about a broad spectrum of needs and are designing and prioritizing based on that.
  • When you have an escalation and someone is at risk you need to step in and make an effort to understand that specific line or use case and if it doesn’t fit how you are building your product for a broad swathe of the market, then that risk needs to be made very clear to the business.

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Amrita Thakur

Director of Product Management at D2L Inc.


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