Defining Escalation

As more companies are exploring and implementing Intelligent Swarming, it has become apparent that the word “escalation” is one we’re using all the time, but often we’re using it to mean different things in different parts of the organization. Context is as important as content, and in the case of escalation, it’s worth getting some clarity and consistency on both.  

Escalation: to increase in extent, volume, number, amount, intensity, or scope

Merriam-Webster Dictionary

Merriam-Webster defines escalation as “to increase in extent, volume, number, amount, intensity, or scope.” In our organizations, we use “escalation” to mean a wide range of actions or activities, including asking for technical help on a case, passing off an angry customer, and/or requesting attention for an important account. 

With such a broad definition, it is not surprising that we find every company, department, team, and sometimes even individual using the word differently. This creates subtle, siloed confusion for the company and customers.   Mike Jasperson, Vice President at PTC, has years of experience working with customers in heightened states of engagement.  Mike has a simple way of setting context around the word escalation:

“‘Escalation’ is not about an internal process to move work from one person to another, it is about customer expectations.  Customers often look for vendors to change how they are engaging because an expectation is not being met.  Escalation should be a word describing a process used by a vendor to help manage risk and expectations with their customers.”

To this end, Mike talks about three types of escalations from a customer’s point of view:

  1. Issue Escalation:  I have a single-topic issue and my expectations on how this one issue is being handled does not meet my expectations.  I would like to speak with someone about actions I feel are needed to make progress.
  2. Incident Escalation:  I have a broader set of issues that are causing significant risk and your response is not meeting my expectations relative to my level of concern.  I need to engage with someone that can make decisions and engage the right resources to mitigate my risk.
  3. Account Escalation:  As a company, we are experiencing impacts and risks at the corporate level and we expect your senior leaders will engage to understand and react to our risks.

Whether adopting a three-level approach as Mike speaks to or something different, we need to look at escalation as a way to engage our customers in mitigating risks, not as an internal way to move work.

When we clearly define escalation as a systemic way to address customer expectations, we can focus on redefining activities a support agent might do when trying to solve a case.  Especially when we are implementing Intelligent Swarming, this distinction is key. 

In an Intelligent Swarming environment, we make every effort to get the right work to the right person to solve the issue on first engagement.  This has two dramatic results: first, we resolve issues faster, which opens up capacity internally. Second, we meet customer expectations upon first contact at a much higher rate, which improves the customer experience.  When we are not able to resolve issues on our own, we do not escalate work to a different person or team. No longer do we need to be passing work through multiple hands to solve an issue. We collaborate by raising our hand to ask for help, which has the added benefit of greatly reducing customer frustration. 

In this new environment, escalation is about exception handling for issues that do not fit a standard process. Changing our language so that “escalation” is about managing risk and expectations with our customers will serve our industry well.

2 thoughts on “Defining Escalation

  1. I like SO many things about this, Matt. Escalations are not about moving work from one tier to another, but about customer expectations- we do not escalate work to another team… I could go on and on.

    Also, now that we’ve all been working from home for a while isn’t it nice that a few family noises in the background is 100% acceptable?!

  2. I think taking the customer’s perspective, as you share from PTC, is a key missing ingredient in how we think about escalations.

    I’m also glad you pointed out the elephant in the room, too–escalations mean different things in different contexts, and unless we’re really clear about what we’re talking about, we’ll talk across each other. I don’t think we can replace the word, but adding a qualifying word as Mike Jasperson does seems like a great practice.

    Done right, Intelligent Swarming should reduce escalations in all its meanings!

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