Learning from Customers
The goal of a company’s Customer Success team is to ensure that customers are getting the maximum value from their company’s products and services to be successful. However, sometimes situations are beyond our control, and despite best intentions and efforts, result in unhappy customers and escalations. As a customer facing professional and consultant for the past 15+ years, I have seen and experienced many escalations; sometimes directed at my company, a specific team, or a team member and lived to tell the tale. Based on my learnings, I have compiled the following best practices and methodologies for managing customer escalations and improving overall customer satisfaction.
The Importance of Customer Perceived Value
“Customer Perceived Value (CPV)”, as applied to Customer Success (CS), plays a very important role in managing escalations. In the context of CS, CPV is the value that a customer perceives to be getting from a company overall, not just through the usage of their products. CPV could be less or more than the “Actual Tangible Value/ROI” that a company provides to a customer. CPV is not easy to measure and typically strengthens over time, playing a critical role in ensuring customer loyalty especially when things are not going well.
The Customer Success & Professional Services Teams; specifically, the Account and Customer Success Managers (CSMs), play a significant role in building and strengthening CPV. If your CPV is positive, ideally customers perception of your company as a trusted partner stays stable even if the actual value goes down temporarily because of an outage or other issues for which the customer might hold your company responsible.
Best Practices to Handle Customer Escalations & Strengthen CPV
Below are some methodologies and best practices that I have found to be incredibly helpful in managing customer escalations and strengthening CPV. Although, these are most useful for primary customer contacts like Customer Success and/or Account Managers; they can also be used by all customer facing operatives as applicable to ensure a good customer experience and high CPV.
Identify and Define a Clear Escalation Path
Identify and define a clear escalation path, as well as clear SLAs upfront during the first post sales kickoff meeting. The Customer Success Manager should be the first line of defense followed by someone more senior with clear contact info provided to the customer for all members identified in the escalation path.
When things go wrong, make sure you are empathetic and convey that you understand the customer’s pain. Don’t look for excuses and play the blame game. Be a good listener and listen to their grievances. Empathy is key.
If the issues that the customer is unhappy about are because of your product or services, acknowledge and apologize. Owning responsibility is key to ensure that customers continue to trust you in future. Be transparent that your product is not perfect currently and you are working actively on improvements and you really appreciate their feedback. Customers are usually reasonable when they know that you are not trying to shift blame but are doing your best to help them. Don’t try to obscure or bend the truth. Customers will nearly always find out and you will lose their trust for life.
Align with the Customer
If your product is not the issue, provide clear data so customer identifies that. That does not mean you will not help resolve the issue. But it’s good to be clear and identify what the root cause is and make sure there is alignment with the customer.
Show and Acknowledge Urgency
Actively try to identify mitigation paths and workarounds to help the customer resolve the biggest and most immediate issue/pain they are facing. This may involve remote manual intervention or having someone onsite for a few weeks to help resolve the problem. Don’t shy away from heroic actions or try to generalize them across the entire customer base. Your response and effort during these mission critical times may be the biggest opportunity to develop trust and show value. It will be remembered and can turn into a future case study or weaved into your sales teams’ narrative on your dedication to making customers successful.
Take Customer Concerns Seriously
Pull your leadership team into conversations if needed, especially if it an executive level escalation to show how seriously your company is taking the escalation. Volunteer this, before the customer asks. Make sure all internal team members are aligned on the communication plan and overall strategy to avoid confusion during the customer meeting.
Once the immediate escalation is resolved, work with the customer to apply all learnings and put together a strategy and plan to avoid such issues in future. Make it a formal project if needed with clear tasks and associated ownerships. Proactively and periodically follow up with customer to track progress till project is finished.
Provide Real Time System Visibility
Provide automated tools and portals through which customers can track the health of your systems without needing to reach out to you explicitly. Send timely notifications and/or RCAs whenever the system is down, undergoing maintenance etc. so customers are not taken by surprise. The biggest fear is the fear of not knowing what’s going on. Remove that variable from the equation as much as you can.
Make sure to communicate regularly with the customers by sharing your product roadmap, upcoming features, state of the industry, tips & tricks etc. Provide customers with opportunities to provide feedback and stay engaged. Help them identify how the new features and changes can help their businesses.
Don’t Be Afraid to Take a Stand
Having said all the above, do not be afraid to take a stand for your company or your team if they are not in the wrong. Make sure you have the data to back up your assertions, and try to keep emotions out of the discussions. The end goal of resolving any escalation should be to get the customer to a calmer and comfortable state and identify clear mitigation steps for the short term and a strategic plan/path for the long-term resolution of the cause of escalation.
Chitra Madhwacharyula is the Director of Global Strategic Alliances at Ayla Networks, Inc., a global leader in IoT Platform as a Service (PaaS). As a founding member of Ayla’s Customer Success leadership team, Chitra led the definition and launch of Ayla’s Customer Success, Education(Ayla University) and Consulting Services to enable desired outcomes and efficiencies at scale. She has more than 18 years’ experience in Consulting, Customer Success, and Information Management and has been a trusted advisor to many strategic customers and partners in areas like Manufacturing, Retail, Insurance, Banking, Software, Hardware and Applications.