A guide to handling escalations during customer onboarding

Why escalations happen during customer onboarding and how you can avoid them
December 21, 2021
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“The price of inaction is far greater than the cost of making a mistake.” ~ Meister Eckhart

This is not a bad way to look at escalations when you think about it. As stressful and challenging as they are, escalations can be a powerful way to ensure that mistakes, deviations, and delays in the course of a project get the attention they need.

In this article, we look at the four major areas of customer onboarding where escalations are most likely to happen, the underlying reasons for them, and how you can avoid and manage escalations. 

1. Timelines 

This is one of the most common reasons for escalations across the board. However, given how heavily customer onboarding relies on people, planning, and processes, it’s important to understand how a failure to balance these three factors can cause escalations during onboarding. The most common reasons for escalations arising from timeline issues include: 

  1. Failure to lay down a clear communication protocol at the start of customer onboarding, for every stage, and down to every week 
  2. Resource planning issues
  3. Delayed inputs from the customer 
  4. Agreeing to product customizations (involving an engineering functionality) without considering their impact on go-live

Here are a few tips to prevent these issues: 

  1. Set up a communication protocol that outlines the exact communication protocol. It should include details starting from the frequency of status updates down to the content of each update, so customers know what to look for in each status update. 
  2. Communicate frequently. Use status updates to reset expectations as needed on an ongoing basis - each update should ideally explain what’s done, what’s next, what’s stalled, and why/where. 
  3. Showcase the onboarding journey with a walkthrough at kickoff; communicate expectations from them, so customers know when and why you will need their resources.
  4. Recognize that an engineering functionality may not fit into the existing timeline. Explicitly highlight the approach, alternatives, and impact on the go-live date (or the functionalities delivered at go-live). 
  5. Set up a steering committee to lay down the rules of engagement with key stakeholders. Steering committee meetings can act as a forcing function to ensure a resolution before them or serve as an avenue to deliberate and close unresolved issues. 

2. Functionality 

Whether it is the issue of a missing feature or one not working as expected, the lack of alignment at a functionality level is one of the challenges most likely to turn into an escalation.  If you were to dig deeper to understand the reasons for this, it boils down mostly to: 

  1. Incorrect expectations set during the sales process
  2. The expectation that your product would work like their earlier solution 
  3. An incomplete or inadequate understanding of the actual value your solution provides, or the problem it solves, at different stages 

Here are a few tips to avoid these issues: 

  1. Ensure that your Sales-to-Success handover systems provide a complete understanding of the customer, their needs, the specific problem you’re solving, and any incorrectly-set expectations that you have to address before the start of customer onboarding.  
  2. Use the kickoff meeting for expectation management and right-selling. Showcase to your customer exactly how your solution solves their problem, with a focus on value delivered at each stage, not merely on features or functionalities. This minimizes the chances of customers defaulting to an arbitrary expectation of must-have features.
  3. Highlight limitations in your solution/approach based on your experience with other customer onboarding projects.  
  4. Set up an internal technical committee to validate proposed solutions for complex cases.

 3. Integrations 

Given how critical integrations can be to the customer onboarding process, it’s important to understand exactly how they cause escalations.  These include: 

  1. Third-party restrictions that limit the functionality of your solution
  2. Delays in accessing third-party APIs
  3. Issues coordinating or working with third-party vendors 

Here are our recommendations on tackling these issues: 

  1. Before the start of the project, invest time in understanding the tools that customers use and how they could impact your solution 
  2. Account for workarounds (using connectors or manual methods) and the additional time it may take to integrate them

4. Performance and people 

Escalations arising from performance issues are often a result of misaligned expectations or just a lack of understanding of how your solution solves the customers’ problems. 

This is especially true in cases where customers are used to running certain processes a certain way, given their experience. 

As you grow from onboarding smaller companies to bigger ones, your team's people/management issues could become more evident. Your team needs to build a strong partnership with your customer and hold them accountable for the project's success. Whether this is about managing their tasks, deliverables, and timelines or holding customers accountable for theirs, any gaps in their competence, collaboration, and communication abilities could be paving the way for an escalation. 

Here are some ideas we recommend:

  1. Explain and demonstrate the value that your solution adds (or the problem it solves) at each stage instead of just what it does. This can be an effective way of ensuring that customers don’t base their expectations merely on experience or previously used solutions.  
  2. Ensure that customers are held accountable for resource allocation, product adoption, etc. Also, make sure that their KPIs or goals are also developed such that they are equal contributors to the success of the customer onboarding project.
Watch: Meg Lovell on establishing successful KPIs for customer implementations

Best practices to avoid customer escalations

“Bad planning on your part does not constitute an emergency on our part” ~ Anonymous 

As harsh as this may seem, this line does a great job of explaining what escalations look like to a new customer. Here are a few steps you can take to avoid uncomfortable escalations during onboarding, a customer’s first interaction with your business. 

1. Stay prepared and honest

At the start of every customer onboarding project, look at the four areas discussed above and think through the risks in each one of them. 

Before the kickoff, identify all the things that can go wrong in the areas of functionality, integrations, timelines, and performance,  and openly communicate these risks. 

Highlight potential risks and propose and obtain sign-offs on alternate plans or workarounds. 

The kickoff is also a good time to introduce the key team members responsible for resolving any deadlocks or making decisions for the project. You can also use this phase to explain the process for handling escalations.

2. Establish avenues and cadences for minor/potential escalations

Besides using the kickoff to set expectations and ground rules, use weekly updates or meetings to draw attention to blockages or issues that could cause future escalations.

3. Use steering committee meetings as forcing functions 

Ensure that the cadence of the steering committee meetings is set up such that they act as a forcing function for decision-making at key stages and as an avenue to handle escalations, especially when misses from the customer end need to be escalated.
Establish what gets taken to the steering committee, such as adoption issues, deadlock situations, etc.

4. Drive continuous improvement by closing the loop

Escalations are rarely a one-off issue. They are mostly signs of a deeper problem.

Ensure that you have a process in place to review past escalations, document learnings, and close the loop at the customer’s end and yours.  What does this look like? At the customer end, this could mean highlighting how the problem was solved and how learnings from the escalation are fed back into your process. At your end, it could mean iterating your systems/processes/documents based on learnings from every escalation.

Tips and strategies to handle an escalation

1. Separate the people from the problem

Take ownership of the mistake as a team and acknowledge any lapses on your part without singling out a team member at either end. Where possible, explain any measures you took to avoid the issue. 

Run a root cause analysis to break down the issue at hand and communicate its implications to everyone involved. Keep your apology short and honest, and bring in someone from the leadership to reassure the customer that you’re committed to solving the issue at hand.

2. Understand and share context

Find out exactly why the issue is creating a problem for your customers. Identify the source of discontent: Is it a case of blocked value or delayed go-live?  This will help you develop your approach for the next stage.

How to collect actionable feedback on your customer onboarding process

3. Get the leadership view from the customer end

Based on the findings of the above stages, use the information at your disposal to get the business view so you can brainstorm any potential tradeoffs and assess revised priorities. 

4. Get straight into ‘solution’ mode

Propose a few resolution options (and your top recommendation), their pros and cons, and explain their potential impact on the issue at hand as well as the future project phases.  

Ensure that the leadership team signs off on any decisions related to tradeoffs or revised priorities at the customer end.

5. Follow up 

After you’ve finalized the remediation approach, close the loop with the customer by outlining the next steps, the timelines, and any other implications on the project. Thank the customer’s team for their support and, if possible, showcase the steps you’ve taken to ensure that such a situation doesn’t arise again.

If we had to sum up the best way to handle an ongoing escalation, it would be this:  Apologize, empathize, understand, remediate, communicate, and follow up.

Effective planning and consistent communication: your best defense against escalations 

For a phase as critical and complex as customer onboarding, a carefully designed foundation of systems, tools, and practices that enables better planning, tracking, and collaboration is the best way to avoid and manage escalations. We hope you find the tips and ideas in this article helpful as you go on to design delightful onboarding experiences for your customers. 

 If you liked what you read, also check out: 

  1. Deep Dives: Handling Expectation Management & Escalations During the Customer Journey
  2. Looking at Escalations as Opportunities

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Kirthika Soundararajan
Head - Content Marketing @ Rocketlane

All things content at Rocketlane. I run on coffee and cat videos. Follow me on Twitter @kirthikasrajan

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