Article

Ticket escalation: What it is and how to manage it

Learn how ticket escalation works and why a dedicated escalation process is important for your business.

By Emily Miels, Contributing Writer

Published May 15, 2017
Last updated June 8, 2021

Companies receive between 979 and 18,331 support inquiries a month, depending on the industry. Hidden within those hundreds or thousands of tickets are some requests that can’t be resolved on the first contact with a ground-level agent or a support bot. The longer it takes to solve an issue, the more frustrating the experience is for customers.

Some tickets can (and should) be intercepted by self-service options to save your agents valuable time. But how do you know which requests are low maintenance and which need extra time and effort? And how exactly do you handle these more complex and challenging inquiries? That’s where having a ticket escalation process for customer service comes in handy.

To compete in today’s fast-paced and customer-centric landscape, you need to have a strong ticket escalation process in place that empowers your team to swiftly and efficiently resolve issues.

What is ticket escalation?

Ticket escalation is the process a company follows to move a customer issue to a higher-level support agent or manager. The goal of escalating a ticket should always be a quick resolution. The less time you keep your customers waiting, the happier they’ll be.

What is the escalation process?

Ticket escalation works via a tiered support structure. Each tier of team members manages different customer issues depending on the complexity of the problem and other key factors. A hierarchical escalation structure typically starts with self-service. From there, the issue moves up to agents based on their experience, expertise, and access to various tools and information.

The escalation process can differ depending on the size of an organization. Larger companies may have many tiers and numerous agents, while a small business may have only one or two agents and a manager. The names of the various support levels and the titles of your agents may also vary, but a tiered support structure like this one is a good standard to follow:

  • Tier 0: Self-service, including online help center resources and chatbots.
  • Tier 1: Agents equipped with help center (or knowledge base) software, basic product knowledge, and other collaboration tools to resolve a customer’s issue. These agents generally have standard operating procedures to follow. When they can’t resolve an issue, they’ll log it and tag the ticket for the appropriate tier.
  • Tier 2 (and up): Higher-level agents have extra resources, more experience, and access levels that allow for troubleshooting. If they’re unable to find a solution, they’ll continue to tag tickets and document notes for an agent in the next tier.
  • Developers/engineers: When issues go beyond simple troubleshooting, qualified developers and engineers may need to provide some expertise.

So, how does ticket escalation actually play out? Say a customer buys a smart TV, but a streaming app on it doesn’t work. She goes online and uses the company’s help center (Tier 0) to do some research on her own. She doesn’t find the answer she needs, so she uses a live chat feature on the company’s website to get more help. A bot connects her with a Tier 1 agent. The agent uses the resources at his disposal, like a knowledge base, but he cannot fix the streaming app and escalates the ticket. A Tier 2 agent does more troubleshooting and identifies a bug within the app. To resolve the issue, a Tier 3 agent helps the customer reinstall the app on her TV and sign back into the platform.

At every stage, agents should follow standardized guidelines for troubleshooting and tagging tickets. This ensures everyone is speaking the same language during escalation so there’s no confusion.

Escalations may take some time, so the support team needs to keep the customer updated throughout the process. Service level agreements (SLAs), which outline a baseline level of guaranteed service, often dictate how soon this communication should happen.

Why it’s important to quickly resolve escalated tickets

Customers expect fast, efficient resolutions when they reach out. Not meeting those expectations can make any customer feel irritated—long wait times are among the most frustrating aspects of a service experience—and can have a pretty significant impact on your business. The Zendesk Customer Experience Trends Report 2021 found that about 50 percent of customers would jump to a competitor after just one bad experience with a company. That number rises significantly to 80 percent after multiple bad experiences.

So, you should resolve issues quickly to provide the best experience possible for the end users. Even if you don’t have the solution right away, let customers know you’re working on finding an answer as fast as possible.

When should you escalate a ticket?

Support tickets should be escalated when an issue can’t be resolved through self-service or a ground-level agent. It’s a necessary process but one that shouldn’t be taken lightly, considering how much customers value fast resolution times.

The escalation process can be dictated by the agent’s experience level, the severity of the issue, and the amount of time it might take to attempt to resolve it. It’s all about balancing the desire for speedy first-contact resolutions with the need to fully solve the customer’s problem.

  • More expertise or authority is necessary

    Tier 1 agents generally have access to a help center and know standard operating procedures so they can adequately respond to common issues. But sometimes, a customer’s question falls outside of that scope. If the ground-level support agents don’t have the necessary knowledge, expertise, or authority to resolve a particular issue, they’ll need to escalate the ticket to someone with more experience and decision-making power.

    For example, perhaps a technical issue requires assistance from a developer. Or maybe the lower-tier agent doesn’t have the authority to provide a monetary reimbursement or the specific replacement part the customer needs.

    Once agents have exhausted all the resources at their disposal, it’s time to move the ticket to the next tier.

  • The issue will take additional time to resolve

    Company policies and SLAs often dictate how fast an issue has to be resolved. If an agent can’t solve the customer’s problem within the specified time frame, they have to escalate it.

    For example, a company may note that Tier 1 support agents are allowed to spend only 20 minutes on an issue. By enforcing that time frame, it ensures tickets keep moving quickly to the right person, rather than staying open and unresolved. That way, the customer isn’t kept waiting any longer than necessary (and risk of breaching service level obligations is mitigated).

    Paul Lalonde, a product marketing manager at Zendesk, said there were very specific SLAs and procedures in place for high-priority tickets at one of the B2B companies he used to work for.

    “[In Tier 1], we had 60 minutes to respond to the customer and acknowledge the issue,” Lalonde recalls. “From there, it had to be escalated immediately to Tier 2, and they had four hours to diagnose and resolve the issue.”

    Companies want to help as many customers as possible in the shortest amount of time. To keep their service quick, many businesses will track Time to Resolution (TTR)—the time between when an issue was reported to when it was resolved—as a way to gauge efficiency and set specific company-wide or agent-specific goals.

  • The problem is widespread or complex

    Severe or complicated issues that impact many customers are generally escalated quickly and made a high priority.

    Say an entire cloud-based software program has a glitch, and users can’t access it online. Because the issue affects numerous users, it would likely have to escalate to the development team. The company would also need multiple agents on deck to handle the influx of customer tickets about the problem.

    On the flip side, a single support ticket about an issue with a specific feature of the software may not need to escalate. The ticket might reach a resolution at Tier 0 or Tier 1 without the need to involve more agents or specialized engineers.

3 tips for a more streamlined ticket escalation process

As businesses grow and customer inquiries become more complex, customer support teams often struggle to keep up.

“There tends to be this tipping point where a business needs to move away from informal support processes and implement best practices,” Lalonde says.

Here are three tips on how to improve your ticket escalation process so you can get tickets to the right team members more efficiently.

  1. Use technology to empower agents and customers

    Simplify agents’ workflows and automate basic support tasks with a variety of tools.

    A good customer relationship management (CRM) system provides tools—such as automatic triggers, macros, and routing—that improve workflow and reduce the time it takes for tickets to get to the right person. Triggers are basically a cause-and-effect relationship; customers take one action, which initiates another action within the workflow. Macros are message templates or standardized responses that are automatically sent based on the support ticket. Routing helps automatically direct the tickets to the right person or department.

    Consider the earlier ticket example about smart TVs. A CRM would allow you to automatically route that ticket to a specific agent or team focused on that particular TV or app. You could also set up a trigger within the CRM to automatically move the ticket ahead to a Tier 3 agent based on a certain keyword or type of issue.

    Bots and messaging tools are also great frontline defenses for your customer service teams. Zendesk makes it easy to build out automated self-service flows, which reduces the need for ticket escalation. Chatbots, like our Answer Bot, can solve basic issues upfront, so tickets don’t have to be escalated to a live agent. If the ticket does require involvement from an agent, bots can collect information from the customer to redirect the issue to the right person. Then, an agent can quickly jump on a live chat and avoid further escalation.

  2. Document and share everything

    As the saying goes, “Knowledge is power.” Documenting key information and sharing knowledge across your team minimizes the need for future ticket escalations.

    Say a Tier 1 support agent is unable to resolve a problem quickly, so the ticket is escalated to a Tier 2 agent. That higher-tier agent fixes the problem, and they document the issue and solution in the company’s help center or knowledge base. Now, the next time a customer has a similar issue, a Tier 1 agent can refer to the knowledge base and resolve it—no need to escalate the ticket further. Bots can also automatically direct customers to the right articles and information to minimize ticket escalation.

    “A successful resolution of a problem that sits buried inside of one ticket is far less valuable than something that's been documented for other team members to find,” Lalonde says.

    Plus, clearly documented processes and information make it easier to onboard new support agents. They’ll have the necessary information to resolve more tickets from the get-go, rather than having to escalate them to more senior agents while they learn.

  3. Follow up with customers

    Escalation isn’t always instantaneous. While you're trying to get the ticket to the right person, let your customer know what's going on behind the scenes. This communication helps reduce stress and frustration and promotes goodwill.

    “If you weren't able to resolve the issue the first time that [a customer] called, the least that you can do is keep them informed as you're trying to work towards that resolution,” Lalonde advises.

    As noted, use your SLAs as a guide here. If you don’t have any SLAs, define goals and set expectations so everyone is on the same page about communication and service. Try to connect with your customers about ticket statuses on the channels they prefer, such as messaging or social media platforms. Using a tool like Zendesk can automate this process so agents don’t have to worry about following up manually.

Companies should learn from every ticket escalation

In the short-term, ticket escalations make issue resolution a smooth process for the customer. But escalations can also help your company improve support over the long-term. The key is using data and metrics to discover common trends and minimize future escalations.

For example, maybe 10 percent of your ticket escalations are related to a particular tag. Once you know which problems are the most frequent, you can prioritize fixing those issues. While you’re working on a resolution, you can keep agents and customers in the loop as needed and find interim solutions.

Being proactive and understanding which issues to prioritize can help prevent escalations or even reduce the need for customers to contact your support team in the first place.

Set up your support team for success

When your agents have the tools they need to provide great customer service, everyone wins.